Understanding Space Planning in Architecture

Good space planning is a process that results in an efficient and aesthetically pleasing organization of areas to meet the specific needs and...
Space Planning

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Upon receiving the first iteration of new projects design brief and list of requirements, a lot of questions arise, which derive from a main fundamental one: how is this space going to be used and lived in?

Space planning then starts to unfold. In what follows, we will look into what space planning is, how it can improve your design strategies and the most important aspects to bear in mind.

What is spatial planning in architecture?

Space planning is the laying out and determination of the intended uses of a space (or several spaces) in any architectural project. It should be carefully based upon the client’s functional requirements.

On top of that, it’s also a good opportunity to incorporate the program as an important element into the architectural concept of the project.

Apart from being an interpretation of the client’s desires, space planning also integrates a series of questions of design that are important to consider. What kind of zone or area is this? Is it for social or private uses? Does it involve working or resting? Does it need storage area? 

The answer to those questions might not be so simple: a room could be used both for resting and for working, and also need storage area, for example. Multifunctionality of spaces triggers even more design interrogation.

The overall activities that will take place in a certain area will determine choices such as lighting, access to other rooms, interior and exterior entrances, among many others.

What is space planning

Why is it important…

Have you ever cooked in a badly designed kitchen? The places for cutting and cleaning might be too small; the distances between fridge, stoves, and sink, too long; the finishings of the counter lead to mold formation; there’s not enough natural light or ventilation.

…This all makes living in that space uncomfortable, eventually even leading to discourage its use.

Space planning is important because it can foresee all of that, and fix it before it ever becomes a problem.

It’s all about making oneself, as a designer, invisible: when the users live the space, they should be able to do it in a fluid and intuitive way.

If the right questions are asked and decisions are made upon them, the end result is going to be much more appreciated by the people actually inhabiting it. 

What does it influence…

These design questions that space planning arises influence a series of choices in the architectural project. Here’s a list of the main categories and some of the decisions they might trigger:

  • Layout choices: these regard the adjacency of rooms and their relative size, the continuity and convenience between them, circulation within the area, main focal points and balance, levels of privacy, the visual and physical need for connections with the outdoors, arrangement of fixtures and required furniture, the placement of doors and windows, the flexibility of the initial scheme for future growth.
  • Material choices: as with the previous kitchen example, here we deal with properly determining the finishes of work surfaces and humid zones, the flooring in regard to expected transit and visual perception of the space, colors and materials of walls and decoration.
  • Lighting choices: taking into account the intended use of each area, it’s important to determine levels of natural and artificial lighting, the selection and disposition of proper lighting artifacts, the arrangement of places for electrical and light plugs.
  • Technical choices: these refer mainly to aspects of climate comfort and sustainability such as orientation of rooms, the need for technical spaces for air conditioning, but also decisions that concern budget and legislative requirements such as the disposition of rooms in one or several stages and accessibility of areas to people with disabilities.
Why is space planning important

What is considered good space planning?

Good space planning is a process that results in an efficient and aesthetically pleasing organization of areas to meet the specific needs and desires of the users, while ensuring functionality, comfort, and safety.

Here are some good examples of characteristics and principles:

  1. User-Centric:
    • Addresses the specific needs, preferences, and habits of the users.
    • Tailors areas to support the activities and tasks they are intended for.
  2. Efficient Circulation:
    • Creates logical pathways and connections between different spaces.
    • Minimizes obstructions and ensures ease of movement.
  3. Flexibility:
    • Allows for adaptability and change, accommodating various functions or changes in user needs over time.
  4. Safety and Accessibility:
    • Adheres to building codes and safety regulations.
    • Ensures that areas are accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities.
  5. Optimal Utilization:
    • Makes the best use of available space, ensuring there is no wasted or underutilized area.
    • Balances open zones with more private or enclosed ones based on needs.
  6. Harmony and Proportion:
    • Maintains appropriate scale and proportion between different accommodation and the elements within them.
    • Ensures that rooms flow seamlessly from one to another.
  7. Environmental Consideration:
    • Takes into account natural lighting, ventilation, and orientation to maximize energy efficiency and comfort.
    • Considers the integration of indoor and outdoor zones.
  8. Aesthetic Integration:
    • Aligns with the design concept or theme of the project.
    • Considers materials, colors, and finishes in relation to the overall design vision.
  9. Storage and Organization:
    • Ensures there are enough storage solutions to keep spaces tidy and functional.
    • Considers built-in storage, furniture, and other organizational elements.

