Circulation in Architecture – How circulation diagrams help us be better designers

Aesthetics mean very little if a buildings fundamentals don't work...

Architecture may (for the most part!) be pleasing to look at, but aesthetics mean very little if the buildings fundamentals don’t work, and this starts at the very beginning of a project with an architecture circulation diagram.

Buildings come in all shapes and sizes, but often what really matters is how people interact with them. As architecture continues to shape our environment, it’s important to know how spaces will be inhabited.

In this article we discuss circulation diagrams, how they’re made, and how they are used in the architecture workflow. Lets get into it…

What is an architecture circulation diagram?

When most people hear the word circulation, they think of blood moving through the body, or air moving around a room. Circulation in architecture is very similar, but instead it refers to the manner in which people move through a building.

architecture circulation diagram

An architecture circulation diagram is a graphical representation of this movement, in relation to a building, complex, or urban development. These diagrams can be used during the design process, or for built projects to analyze the effectiveness of a plan.

The main purpose of these diagrams is to map out the behavior and pathways of a building’s intended users. This helps architects understand the benefits and challenges of a building’s layout, to determine a design that best suits the needs of the program.

How does circulation affect design?

A smooth flow of people ensures the design works well for its intended users. A successful floor plan allows people to easily find their way, with minimal obstruction or resistance.

Circulation directly impacts ease of movement or congestion within a building, from the point of entry, to the distribution of people to different rooms and areas. It can facilitate how people interact, how visitors come and go, and how the public traverses through or around the building.

circulation in architecture
Diagrams: Pedestrian Paths by Alex Hogrefe

Why is it important?

Circulation is one of the key components of the architectural experience. A circulation diagram can provide a snapshot of this experience from beginning to end, and it can be an accurate representation of the plans in action.

Optimizing circulation can benefit all users, including passersby, residents, visitors, employees, and the general public. It can also contribute to shaping the urban fabric of a city. Imagine a large park in a city center with walkways, vegetation, and water features.

Now imagine putting a highway through the middle of it. Cars might have a new route to drive through, but the circulation for pedestrians is severely interrupted. Effective circulation can make lives more comfortable and efficient.

circulation in architecture

Circulation in architecture

Circulation in architecture is often divided into different types, to show the relationship of various kinds of movement within the building. These types can be based on the direction of movement, the category of use, physical form, frequency, or time.

Types of circulation in architecture


Circulation in the context of direction shows the general movement of people within the building on individual floors and from one floor to another. The two categories of direction are horizontal and vertical circulation.

Horizontal circulation – Horizontal circulation is how people move from one space to another on a single floor. People may use hallways, paths, entries and exits to get around the building. This circulation can also be affected by objects such as columns, furniture, trees, or slopes. Furniture layouts can have a strong influence on horizontal circulation, which is why they are often integrated in the planning process.

Vertical circulation – Vertical circulation shows how people get to the different floors and levels in a building. This can include stairs, ramps, escalators, and elevators. Mechanical devices such as elevators and escalators must account for capacity and speed, while manual means such as stairs and ramps must consider distance and fatigue.

circulation diagram
Modern Art Museum of Medellín Extension / Ctrl G + 51-1


Circulation can be categorized by use, to differentiate the general public from the private users of the building. This can be helpful in showing the connections and barriers to and from spaces, such as the retail and residential parts of a floor.

Public – Public circulation involves the areas most accessible by the public. These spaces often intersect with receiving areas such as lobbies, courtyards, or atriums. There is often an emphasis on the design of these areas to deliver a strong impression of the building to the public.

Private – Private circulation refers to paths and corridors that are less open and more difficult to get to. These can be used for access to private rooms, or for services and utilities. Private circulation helps regulate people from entering certain spaces, and it can be accompanied by signs like Employees Only or Authorized Access.


Form in design can significantly change the flow of people, and as such, circulation can be categorized by form whether it is open or closed in nature.

Open – Open circulation can be used to describe galleries or colonnades, with a clear direction and connectivity between spaces despite being open on one or more sides. Open circulation can also refer to the movement of people within dynamic spaces. It is continuous and uninterrupted.

