How to Develop an Architectural Design Concept
We receive a lot of questions about how to generate and develop an architectural design concept, and how to generally create and justify a design response, and so here we will look at where the design process starts …with the concept
Every architecture project should start with a concept that put simply; is an idea that provides the foundation and backbone to your design process and decision making.
For this reason, it hopefully goes without saying that this aspect of a projects inception is vitally important to the scale of its success. As it is due to this importance, that a concepts substance and meaning is often the first aspect of a building to be scrutinised, and can therefore be held responsible for whether a scheme is won or lost based on its strength and ability to be relevant.
There are many ways to develop quick off-the-cuff concepts, but generating one with meaning and depth that will help to support the development of your project can be difficult, and whilst there is a process we believe can be followed (outlined below), it does take invested time, research and development.
In this post we will look at how to develop an architecture concept and the routes that can be taken to create one, covering:
What is a general concept
What is an architectural concept
What is the purpose of a concept
Types of architectural concepts
Where to start
How do you create an architecture concept
Developing your concept
What is a concept?
Before we delve into architectural concepts and their development, we should firstly understand what exactly the term concept means, and what it is generally there to do.
When defining a concept literally, a concept is:
“An abstract idea / a plan or intention / an idea or invention to help sell or publicise a commodity.”
Therefore a concept can be an idea, notion, theory, object, opinion, representation or process that provides the fundamental building blocks to the thoughts and beliefs behind an idea. They play an important role in all aspects of a subjects understanding.
So this can be related to a book, car, item of furniture, a phone …absolutely anything, including architecture.
What is an architectural concept?
We explain this here and recommend that you read this article in tandem to this one…
However, in short the purpose of an architectural concept (also known by the French word parti) is to help generate a response to a given design based scenario, by addressing the projects brief, context, restrictions, issues, use and structural requirements.
All projects should start with a concept, as it is this that underpins its development and guides the design process. There does not however need to be one singular idea, a building or structure can have many different concepts that guide its individual parts to form the whole.
For example, the materiality maybe based on the local vernacular, or where its structural arrangement may be a response to the land formation.
A concept is a way of generating and justifying design decisions that are almost always a combination of:
An excellent example of how a concept works to drive a project forward is the work of Bjarke ingles (BIG), where the strength of his concepts and the explanations behind them have enabled him to explain and justify even the most outlandish of projects, that without their grounding would have never come to fruition.
What is the purpose of a concept?
As mentioned, architectural design decisions are shaped and defined via their concepts and for this reason architecture is strongly judged on their strength. Generally speaking, a weak piece of architecture is a result of an ill-conceived and developed concept.
Its purpose is therefore to provide clarity and a framework to the design process and presentation of a building.
As explained above, a concept however does not have to be a singular “big idea”, but can also be a series of smaller conceptual scenarios, that could be based on organisation, materiality or structure for example.
These drive the project forward and are referred to throughout the process and used to help answer questions and make decisions.
A design concept therefore no matter how large or small is the catalyst for a projects inception and development, its purpose is to represent the heart and core of the scheme by providing the answers and explanations to the questions asked of it.
Types of architectural concept
There are many strands to a well-structured and conceived concept that can make up a singular or group of key principles, however most can be summarised and broken down into just three main categories; the Site, Design Brief and Narrative.
The site in our opinion should always be the initial starting point to any conceptual process, but in order to do this correctly you firstly need to have completed and assessed your analysis of the site. We have written extensively about the various stages of the site analysis process, and recommend that you start here with our introduction.
When looking at your sites characteristics and elements, the below can provide key influences to your concepts development:
Typology, climate, orientation, views, access, context, history, boundaries, shape, features
We also provide a checklist here
02 Design brief
Second is the design brief, which without this there would be no project. The brief determines the schemes use, programme, priorities, end users and sometimes even the buildings location, and therefore can of course be a major driver in developing and / or influencing your concept development.
The arrangement of the programme and priority of spaces, should address the end users requirements, and can help to define either functional or aesthetic concepts.
For example, there could be a play on exposure and shelter, living and utilitarian, public and private, life style and personality.
Lastly every project should have a narrative… the story behind its inception.
This can be based on the client, setting, requirements or use for example. For an architect working on a live project this is often based on the facts presented to them during the projects appraisal and briefing, whereas for an architecture student who often works on hypothetical projects, this may need be to created if it is not provided.
For example a hospice should be a place of healing and tranquillity, and just this small amount of information starts to define where the building should be placed (in a quiet and private location), and how it should address its site (long distant views / bring landscape in / face inwards if urban), and what the spaces should offer (connection and rest).
Conceptual development of a buildings atmosphere, feeling and memory can all be gathered from its narrative.
Where to start
Finding a starting point can be daunting, especially when developing a successful concept rarely results in the scripted movie 'Eureka' moment where a single idea suddenly appears and solves everything. As reiterated throughout this article, you must remember and consider that the process takes time, and so the first step is to allow yourself this ...plant the seed early.
You cannot begin to generate a concept until you understand the projects brief, site and context, and so this should be your first point of call and the starting point to gathering all of the projects required parameters.
