Architecture, Undergrad Tips
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What should be taught freshman year: The Architectural Design Process

Picture an empty lot in a downtown area full of energetic life and healthy go-getters. This area, filled with heavy pedestrian traffic, connects multiple shops, outdoor restaurants and parks. A client wants to build a library on this lot. How do we address the vibrant high energy surroundings with a building that is typically simple in style and quiet in nature?  

Hold it! Rein it back in! I was losing you for a moment wasn’t I? Your creative mind was taking over. You were starting to think of ideas, finding your fingers itching for a fine tipped pen, eyes searching for your notebook with images starting to take form.

But how do we sort through all these ideas and pick the right one? It’s called the Design Process!

I like to think of it as the process that keeps our imagination in check. Some might think it crippling to our creativity, restraining designers from reaching their full potential, while others might appreciate a bit of structure.

My freshman and sophomore year there were no real clients just very loose guidelines built to unleash your inner creativity. Since I was new to design my ideas were erratic. It wasn’t until my junior year did I really understand the meaning of “program” and how it fit into the design process. Having this process organized made me feel like I was designing with a purpose and that I had an achievable end goal.

Had I had this bit of knowledge earlier maybe it would’ve made projects seem more realistic and professional. Crazy forms are fun, but in the end we love believing our designs are buildable, for real people in real situations, in an environment we made safe.

Whenever I was brought a new project my mind would go straight to the exterior form of the building. I still haven’t mastered it, but the goal is to slow down, allowing yourself time to soak up the necessities – the program and scope.

Each person will have their own process, that is why I suggest early on in school to start noting what works best for you. This will be extremely helpful your senior year if you have a group project and are in charge of delegating, showing you when and where most of the work is needed.

This is my basic design process that I picked up through the years.

Design Process Questions:

  • Ask what the goal or mission of the project is – Who it’s for? Who will be using it?
  • Building Program – What are the needs and functions of the space?
  • In each room- How much space will be adequate for the number of people occupying it?

Create a list of all the major spaces and rooms you will need and the maximum number of people suspected to occupy each space. From there calculate the average square footage acceptable to house that number of people. Once you have your volumes you can start to adjust them to fit your surroundings. This is where your site comes in.

  • Site Analysis- What are the conditions around it? What is affecting the space – people, transportation, buildings, geography – and how are you going to respond to them?
  • People – Type of demographics, Age groups, culture.
  • Transportation – Ease of accessibility to site, bikers, parking spots, high congestion areas.
  • Buildings – How will existing structures compliment or negatively affect your site? High rises might provide great shading areas. Don’t forget to look past your block and see what factors from afar might affect your site.
  • Entry points – Where is your main point of entry going to be? Secondary access points.
  • Geography – Is it a hilly or flat landscape? Will you have to work around trees? What is the suns axis in relation to the site? How will climate conditions affect your indoor/outdoor spaces?

Once you have the program and site researched you can finally start to think about the form.

  • Will it be best to have one building, two separate spaces or multiple?
  • Will it be placed parallel with a street or shifted off axis? In the center of the lot or off to the side?
  • One story or multiple?
  • From here you can start your Parti Diagram

One of the fun things about school is you can create almost anything. With that being said there are always things to consider and be mindful of. Architecture is not selfish. The purpose of the design process is to avoid creating a building that will alienate the rest. We are not here to intrude on a community but to be integrated seamlessly elevating the surrounding conditions in the process.

What does your Design Process look like? Have any thoughts to add?

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Texas A&M University Env. D Alum 16' UTSA Masters of Architecture Alum 21' Architect in the making, passionate writer, fashion enthusiast, moment maker, life chaser!


  1. ccrottie715 says

    Great article! When I took a Foundation of Interior Design class at Houston Community College my professor gave me a very helpful way to iron out the program and the concept to use for the entire design process. The Idea is that you find your concept and every design decision should originate and correspond with your concept statement. This concept statement can and should change during the design process.

    Below is a way to write decisions made during the process Marisa describes so you can use your design choices effectively during the entire design process.

    For the program answer these questions:

    Who: Who are you designing the space for? What are their interests?

    What: What is the space you are designing? Are you designing an office building or a master bedroom? This is also where you add the specific design requirements your client gives you. For example Mrs. Jones would like 2 sinks in the master bath.

    When: When will this space be used? You should dive into how this could affect the design of the space. For example, the breakfast nook should be facing the east so the space receives natural sunlight in the morning.

    Where: Where is the location of the space? Is there any natural landscapes that should be focused on? Is the location usually hot or cold climate?

    How: How are you going combine all of these questions into a comprehensive design. What are the specific design techniques you will be using for your design?

    Once you have answered all of these questions It is good to combine this into a design concept.

    The concept statement should be a persice version of you program in 5 paragraphs.

    Paragraph 1: What are you designing, for who, and location (persice)
    Paragraph 2: What is you inspiration, what is you design (persice)
    Paragraph 3: Who are the clients, design requirements, relevant info on how the space will be used. (More detailed)
    Paragraph 4: Describe the design in reference to what the clients want as well as the inspiration. Touch on every major point of you design.
    Paragraph 5: a one sentence conclusion of the design. E.g. Inspired by the Modern Art Museum of Houston and nature, a Relaxing Modern Master Suite will be designed for the Spauldings.

    Having a concept statement like this can be very helpful during the design process as well as presenting the design to the client.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is wonderful! Thank you so much! I love the advice about the 5 paragraphs. I think it’s important to dive into different areas of study like interior design / landscape architecture / construction, there are so many lessons to be learned from each. Thanks for the comment 🙂


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