Five Short Statements About Building Design

…a few key issues for client and architect in the design of a new building


A Room, Yes?

In our everyday world, a building is almost always thought of, first, as a collection of rooms. We expect each building, and each type of building, to have its own typical kind of room, and its own typical way of relating its rooms to each other and to the outside. For example, an office building is supposed to contain mostly offices, with halls to connect them and a lobby for entry. The assumed link between rooms and buildings is so strong that even to try to do away with rooms seems to rely upon having a particular attitude towards them. So, perhaps the first question to ask about a prospective building is, What about the rooms? Will there be one room, or many? If many, will they combine functions, or separate them? Will they relate mostly to each other, or to the outdoors? How are they to be bounded, and will these boundaries be strongly defined? Will they each be unique? And on, and on. With fresh thinking about what each room must be and do, we can both discover and respond to the fundamental needs behind both the room and the building.

Many Eyes, Many Voices

The days when a single authority could rule a building's design are over, not least because people now understand that others, besides design "leaders," should be heard from. With a family home, both spouses, and the children, should be able to state their needs. With an office, not only company leaders, but also the managers and secretaries should be listened to. And only rarely is the architect the sole source of good design ideas. More importantly, without an open process, critical needs may remain hidden and the project fall victim to "unknown unknowns." Therefore, in defining a function or use, a room or a spatial relationship, it is essential to identify whose interests are at stake, and to engage them in developing the design. It may be necessary to invent new ways to create this involvement, which can sometimes make the creative process resemble a complicated board game, or a puzzle. Yet, it is only when all voices are heard that a new building can hope to meet the needs of its users.

Deciding About Decisions

The many decisions presented by a new building generally fall into two classes. The first has to do with making selections according to personal preference and practical judgement, whether of ideas or products. In other words: shopping. The second, and much more difficult, has to do with discovering which questions are the most important, and where priorities should lie. This is a matter of seeking the internal logic and meaning of the requirements the building is meant to fulfill. In other words: learning. Both kinds of decisions are necessary throughout the creative process, including during design, bidding and pricing, and construction. Because they are often confused with each other, and because they can often be pursued only in terms of each other (shopping in order to learn, learning in order to shop), it's important to recognize where shopping should end and invention begin.

Yes, This Is Not An Experiment!

For most individuals, and even institutions and businesses, a new building is the largest single investment of time and resources they will ever make. Yet, ideally, it is also something that will come to rest in the background of their lives, an unobtrusive support for familiar, day-to-day activities. A well-designed building can be identified, in part, by how effectively it disappears into daily existence - like a comfortable piece of furniture. This is one reason that construction materials and techniques have a tendency to become conventional: experimental approaches risk both practical failure and disruptive effects. It is also a challenge to the architect, since a client's unique requirements often dictate equally unique design solutions. How can a design be unique, yet reliable and unobtrusive? The design process should follow a discipline that constantly tests new concepts against conventional standards of cost, performance and appearance. Every decision should circle back to these standards, and also consider the building's physical and historical context. In this way, a new, custom-designed building can be the occasion for careful answers to specific needs, rather than for creating unknown future costs.

To Build Is To Organize

To build is to organize -- information and agreements, people and schedules, materials and deliveries. In a typical U.S. project, commodities like Brazilian steel, Italian stone, Canadian lumber and Mexican fasteners, together with imported components like thermostats and water heaters, converge upon an essentially ad hoc, short term joint venture struck up between an owner of finite means and a contractor of limited competence. This would seem to put narrow limits on all parties -- owner, architect, and contractor alike. However, that a building's hard and "soft" materials -- money and labor, as well as stone and steel -- are creatures of a massively integrated, world wide system of exchange does not rule out exceptions to that system's values, or interventions in the process it seems to dictate. Every decision, choice and selection points the building toward its own particular and unique relationship with the larger world around it. This is broadly true, whether in matters of durability and maintenance, or symbolism and politics. The decisions made under the pressure of a construction's year long "just in time" coordination crisis, seen at a larger scale, portend not only cost and debt, but an entire world of new relations. The values, choices and strategies of the present moment help launch a prospective economy of needs and calculations quite different from today's. Ultimately, to build is not just to organize immediate resources, but to reach forward in time to shape the distant habits, expectations and desires of the future.