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.
Here’s a quick glimpse into the very beginning of the design process.
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?
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.
sketch, 2016-05-17, downtown house space stacking diagrams
Even if you don’t get the project, you can still enjoy the process!
This was a quick look at an urban rooftop living room and kitchen addition. The building was a three-story masonry construction from 1915 in downtown Raleigh.
The existing stairs were in different locations on each floor. So this design re-stacked them for more efficiency toward the rear. And it introduced a skylight above it to filter natural daylight down the dark, north facing rear of the building.
The initial sketch worked out the spacial organization and then a 3D model looked more closely at the forms.
Sketching is the fastest way to analyze three-dimensional relationships.
I usually rely on 3D virtual models to firm up the details, but my initial sketches form the foundation of thought that shape the rest of the process.
The above sketch is a house set on the side of a mountain in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It’s a given that the structure and forms need to respond to the steep slope of the site. But an additional demand is that it also be accessible… useful with an age in place strategy for the homeowners as they become elderly and potentially too feeble to negotiate full flights of stairs at a time.
With these guidelines, I instinctively look for a scheme of half levels. This keeps intermediate flights between spaces at most six steps. It also balances the house across the site and minimizes the amount of deep cuts or fill areas that might be required of the topography. The above sketch are numerous quick looks at such a scheme.
It is important when creating series of spaces to understand their relationships. You can see abbreviations for the living areas scattered about the drawings. Hurried and loose sketches help keep the exploration fluid and flexible. Nothing is fixated until the entire scheme begins to come together.
A developed depiction of this concept can be seen in the 1934 Villa Muller by Adolf Loos, in Prague. For this early twentieth century Viennese architect, his crowning work was also his last. It is a rich example of his concept for multi-level floors within a simpler exterior, which he called Raumplan.
Villa Muller’s exterior is a simple, unadorned cube. It was intended as the quiet, reserved public face of the house overlooking the city.
But the interior is an exuberant intertwining of spaces and materials connected by short half flights of stairs. Many, small, comfortable and intimate spaces are all tied together by paths and views into and across each other.
Below is a floor level diagram. It is difficult to understand in two dimensions so I’ve removed all the walls from the model and colored each floor uniquely. Except for the top floor (orange) and the roof, the two lower main floors actually have sections that ascend or descend from the neighboring section.
From the lowest, darkest basement level all the way up to the walkable roof, there are multiple sets of stairs connecting each quadrant of the house. Both stairs are centered under skylights on the roof so that natural light is filtered down through the entire house from above. It’s a masterful scheme in just 3,400 SF.
Floor level diagram of the 1934 Villa Muller, by Adolf Loos