Good space planning not only looks at the present requirements but also anticipates future needs and possibilities. By doing so, it ensures that areas and zones are not just functional and efficient, but also enrich the experience and well-being of those who inhabit them.

How space planning can improve your design strategies

Good and thoughtful space planning can give your architectural concept more depth and complexity. As long as you remember to use existing conditions and requirements as an opportunity and not as a restraint, your design strategy should thrive.

The 4 types of spaces in architecture

Spaces within a building can be categorized in various ways to understand the relationship between the physical environment and human perception.

Four notable types of spaces often discussed in architectural theory and practice are:

Physical Space: This is the tangible, measurable area that a structure occupies. It refers to the actual dimensions of rooms, buildings, and outdoor areas, including their height, width, and depth. Physical space is concerned with the material aspects of architecture, such as walls, floors, ceilings, and the overall form of a building.

The 4 types of spaces in architecture

Perceptual Space: This type of space deals with how a person perceives or experiences space, which can differ significantly from the physical dimensions of that space. Perceptual space is influenced by factors such as light, color, texture, and materiality, which can make a space appear larger, smaller, more intimate, or more open than its physical measurements would suggest.

The 4 types of spaces in architecture

Directional Space: Directional space refers to how a building or environment directs movement and guides the flow of people through it. This can be achieved through architectural elements like corridors, doorways, paths, and signage. Directional spaces can be designed to lead occupants on a specific journey within the environment, emphasizing certain areas or experiences along the way.

The 4 types of spaces in architecture

Interwoven Space: Also known as interconnected or fluid space, interwoven space refers to areas that blend into one another without clear boundaries, allowing for multifunctional use and visual connectivity between different parts of a building or landscape. This type of space encourages interaction and a sense of community, often featuring open plans, large windows, and minimal barriers that allow for views and movement across different zones.

The 4 types of spaces in architecture

These types of areas are not mutually exclusive and often overlap in architectural design, each contributing to the overall experience and functionality of a building or environment.

Understanding these spatial concepts helps us as architects and designers to create places that are not only physically appealing but also emotionally resonant and functionally effective for their intended use.

A great example of all four of these can be seen in Zaha Hadid’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.

Design process

Space planning might start with what we usually call ‘bubble plan’. This is a schematic plan diagram by which the various functions that need to be accommodated are delineated.

Normally it’s a progressive iteration, from the general to the specific: first the bubbles are vague, and we’re only interested in their relationship to each other; then we move on to be concerned about each’s own size and shape. 

Once you’re comfortable enough with the layout, a floor plan with provisional walls, fixtures and furniture can be sketched.

This might be done manually with pencil and moveable paper cut-outs, or with computer aided design (CAD) software, depending on which suits you best for quick and flexible work. Square footage and dimensions begin to be more precise for each area.

This preliminary floor plan is the basis for a whole set of new decisions regarding the interior lighting and furnishing of spaces, the designation of floor materials and the location of windows and doors.

Usually, this is the time when you triangulate with sketches, render mock-ups and sections to evaluate how these design decisions would look. 

