Category Archives: 4D»2B

Conceptual Design Tools

A diagram of conceptual design tools

A diagram of conceptual design tools

After defining the project, design explorations begin.

The project can come to life through a number of physical and virtual tools. I believe the pinnacle of architecture is a great physical model accompanied by sketches and drawings. But digital tools are usually more expeditious and flexible.

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Sketch 2016-06-21

Here's a quick glimpse into the very beginning of the design process.

sketch, 2016-06-21, canteen design diagram

sketch, 2016-06-21, canteen design diagram


This sketch is for the renovation of a large corporate canteen. The spaces are used by more than a hundred employees at a time for eating lunch or taking a quick break at a large food distribution center.

There are three existing rooms:  two seating rooms with tables and chairs on either side of a central food pantry. This last space is a place for employees to store their lunch bags in large refrigerators with sinks, microwaves, and vending machines to support warming and supplementing them.

I've added a shaded zone to indicate the larger facility beyond. The left and bottom of the canteen space have glass to the outside, with the bottom facing east and the left facing south.

One final item was the existing televisions mounted on the walls of both existing seating rooms. Tuned to inane daytime talk shows all day, I could imagine resting in this din only in some Harrison Bergeron dystopia and was determined to provide relief for the minority if I could help it.


I usually start design with an attitude about the sun and environment beyond the architecture. They are like a free design feature. Here, the bottom seating room had strong sunlight and expansive views outside. It struck me as a meadow of sun and views to nature, the tranquil place of repose to relax with connections to outside after long hours in a dark warehouse. It could be a social space for talking and enjoying human conversation removed from blaring electronic media.

But the upper seating room had limited glass. With little natural light already, why not darken it further for an enhanced television watching experience for those that care? It could be the inwardly focused space with multiple televisions, supported by dark finishes, soft lighting, and smaller groupings of tables at different heights. Imagine a pub or sports bar.

With contrasting rooms on either side, the central pantry bottleneck was broadened and straightened to simplify passage within and to either side. Two "streets" were carved across the transitions between to exterior doors for smokers.

The entire cityscape come together in a singular metaphor. Does this help to explain how design is at the same time a philosophical idea and a solution to physical needs?

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Project Math

Dilbert 2009-12-07

Dilbert 2009-12-07

As explained by Scott Adams, design has to be resolved before the final cost of a project can be established. Yet I'm often asked how much a project will cost even before a napkin sketch.

But defining the project isn't difficult and doesn't take long. For a small project, it might just take an hour. And even if more information is needed, what is outstanding can be mapped out the first meeting.


The goal is the project definition. We can also define its constituent terms:

PROGRAM   =   Space Names   +   Space Sizes

The program is simply a list of all the spaces needed. These might adjust as details emerge, but an initial program is key to start design.

SCALE   =   Program   ×   Efficiency Factor

It's difficult to figure out non-spaces:  thicknesses of walls, chases, corridors, stairs, mechanical rooms, electrical closets, utility rooms, storage, and other incidental uses. Some factoring of these inefficiencies is required to better predict the final area of a building.

QUALITY   =   Non-quantitative project parameters

High quality design, envelope, energy efficiency, finishes, furnishings, fixtures, and equipment will have a more dramatic effect on budget than its size. For example, low grade builder homes can cost just $75/SF and take just a month to build while an exquisite jewel might cost more than $600/SF and take two years. Quality is the most significant factor in a building's cost and needs to be decided at the beginning of a project.

SCOPE   =   Scale   ×   Quality

Although defined early, adjustments between these two factors is a component of the design process. This blog attests that Better Than Bigger and we often find that great design may supplant the need for overly large spaces.

SCHEDULE   =   Time to complete the project

Can a contractor take two years to finish a small project? Must he complete the work before the home owners return from a three week vacation in Europe? Does a school renovation need to be worked on after hours? Are there elaborate security and cleanliness requirements for a hospital renovation? Does a large house and garden renovation need to be used for a lawn wedding? Will a home owner build in his spare time? All of these answers may dictate stringent schedule parameters. Depending on the responses, any of these may impact the design and labor costs of a project significantly.

BUDGET   =   Funds allotted to the project

Unfortunately, the design, construction, and real estate industries wildly swag irresponsible $/SF numbers around like water balloons. But an accurate project budget considers quality, schedule, and numerous factors beyond simple labor and materials. To be complete, a budget should also include contractor's overhead and profit, general conditions,* building permits, printing, furnishings, many items usually outside of the contract purchased by the owner like appliances and mailboxes, surveying, architectural and engineering services, municipal charges, utility costs, cleaning, and even move costs.

