What Do You Design First?

I used to dream about floor plans. I know, I know, this is not an uncommon occurrence for people who grow up to be architects. But what’s odd is that I don’t think much about floor plans anymore – I spend more time wondering about what’s inside the walls that comprise those plans.

I remember being a kid and drawing dream home floor plans. The homes were mansions, of course, with ballrooms, indoor pools, morning rooms, lounges, probably a dozen bedrooms, and… I don’t remember what else. My floor plans were made up of single, thick, dull, pencil lines which divided the rooms from each other, and the interior from the exterior. I was little; I didn’t know what was in the walls.

Even when I was older, in architecture school, and when I was already an architect, the plans – how the spaces work – are what I thought about first. Then I thought about the elevations – how the building looks – and then I developed those plans and elevations in tandem so they’d work together without too much design backtracking. This is pretty typical. I didn’t think much about what was in those walls until after plans and elevations were somewhat far along, and some external force (the schedule, my boss, or a work plan) required that I draw details.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a good spec writer – I became a better architect than I’d been before.

Now when I think about unbuilt buildings, I think about wall and roof assemblies first, before I think much about plans and appearances. I even think about the tricky transitions. (I don’t design in my work anymore, but I have sometimes thought about designing a home addition, and a house in the mountains.) When I see interesting buildings, I wonder about their wall assemblies, and how those influenced the building’s appearance.

The building blocks for real buildings aren’t those single thick lines I scratched out as a kid; they never were. Today’s building blocks are complicated assemblies. Before getting too far along with plans and elevations (the fun stuff), determine all the wall assemblies, roof assemblies, and foundation and slab components (the hard stuff). You can design these assemblies nearly independently of the plans and elevations – so nail them all down early! Then use these assemblies, these building blocks, as you design the plans and elevations.

That way you can work through the tricky details as you further develop your elevations and plans, rather than trying to resolve a terribly messy detail that you are stuck with because you took the aesthetic design too far before doing much technical detailing.

Once in a while, I prepare 100% Construction Documents specifications based on a pretty good drawing progress set that happens to include a couple of excessively unresolved areas, which haven’t changed much between Design Development and 90% Construction Documents. Then, when I review the Bid Set drawings, I find unexpected new things, that are not coordinated with the specs, because a challenging assembly or transition finally got designed as the inevitable deadline approached. This happens even on projects designed in Revit, even on projects with COMcheck requirements, and even on projects which have “wall types” for all assemblies (interior and exterior) figured out, but in plan detail only, from the beginning.

Waiting to resolve tough details can result in uncoordinated documents, or worse, conditions that get resolved awkwardly (and look bad), or need to be drastically changed at the last minute.

Understanding what’s represented by the lines we design with is what separates the grown-up architects from the kids.

7 thoughts on “What Do You Design First?

  1. Liz’s thoughtful blog points out that thoughtful documentation of design decisions can streamline the design process. Making good, informed decisions early and documenting and sharing them among the team is critical to avoiding re-drawing and other waste effort. A Preliminary Project Description [PPD] as advocated by CSI since 1989 can be much more than just a SD phase deliverable. It can be a living document to record and communicate project design decisions to the team about the “building blocks” that she refers to: the assemblies that comprise the building. Because clients always have at least some preferences that they want embodied in our designs, the PPD can be started even before the model to record those preferences, energy code requirements, sustainability goals, and design constraints. Mechanical engineers can then base their designs on actual design decisions instead of assumptions.

  2. Liz,

    Good post that has so much more behind it about the nature of current architectural practice, education, and value. Something that I know you spend a lot of time thinking about and a credit to your critical thinking capacity. Just a quick additional thought. The problems you discuss are at the core of many problems related to increased risk (design and construction defects), scheduling problems, and of course, ultimately costing the owner more money. IF architects understood that “design intent” is wholly subservient to the OPR, things might be a little better. As it stands, making sure something fulfills personal aesthetics (or firm aesthetics) becomes too important. Real elegance comes not from imagining a design with no constraints, but rather understanding the full set of constraints and then producing something beautiful/elegant. Iambic pentameter and haiku, when done by a master of language are both beautiful and elegant precisely because of the constraints not in spite of them.

    • Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments. Great points.

      My preferred approach to design when I worked as an architect was always to solve a problem – I never, ever wanted to be given a blank slate. (I’m not an artist.) I needed the owner’s requirements and/or the existing surroundings to inform my process.

      Most people who are paying for buildings to be designed and built need useful solutions, not potentially leaky art.

  3. In addition to dreaming or visualizing a building plan, some architects also dream and visualize in 3D space. Visualizing in 3D also helps figure out details and assemblies. Yet the project will be hard to build unless the design can be reduced to orthographic views.

  4. I’d say I start with a project by defining building type, then budget and site drainage. Eventually, I’ll get to what’s in the walls… I really enjoy your websites, first time visitor.

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