Key principles

The 5 key principles of space planning are:

  • When designing one part, don’t forget about the whole. Even though a kitchen might be perfectly functional for itself, if it’s next to a master bedroom, it might ruin the experience of using it. Think about the relationship between areas, how they are connected and what are the actual conflicting nuances derived from their use and the activities they are supposed to host.
  • Prioritize square footage efficiency. There’s no use in having a huge house if 50% of its floor plan is going to be labyrinthic corridors. Circulation must be clear and synthetic, giving the best possible moving experience. 
  • Sun, sun, sun. Both for lighting and for climate comfort, the position of each space regarding its opening to sunlight will have a huge impact on the end result. Whether it is for catching the cosy morning winter sun or for incorporating the best indirect illumination, orientation of rooms and proportions of windows play a very important role.
  • Always aim to have a margin. Sometimes you’ll be too tempted to make the most out of the surface you have, and this might lead to overcrowding the floor plan with a lot of little areas. When dealing with legislative restraints or conflicts with pre-existing conditions, it’s always better to have a square footage reserve that allows you to make the spaces you design more human and architecturally interesting. 
  • Have a clear list of the client’s requirements and priorities. Every time you move a piece, something will change in another part of the gameboard. It’s helpful to have the most important points noted down and at hand so you don’t have to juggle with them in your head while you design. 
How space planning can improve your design strategies

Key considerations and factors

As we’ve seen before, there is a series of design choices that space planning might trigger. These are comprised mainly of layout, material, lighting, and technical choices. Here we dive more deeply into the factors and questions that lead to make these kinds of decisions.

  • Function: Are two or more adjacent rooms functions compatible? Could they be merged? Is it the same function at different times of the day? How do private activities interact with social ones? Working with resting? Moving with staying?
  • Size: How many people does this room have to accommodate at the same time? What are the dimensions of the furniture that is going to be located there? Does the space comply with the minimums required by building legislation?
  • Site: What are the most interesting views? Is there any view that is best to avoid? Is it a calm or a busy street? How’s the topography of the site?
  • Light: How does the sun shine on each façade? Does this space need direct or indirect natural light? Is it better to have fixed artificial lighting or movable luminaires?
  • Economy: How many floors should this building have? Is it necessary to put an elevator? Is it better to build the entire house in one go or to plan a series of phases?
  • Existing circulation patterns: Are there any conflicting potential crossings? What are the paths that are already in use? What’s the best way to incorporate a new function without altering them?
  • Storage: Is the storage movable or built-in? Does it need access from specific places? Which kinds of things are going to be stored there? Do they have any special requirement?
  • Existing features: Is it interesting or necessary to conserve them? How should the new features interact with them? Is it possible to use them or enhance them in the new layout?
  • Accessibility: Is every area in the house accessible with a wheelchair? Would the dimensions of each room be suitable for it to turn around and move freely? Is there any double height or dangerous element that needs to be signaled by floor texture?

Concepts

You should approach space planning knowing that there are different types of spatial decisions you can take to enhance your own architectural concept. Here are some basic concepts derived from principles of design that might be helpful:

  • Spatial relationships: these are established when we ask how the relationship between one area and another is or could be. Spatial relationships could be comprised of a smaller space into a bigger one, two zones might be linked by a common third one, and areas might interlock or just be adjacent to each other.
  • Spatial organisations: these refer to the way elements are distributed in space. When trying to establish main focuses, it’s helpful to think if the way to do it is by a centralised, linear, radial, cluster or grid solution. To choose which arrangement is better, you have to think about how the space planning factors play a role in the decision. 
  • Circulation principles: as we said, circulation has to be efficient, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting or serve a bigger goal. Sometimes, fluidity is desired for a better spatial perception. Discreetness might also be another principle to have in mind, if the circulation needs more levels of privacy. 
Space planning concepts

Basic steps

Here are the basic steps to help get you started:

  1. Client Brief & Requirements Gathering:
    • Understand the client’s needs, wants, and the desired outcome.
    • Get a sense of the client’s aesthetic preferences and how they intend to use the building.
  2. Site Analysis:
    • Analyze the site where the building will be placed. This includes understanding the size, shape, topography, orientation, local climate, and any surrounding structures or landscapes.
    • Identify potential opportunities and constraints of the site.
  3. Functional Analysis & Programming:
    • Define the functions and activities that will take place within each area.
    • Determine the spatial requirements for each function, such as size, shape, and specific features needed.
  4. Relationship Diagramming (Bubble Diagrams):
    • Use simple diagrams to represent spaces and establish the desired relationships and adjacencies between them.
    • Prioritize connections based on flow and function, ensuring efficient circulation and access.
  5. Space Allocation:
    • Allocate specific sizes and shapes to each of the spaces defined in the bubble diagrams.
    • Consider structural, mechanical, and service requirements.
  6. Preliminary Floor Plans:
    • Translate the defined zones into more detailed sketches or floor plans.
    • Integrate circulation pathways (corridors, staircases, elevators) and ensure they are logical and efficient.
    • Ensure compliance with building codes and regulations.
  7. Refinement & Iteration:
    • Review the initial plans, test different design solutions, and refine them based on feedback from the client, stakeholders, or other members of the design team.
    • Ensure that spaces flow logically and comfortably from one to another.
  8. Integration with Architecture and Interiors:
    • Integrate this with the overall architectural design, including the building’s structure, facade, and systems.
    • Consider the interior design elements, such as furniture, fixtures, lighting, and materials, ensuring they harmonize with the spatial layout.
  9. Review for Building Codes and Regulations:
    • Ensure the design conforms to local building codes, accessibility standards, and any other applicable regulations.
    • Make adjustments as needed to ensure compliance.
  10. Finalize Plans and Documentation:
    • Prepare detailed drawings and specifications based on the refined space plan.
    • These documents will be used for construction, permitting, and other stages of the project.
  11. Implementation & Construction:
    • Oversee the implementation of the design during construction.
    • Address any unforeseen challenges or adjustments needed as the areas develop.
  12. Post-Occupancy Evaluation:
    • After the space is occupied, evaluate how well the design meets the original objectives.
    • Gather feedback from users to inform future projects.

Effective space planning takes into account not just the physical attributes of a space, but also the emotional and psychological needs of its users.

This ensures that areas are not only functional but also enhance the well-being and productivity of those who occupy them.

Improving your process…

Here are some of our favorite tips to focus on when you approaching your next design project:

Empathize with your client. Even if their demands sound crazy to you, you have to understand from where they come and which kind of problems they are trying to address with them.

It’s important to be in your client’s shoes, but also imagine yourself living in the space. Asking yourself questions about how you would live the space and the things that could be easier or more intuitive is definitely a good habit. 

See your restraints as engaging opportunities. Sometimes, what makes spatial design interesting is not the absolute freedom given to the designers, but their ability to orchestrate a set of very different and complex conditions into a good and beautiful solution.

After the main function of an element has been fulfilled, always check if there’s a possibility for it to comply with more. Flexibility and multifunctionality are assets architects have the skill to easily bring to the table.

Even if the interior design is not required in the project, think of possible ways in which your designed spaces are going to be perceived and occupied. Foresee patterns and act upon your predictions.

Spatial perception in perspective should also be accounted for when thinking about the overall layout. Imagine possible room sequences for spaces to look bigger, prioritize visual connections and outdoor views.

Envisage privacy regulating elements in all scales and materials. Screens, half walls, curtains and glass doors can block certain views while enriching the experience of the space, both inside and outside.

Large spaces can be sectioned into design areas even if they are note physically separated. Different layouts of furniture, lighting and decoration might help to enrich the space with several layers.

Always think of leaving walking space and storage places for objects and habits of everyday life. Whenever you enter a house, you usually expect to have clear access to the living room and a spot to leave your keys, shoes, coat and umbrella. Even a banal activity such as hanging your laundry should account for a design decision.

Use design principles as much as possible. Spaces might end up being overcrowded or too empty if you don’t pay enough attention. Emphasis, balance, contrast, repetition, proportion, and movement are ways to avoid that.

To sum up…

As you can see, space planning is comprised essentially of a lot of questions.

From the general to the specific, from the rarest to the most quotidian, the process is always to question, question, and question. In this article, we have seen several tools and ways in which you might respond to them. 

So go grab that pencil and start answering!

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