Open plans typically provide a more free-flowing circulation, more conducive for human interaction across different spaces. These plans have less solid walls, instead opting for open areas divided by furniture or partitions.

The openness creates more seamless transitions between areas, and allows for more flexibility with the space.

Closed – Closed circulation refers to hallways or corridors enclosed by walls or barriers. These areas connect spaces more directly, and can be accessed through entrances or openings. Closed plans tend to invoke privacy, focus, isolation, or specific use. They are ideal for security, or to limit access and direction. This circulation is characterized by entrances and obstacles that tend to lead users to specific destinations.

circulation diagram architecture


Circulation can also be observed by frequency of use. This can include common paths or emergency paths, heavily used facilities or seldom used facilities, or main pathways and secondary pathways.

Frequency helps determine which areas see the most traffic every day. With this information, designers can increase or decrease the sizes of paths as necessary, and make more informed decisions about materials.

For example, a walkway that is battered by footsteps all day could benefit from more durable materials, such as homogeneous ceramic tiles or stamped concrete.


The volume of people passing through a building often varies depending on the time of use. Circulation can look very different throughout the day, and some places can also have continuous traffic at all times.

For instance, a restaurant may have lunch and dinner rush, while an office building may see a peak in elevator use in the morning or afternoon as people come in and out of their place of work.

A transportation hub, such as a train station or airport, may have nearly non-stop circulation at all times of the day, with slight surges during arrivals.

Elements of architecture circulation


A building’s approach is its outermost layer of circulation. It is the first layer of interaction as people move closer toward a site, and it leads people to entrances or ingress areas.

A direct frontal approach is the most common. It involves guiding people directly towards the entrance along a straight axis. This usually occurs from the street to the front facade. It is the least complex, making it easy for people to see and understand.

An indirect approach also guides crowds to the entrance, but at an angle or along a curve. This can help with crowd control, when long lines or large groups are expected.

The approach can also be vertical in nature. Emerging from a subway station or descending down a long flight of stairs can reveal unique views of a building with opportunities for suspense and surprise. Vertical approaches are often used in museums or civic spaces, where unique experiences are favored.


An entrance is a major point of access into a building or room. It allows passage from one space to another, through elements such as doors, gates, openings, or portals.

The main entrance of a building is typically accentuated by grand architectural features such as an arch, columns, decorative framing, or windows. A building can have multiple entrances, as well as secondary access points such as side doors or back doors.

Open structures and outdoor areas can distinguish entryways with partitions, furniture, or finishes. Changes in level can also help mark the transition from one area to another.

An entrance can reflect the size and scale of the interior space, or it can dramatize or underplay it. A large entrance leading to a small space can convey importance or significance. Meanwhile, a small entrance leading to a massive space can have an astonishing effect, where visitors are stunned by the interior volume.

circulation diagrams
Way of Seeing / Waterfrom Design


Paths in circulation are the avenues of movement. They represent the space and routes that people take to get to their desired destinations. A path may be deliberately built or naturally formed.

All paths are linear by nature, but there are many ways in which a path may differ. It can be straight and continuous, segmented or obstructed, curvilinear, or part of a larger group. Some paths may even form a closed loop, where the end culminates at the beginning to potentially start again.

The common configurations for groups of paths are radial, grid, and composite formats. A radial path features a central point, with multiple paths extending from it to form larger groups around it.

A grid type layout uses two sets of intersecting paths that run parallel to one another at regular intervals. Composite configurations are comprised of various patterns, combined to suit the needs of the program.


Form refers to the physical attributes that affect movement in circulation. Patterns in circulation can be influenced by how the space is created, including its scale, shape, direction, level, and relationship to other spaces.

Picture yourself riding a bike, and up ahead you encounter bollards in your path. As you approach the bollards, you realize they’re spaced quite close together. You’re sure you can fit through, but you instinctively slow down as a precaution.

That is an example of how form can affect circulation. A narrowing hallway with a slight incline can garner a similar reaction.

Circulation within a building can occur in enclosed spaces such as corridors, or in open spaces, such as a lobby or arcade. The size and proportion of spaces can influence the speed and volume of movement, as well as user behavior.