This includes site analysis, design brief appraisal, building typology appraisal, archetype appraisal, precedent studies and so on.
The Design Brief
Whether your project is real or required to be perceived to be, there will always be a design brief that will provide the vital details on the clients and buildings requirements, along with the site your architectural proposal will need to be placed within.
The type of building and its desired accommodation the design brief asks for, will help to identify initial avenues of research and the key principles that will be important to a building of its type.
For example, does the brief call for a singular or collection of buildings, and/or is it public or private …maybe both
Following this the brief will indicate the programme size, the projects priorities, its restrictions and allow for it to be approximately mapped out to get an idea of its scale on the site.
The Site & Context
In a lot of cases this is one of the key generators in a projects conceptual development, and you should never really be considering a conceptual proposal without already carrying out a detailed site analysis.
The sites parameters can be used to discover the limits, restrictions, and opportunities that can add depth and meaning to your conceptual approach.
These first steps are almost always a series of explorations and research that will bring to light conflicting aesthetically, organisational, technical, social or contextual criteria, that can be used as ingredients for further analysis and development.
For your concept to be as successful as possible, its make up needs to consist of and resolve as much of this criteria as possible, whilst addressing the key elements of the brief.
How do you create an architecture concept?
Your concept should never start with a rigid and rigours approach and therefore in the early stages wants to aim to be as malleable and as flexible as possible, and so approach its development with your eyes wide open to all influences, from all directions.
To create your concept you must firstly address and research all three of the concept categories described above along with a fourth, the building typology. Only once all these areas have been researched and evaluated, should you start to formalise your method.
These four areas are summarised as:
01 Site Analyse. Take the data described above and identify the key constraints, features and characteristics of the site and its surrounding context.
02 Design Brief. This is the information presented by the client that should address the building type, preferences, budget, culture, preconceptions, agenda, personality, organisation, and programme.
03 Buildings Typology. This determines the genre of the building, its purpose, the services it provides and how it should work.
04 Project Narrative. This identifies the story behind the project, the people who will use it, and how it will sit and grow within its context.
Identifying these four points will provide the foundations to your concept development, and play a vital role in developing a meaningful response.
This information then needs to be gathered and translated into usable and useful material, and so starting with the your site analyse (point 01), overlay the key features and elements such as the site boundary, typography, existing and neighbouring buildings, trees and vegetation, and solar orientation and paths, onto a site plan.
The programme should be then be mapped out in diagram form onto the site to determine the size of the overall building and individual spaces, as well as whether it should be single story or have a number of stories …all outlining the projects constraints and requirements.
…In a “real” scenario this is strongly dependant on the clients available budget.
The arrangement of your programme should be influenced by the other categories, and as an example may be based on life style (project narrative), seasons (site analysis), and use (building typology).
These can then be translated into public and private spaces / served and served / utiliertaran and living spaces.
These are important as there is simply no way a concept can be generated without the necessary background information to support it.
Using the third point and identifying the building typology is key in understanding the projects outcomes, and if you are not familiar with the required typology then extensive precedent research should take place with the clear goal of understanding the inner and outer workings of the building type. Knowing the typology provides you with the opportunity to reinvent and improve what already existing.
Lastly the narrative provides a concept will final layer of relevancy, making it relatable and human. This could come from the client, the building type, or the site.
Developing your concept
Developing a concept allows us to frame the questions we have found and are asking from the above research and initial formulation, and guide the design process.
In a concepts development preparation is key, and if you follow the above steps then the ground work will have already been laid, enabling the thinking and understanding to follow.
Analyse the problem the design brief calls to be addressed, look at the regulations and limitations of the site, a good concept is a balance of elements, where sometimes sacrifices and trade offs need to made, for example light over shelter, or screening over openness.
A good and experienced designer knows that the first draft will always need editing, much like a writer, it develops all the way through to the end.
Take your time
Incubation of an idea and unconscious thinking can be hugely beneficial, so take time step away and do something else, let inspiration happen naturally and then test and fine tune your thoughts.
Find the project constraints
Your research will develop site and building constraints that will present natural boundaries. However these should be seen as opportunities and guidelines to design within, that will often narrow down the problem that needs to be solved.
These guidelines can be turned into design limits and principles, where your site analyses will provide physical constraints (where), the client or design brief will define programme (size), and the building typology will provide type (what)
The location of your proposal will inform the development of your concept by taking into account the key site features such as the views, shelter, typography and access. Using the site elements, start shaping early massing model to generate basic forms, this will identify the dominate forces. The site should help shape the architecture.
Materials can be detrimental to creating a concept, and should be explored through their limitations and properties, to determine their weight, thickness, flexible and texture. This can lead into structural concepts that explore the confines and technology of available strategies that may aim to push the boundaries of the current typologies.
Lastly start to look at a simple plan and 3D massing model to experiment with simple volumes and the location of spaces.
Start simply by positioning the public and private spaces, determine the various levels of importance, basic orientation, and where transparent and solid faces should be. These help define the clarity of the concept, by starting to answer key questions such as why is this here, what is it doing and what is its purpose.
For further reading and help, we have a book list here containing what we consider to be the current best books on conceptual design, and of course if you have any questions, please post them below.