Six Ways to Drive Architectural Design From Good To Great
March 8, 2017 Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz
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We know that good architecture could be beautiful, inviting, accessible and long lasting.

We also know that it could be sustainable, affordable, functional and socially responsible. But what makes it great?

Great architecture can make our world a better place by creating a positive experience. In other words, great design not only transforms spaces, but it also can transform our experience of the world, connecting with us on an emotional level.

Great design, therefore, is thoughtful.

To build these exceptional experiences, architects and interior designers use innovative techniques and a touch of age-old philosophy. Here are six proven methods to take architectural design from goodness to greatness.

1. THE INVISIBLE ARCHITECT

One way to push a design from good to great is to make the designer disappear.

In great architecture and interior design, the designer is not the focus of the work. The spotlight is on the end user, on his or her experience in that space. Unlike artists, great architects cannot be selfish and design for themselves. They must solve problems, meet needs and design for others.

Unfortunately, many architects cannot resist the temptation to be the protagonists of their work, seeking to stand out and garner accolades for their virtuosity, while critics frequently ignore the human aspect of buildings and focus merely on form. When they write their influential critiques, they neglect to explore how buildings shape human experience, how they make people feel.

For example, take the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The museum clearly was intended to be a work of art in and of itself, a protagonist.  You can’t debate its success as an iconic piece of art, however, as a museum, it failed to consider the user experience and the artwork to be housed there, calling too much attention to itself and making the architect, not visitor experience or the art itself, the focal point.

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The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City

2. SUSTAINABILITY AND WELL-BEING

Have you ever walked into a hotel lobby, restaurant or office building and felt suddenly lifted? You couldn’t explain it, but something in that space connected with you.  Maybe it was the lighting or the sounds, the colors or the layout that moved you. Perhaps something about that space triggered a memory and instantly put your body at ease.  Such is the power of design.

Whether we realize it or not, we are always interacting with our environment, which can have positive or negative effects on our comfort, mood, and even our health. In addition to not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, sustainable design principles also take into consideration occupant well-being and comfort.

People live inside buildings. Failure to pay attention to the quality of this interior space can significantly compromise the quality of the constructed building as well as the quality of life of its occupants. Great design shapes buildings around the needs and lives of their occupants.

Green design

The popularity of green or sustainable architecture has exploded in the last 25 years or so, with designers using eco-friendly building materials and construction practices as well as intangible elements such as light, air, heat and sound to minimize energy use and maximize occupant comfort and well-being.

Natural light, for example, can help hospital patients to recover, students to perform better at school and workers to be more productive at the office. Using daylighting techniques, architects and interior designers can save energy, increase the quality of the visual environment, reduce operating expenses and enhance the quality of life, performance and overall satisfaction of occupants.

Human well-being and comfort

Well-being in architecture and interior design refers to the performance of spaces that (1) do not reduce and/or (2) that support occupants’ emotional, mental and physical health by meeting particular standards in thermal comfort, lighting, indoor air quality, acoustic comfort, layout, furniture and design harmony.

architectural design

Northern Arizona University’s Applied R&D building in Flagstaff, AZ. This 59,821-square-foot university building is one of the three greenest in the world, earning 60 points out of a possible 69 for LEED Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and a platinum rating. Its photovoltaic solar power system supplies at least 20 percent of its electricity. The building also features venting windows, automatic shade controls and an enthalpy wheel to regulate temperature.

3. SCALE AND PROPORTION

From Vitruvius to Palladio, from Vignola to Corbusier, great architects have always understood the importance of human scale and proportion in architecture.  Great architecture responds to and enhances the sensory aspects of the human body and, in effect, serve as an extension of it. The right scale and proportion can be the difference between good and great design.

Scale and proportion in architecture refer to how a project’s individual parts relate to the size of the human body, to each other and to the whole. These elements of design can affect the way we feel in a space. Whether we find a room large or small, wide or narrow, stems from how we understand that room in relation to our size.

Architects use proportional systems, such as the golden rule (found in nature and music), to develop designs that are responsive to the human figure. By giving a space human proportions, architects can increase the likelihood that we will be comfortable in that space because the starting point of our perception of something is the size of our own bodies

architectural design

Proportion can add harmony, symmetry, balance, direction and hierarchy. The Villa Capra (Rotunda) by Andrea Palladio was designed using human scale and modular proportions.

4. HIERARCHY

Hierarchy in architecture is defined as the articulation of the importance or significance of a form or space by its size, shape or placement relative to the other forms and spaces of the organization. In other words, hierarchy explains why some components of a structure are emphasized and carry more visual weight than other components.

Designers establish hierarchy by creating a consistent compositional theme and then breaking it through the use of unique shapes, size, color or strategic placement, signaling which components should be noticed by viewers.

For designers, hierarchy may be a science, but for us, it is intuitive. When looking at or entering a well-designed building, somehow we know which rooms are primary or secondary, where the hallways lead, in which direction to look and walk. Great architecture is intuitive.

5. SENSE OF PLACE

Great architecture has a strong sense of place. It expresses an identity and exudes culture and character. It alludes to the relationships that people have with places. A building’s sense of place can tell you where you are.

Sense of place is one of the most important qualities of architecture. To successfully give a project a sense of place, architects must take cues from the community and not simply follow their creative impulses. They need to identify both the physical and intangible attributes of a community and find a way to preserve what residents value most about it.

Unfortunately, many architects opt for designing flashy buildings to draw kudos from critics that judge buildings as objects in space and not as places where meaningful social interactions occur. These new buildings tend to win the most architectural and design awards despite lacking a sense of place and often weakening the space around them. They may be good, but they are not great.

architectural design

When you travel half-way around the world and wish to take a picture, you avoid taking that photo in a mall or inside your rental car. You take it in front of a structure with a strong sense of place that will show exactly where you are—this residential project blends itself with the surrounding neighborhood, evocative of a 1920’s Spanish Colonial structure typical to this urban area in Puerto Rico.

6. CONTEXTUAL ARCHITECTURE

Great architecture is contextual. It responds to the environment, surrounding areas and circumstances.

Buildings do not exist in isolation. Context refers to the external elements that influence buildings and other structures. These elements are physical, such as roads, bridges, other buildings, and non-physical, such as climate, culture, economic and political issues.

To create successful designs, architects must first understand the surrounding contextual forces. For example, a house in the tropics presents different design opportunities and challenges than one meant for a Scandinavian city. The context determines the architectural style, building material selection, and site layout.

Contextual architecture promotes continuity between the buildings architects design and the local circumstances. It also enhances the experiences people have in and around these buildings, which is what great architecture is all about—experiences that transform our view of the world.

architectural design

Santorini belongs to the Cyclades group of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. It is famous for the limestone whitewashed houses that were designed and built in harmony with the island’s landscape. Santorini architecture does not impose upon but rather blends with its surroundings. The whitewashed houses also reflect the sun’s scorching heat; and the thick plaster walls, small windows and doors help keep rooms cool.

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