“A highly complex three dimensional puzzle”

One of the issues that emerged at the recent Australian Institute of Architects Conference in Adelaide was that, as architects, we aren’t that good at describing the work that we do and the value of our particular skill set.

Design can be particularly hard to pin down – the design process varies a lot from person to person, and the results of that process are hard to evaluate with quantitative measures. It is a process that has many ‘right’ answers to the same question (demonstrated by the entries to any design competition).

I would describe the architectural design process as the attempt to fulfil many layered criteria in the one physical arrangement of space. Popular culture portrays this as an intuitive process, with the solution arriving fully formed in a flash of inspiration, but mostly, I think it happens through time and persistence, starting with the identification of the limits and diverging choices offered by the design problem.

The first layer of spatial criteria that need to be satisfied comes from the client’s brief. For the most part, this consists of a schedule of spaces including their areas and a brief description how and who will use these spaces.

A secondary layer of spatial criteria come from the characteristics of the site. This includes factors that are very concrete (such as dimensions, levels, total area, location of other buildings, weather conditions, road access, and applicable council regulations), as well as those that are less tangible (such as the site’s history, the character of surrounding buildings and uses, views, colour/texture), and things that are speculative (what may happen in and around the site in the future).

The Australian Standards and National Construction Code add a third layer of requirements that must be met.

Finally, we add to this a long list of unwritten criteria– these are often things that the architect knows are important but may not be a formal part of the brief. This includes an expansion of the brief to describe more detailed functional information and qualitative spatial characteristics, establishing what volume, views, light conditions, acoustic qualities, privacy, security, atmosphere and so on might suit the spaces. We need to imagine who will be using the space, what they will be doing, how these people want or need to relate to one another, and how they might feel about what they are doing.

To try and synthesise this daunting list of sometimes competing criteria we start out by doing lots and lots of sketching, testing divergent spatial options, evaluating, discarding, and refining until something seems to be working. We hold a mental picture of the changing 3D form, switching between viewing this in ‘flat’ planes (floor plans or sections for example) back to 3D again through imagining, drawing and modelling to help us test, refine and represent the design.

It is like a highly complex three dimensional puzzle that has a list of ‘must have’ rules as well as a long list of ‘nice to have’ bonus points, with it sometimes being up to the designer to decide which things are the ‘must haves’. It’s exciting and challenging work that needs time, effort and expert training.