How Architects Design
Last month I was asked by a friend and teacher at a local high school to give a talk to his classics class on 'how architects design'. This was so the students could compare the ideas behind classical buildings of the past with buildings of today, and what the common ideas behind them were, if any.
Because 'design' is what I do every day, I didn’t have to research too much. But I did have to have a good think about how and why, I as an architect, do what I do.
Some people may think that a great design comes as a moment of inspiration – an idea of pure genius. Perhaps, and that is what we like to tell the world! But mostly it’s about working through a series of constraints, many of which become opportunities that positively influence the design.
There are many things that impact on and even dictate how architects design; a great number of considerations that need to be taken into account before the first line is drawn. I have listed most of these below.
People we call clients pay us money to use their money to design buildings for them. Brilliant! What could be a better job?! They normally walk in the door with a set of requirements for their building. This is called a Brief. The Brief can range in scope from number and size of individual rooms to how spaces are to “feel”.
Usually our client will have a site, most often vacant, but sometimes it will be a site with a building on it that needs to be extended or altered. If there is an existing building it will dictate much of how we design. For instance, we are extending and converting an existing office building at Auckland airport into a hotel. The existing curved floor plan has resulted in a curvaceous hotel.
There are climatic reasons why buildings in Alaska look different to those in Arizona. Franz Josef has a very high rain fall, so we designed Te Waonui Forest Retreat hotel with large mono pitch roofs to protect from the rain, and we extended these out over balconies where guests can sit out of the rain yet still intimately experience the rain forest.
Are we building on the plains, in the mountains, on the edge of the sea? All these types of landscape demand different approaches. Also, do we want to blend in or stand out? Both approaches can be appropriate but require different responses. We are currently designing a house at Tekapo that disappears into the landscape. Much of it sits underground such that it will be invisible when viewed from Mt John. At Cardrona we designed a small house that stands up proud and strong in the vast landscape of Central Otago.
Culture and History:
New Zealand is a relatively young country. Immigrant architects often delight in how we are not bound by the shackles of history. We are aware, however, of what limited architectural history we have, and do acknowledge historical context where we can. Our extensions to Acland house in Papanui Road were designed to architecturally blend in with the existing building.
We have worked on over 1000 projects in our 20 years as a company, and there would only be two or three where the budget was not an issue. Most clients want more than they can afford. While a tight budget can be restrictive it can also lead to creative and innovative solutions – the New Zealand Number 8 mentality is alive and kicking in New Zealand architecture. While our budgets compared to third world countries seem large, compared to London, Paris, New York, and even Australia, they are relatively low.
Most of our clients want their buildings fast! If this is a critical requirement the design needs to be adapted to suit. This is where offsite prefabrication of building components and even whole buildings can help.
There are so, so many acts, codes and regulations we must follow in the design of our buildings. It seems as though every day there is a new hoop to jump through – council, government, iwi, local interest groups. My own house currently under construction spent a year in the resource consent (town planning) process and six months in the building consent process before we received final approval. Phew! (Polite exclamation!)
The same brief to two different architects can result in two completely different designs, but it can also result in many similarities in design as well. Architects can put their own “stamp” on a project. While you may have noticed that some architects’ designs look the same, others (including ours I think) represent a wide variety of styles, as responses to each individual situation vary.
Feelings and Experience:
While sometimes our clients have strong requirements along these lines, for example they may want their building to feel welcoming and relaxing, sometimes there is no mention of these things at all in the brief. This is where the architect’s skill comes in, to analyse the type of experience that the occupants of a building are to have. I have spoken about this before regarding the Christchurch Town Hall. Architects can manipulate and affect how people feel, act and behave through design. This is a privilege and responsibility we take seriously and enjoy having.