PROJECT DEFINITION   =   Scope   ×   Schedule   ×   Budget

The final project definition is the goal to begin design. However...

DESIGN   =   Resolution of the project definition

We want design to discover opportunities. Exploration is the purpose of planning. (Otherwise, we would always charge on to a job site hammering a bunch of lumber together hoping for the best. Ever see that happen?) Drawing and modeling is much cheaper than making construction mistakes, but the bigger benefit is that design finds opportunity.

So we begin with the project definition and make iterative design passes to progressively refine the terms and results. This may be more linear or more explorative depending on the project and the client. But these basic definitions must always equate at any point in the process.


Space Names   +   Space Sizes   =   Program

Program   ×   Efficiency Factor   =   Scale

Scale   ×   Quality   =   Scope

Scope   ×   Budget   ×   Schedule   =   Project Definition

Project Definition   ×   Resolution   =   Design

If you are starting a project, try defining each of these terms. And feel free to contact me to discuss and maybe sit down together and start sketching solutions.

* General Conditions:  Numerous contract conditions that stipulate the execution of the construction contract. These are very broad and depend on many project particular specifics. Examples include insurance, length of time to complete, product submittals for selection and approval, payments, review of the work, trash and dumpsters, protection and cleanup, bathroom facilities, access to the site, parking, drawing conventions and conflict resolution, and potentially many others, even to inappropriate or illegal behavior on the job site.

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Canopy Progress

I got a call to come take my first look today at the beginning fabrication of a canopy structure I designed. It's always interesting when you see a project taking shape in the "real world" that had only existed until then in your mind, on paper and in virtual space.

Canopy in progress

Canopy in progress

All along, this effort has been one of efficiency. As the requirements and parameters grew, so too did the structure. This is fully 50' long and 25' wide but supported on only two columns. If you drive around to various gas stations, take a look at how they are supported. Almost all of them these days are constructed with at least four columns since the two-column variety are easily blown over. (And central North Carolina does occasionally get 90+ mph winds when a hurricane blows in.) However, site restrictions meant this one simply could not touch the ground at four locations. So the narrow profile and trimmed corners grew out of these restrictions and make this narrow, wing-shaped teardrop with very little resistance to the wind.

For reference, below is my partial model of the project built months ago.

Canopy model

Canopy model

I always appreciate great craftsmenship. With the design parameters vigorously dictating the form, it took some careful, considerate detailing to even make the structure feasible. Skilled craftsmen ensure cleaner construction and the necessary coordination when everything has to work and fit like clockwork.

Canopy in progress

Canopy in progress

This type of complexity is a double-edged sword. It is difficult to design and difficult to construct. But it means less steel is used and a structure better suited for high winds. Stay tuned for updates...

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Project Fog

Most times, the first phone call I get about a project is nebulous.

Fog at the beginning of a project

Fog at the beginning of a project

There may be a site, a prospective building, or tenant space. There may be a budget. And there is usually some idea about what the project is for.

Believe it or not, those are all the essential elements needed to concoct a project out of thin air. Usually, it’s up to me to derive the rest. And that’s what architects are for.

An architect is a type of mad scientist. If a client brings me the essential elements, we begin working together to develop the rest of the formula.

(Frankly, my base solution is usually coffee, although I have begun a few with craft beer, such as this one.)

Conceptual sketches

Conceptual sketches

This can become a bubbly process. Some projects end up with ideas all over the floor. Others become clear only when distractions are distilled out as we proceed.

Sometimes the chemistry is not predictable. A seemingly steamy project may suddenly freeze. Very recently, a client and I were able to improve the efficiency of a project’s internals so unexpectedly high that it exceeded the practical limitations of the site to park all the resulting occupants. We had expected the building to limit the project, but the result was the inverse of our hypothesis.

Other times, the mixture can become suddenly unstable! Interjections by the building code or site zoning and planning requirements can threaten a project in a number of ways. (See my previous article, Code Check.) The local regulatory authority has complete jurisdiction on the project and can be as flexible or inflexible as they want. Strange, cryptic requirements can suddenly appear in the mixture to turn lead into gold or vice versa. I have a good handle on most of the expectations from the towns, cities, counties, departments, and universities in the region. But nothing beats the catalyst of a preliminary review meeting with them over the conceptual plan to precipitate the requirements of the project.

Site fog

Site fog

Visualizing the form and materials of a project is why architects depend on drawing and rendering capabilities. But most experienced architects also have considerable background in navigating the project fog of codes, as well as the nearby clouds of costs and contractors.

Thoughts about project beginnings? (Or maybe too little connection between the images and text? Just a touch too much alliteration in that last line?) I’d love to hear from you. Please share below or on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

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