Getting the beginning of an architectural project right goes a long way toward making sure it finishes well. But the start is actually much earlier than when design begins. There can be a period, sometimes many years, of conceiving the need and capturing a clear vision that directs everything that follows.
This formative mental development is so necessary to identify and document that I’ve named it and delineated the goals. I call it “Dream” because it is a word that properly conveys the necessary exploration outside of physical bounds. It also expresses the bit of optimism required at the beginning of any project.
I like to think the architectural process is the concretization of thought. Architecture has been called frozen music because it represents a physical embodiment of an idea. It is important to understand that this inspiration is the primary reason for the construction more than any physical considerations. Certainly a house is for living, but every beautiful house comes into being with a different collection of higher aspirations than simply shelter from the elements.
Why identify these influences and background from where they originate? It often happens that there are fundamental interests below the surface of a feature request that, when fully realized, flower into better design ideas. When understood, this directs more consistent solution strategies.
For example, a garage requested to be small may be out of the concern for budget, but it is as likely to be related to something visceral under the surface, like the fear of clutter. Likewise, a large window might be ideal to enjoy a panoramic view, but it might also suggest a privacy concern, imply coldness (despite being triple-paned), or be perceived as a danger to children or birds. Another driver might be a specific date in the near future because the home is to being readied for a wedding. In each of these cases, the architect needs to understand the root cause rather than the effect, because an experienced designer can propose several creative options as alternatives.
The Dream stage is also when the physical site for the project is identified. For buildings, some form of arrangement for land is necessary. This may be a new purchase or be a parcel already owned.
The site itself could be selected according to the vision of the project, such a quiet pastoral setting on the edge of a field intended for raising children, horses, and watching birds. But the site might also be the driver, with the project inspired by the land itself. This would happen with a new home on a family inheritance, such as by a pond where the owner played as a child.
In any case, well designed architecture is integrated with the site and is evaluated by the architect to consider the warming path of the sun, predominate wind patterns, and views both from the site and to it. Exemplary natural features like cliffs, trees, or rivers could figure very strongly into the design, too. This exercise is referred to as site analysis, and it best happens at the beginning of a project so that the design can be informed by whatever opportunities are presented. A land survey is required before beginning this process.
For projects involving existing structures like additions, renovations, remodels, and upfits, a similar kind of analysis also takes place. Where no information exists, the architect and consultants are able to measure and research the building to establish its dimensional and material properties and suitability for the work. For newer structures with proposed projects similar to the current use, this is a relatively straightforward process. For older structures or situations where the new use is a departure from the existing, potentially extensive research and discussions with the local authorities are required by the architect.
The conclusion of the Dream effort is a feasibility check. Just as it is helpful to explore the inspirational seeds for a project without bounds, it must be balanced by a determination of how it will be tangibly accomplished. The necessary cycle of exploration and reality check is continual throughout design until construction begins.
In my process, project feasibility is refined and stated all along the multiple design phases so that unknowns are continually eliminated. This might involve quantifying the unknown with some contingent value during design. Project pricing will then solidify as each of these contingencies is decided. During construction, pricing can be further reduced by working with a contractor who provides substantiated allowances based on the design intent. Some contractors will also rebate a portion of price savings in exchange for finding efficiencies during construction.
Agreement with the final evaluation of feasibility by all parties is necessary to proceed. Arrangements for financing and purchase are assembled along with an overall project timeline. The architect also prepares a statement of cost regarding the project budget.
At the conclusion, the Dream is clear. The foundations of the project’s purpose are stated, as is the location for the structural foundations. With the feasibility resolved and agreed, the next step is to concretely define all the features.