It can encourage people to move freely and independently, or guide them to move in a certain direction.

types of circulation in architecture

How to design circulation into our building

Determine the space requirements

The first step is to figure out what spaces and rooms are necessary for your building’s use. The list of spaces can be compiled from client requests, functional requirements, and new ideas that you feel may work well in the project.

A typical house, for example, may require a carport, a kitchen, living room, dining room, bedrooms, bathrooms, and an office. Every project will have a unique set of spaces depending on the needs of the users.

It’s also important to understand the site, and how much lot area is available to work with. If the property is small or narrow, but a large number of rooms are required, you’ll likely need to consider verticality in the design.

Space programming

The next step is to begin your space programming. This involves figuring out which spaces need to be connected or grouped together, and which areas can be separated. The building program is largely based on what activities will take place in each space, and how those activities relate to one another.

Formulate a base layout

After studying the spaces and their relationships, you can start forming the conceptual layout of the building. This can be done with a bubble diagram or a simple sketch to show the general placement of spaces, as well as any zones that form.

A bubble diagram is a great way to start making the floor plan without the need for defined walls or room shapes. Simple diagrams can help you generate design schemes that can be refined later on in the process.

Floor areas and space allotments

Next, you can determine the net area required per space, including the necessary allotment for circulation, and the remaining usable area. To do this, architects often use a circulation multiplier as a tool for estimation. Circulation multipliers are rule of thumb values that help estimate the required space for hallways, corridors, or paths.

Access and connectivity

Once you have the spaces and their general sizes, you can start adding entrances, hallways, and openings to each space for access and connectivity within the building. These elements should reflect your findings from space programming and bubble diagrams, to ensure an efficient plan with effective circulation.

Identify potential issues

After plotting out a scheme for your floor plan, you can reevaluate it based on its circulation. Look for potential bottlenecks, congestion areas, or design flaws, and explore ways to optimize the building’s layout.

Architects often conduct case studies to compare plans with similar completed projects, to demonstrate how certain design decisions may impact circulation.

Refine the plan

Finally, after identifying potential issues, you can refine the plan and optimize it for better circulation. Circulation diagrams can be produced before, during, and after the design phase to show the current, proposed, and completed building in action.

circulation diagram
Urban Intervention Seattle Center Competition Proposal / Hoshino Architects

Efficiency and layout

Space used for circulation generally equates to less livable or leasable space in the building’s total floor area. These links within a building, although necessary for movement, eat into the lot area and consume valuable space from the building footprint.

As a result, efficiency is crucial when dealing with circulation, to reduce construction costs and to maximize the available space.

For horizontal developments, interior space is largely limited by the size of the lot. The building layout needs as much space as possible allocated to rooms and areas that can be used by its occupants. This can be done by designing circulation space to serve as many rooms and areas as possible. Strategic planning is also necessary to improve the efficiency of the layout.

Vertical developments multiply their available floor area by adding new floors above, but movement to upper floors then becomes a concern. Vertical circulation can take up a substantial amount of floor space, especially if not optimized for efficiency.

To minimize the impact of vertical circulation on the plan, architects often group stairs and lifts together in a central core, along with other utilities and structural members.

Circulation typically aims to be clear, unobstructed, and efficient, but there are situations where a more complex route may be desirable. A museum exhibit, for example, might want to direct visitors through the space without missing important areas, so it could opt for a meandering layout over a traditional straight line.

The layout and efficiency of a building are greatly dependent on the function and goal of the project, and circulation must be designed accordingly.

circulation diagram
Institute at School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada / MO-OF

To conclude…

We spend roughly 90% of our lives indoors, which is why it’s crucial that our buildings are designed with humans in mind. The great Le Corbusier once said “a building is a machine to serve man,” and as a machine it must be efficiently designed with function at the heart of each space.

A building’s function is what separates architecture from pure art and sculpture, it becomes a structure with a purpose, and it facilitates the daily needs of its inhabitants.

Circulation goes hand in hand with function, as it determines how people move throughout a building. Without this movement, people would not be able to utilize a building’s space and facilities.

Circulation diagrams are a helpful tool for visualizing movement in a building, and architects can use them to pinpoint issues in a design. They can lead to more refined design solutions that are fine-tuned for efficiency and function.

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