Architecture Precedent Study Guide

Architecture is not just about designing buildings; it’s about creating spaces that work well and look great. One way architects do this is by learning from the buildings that came before. In this article, we’ll explore how architects study old buildings, why it’s important, and how it helps make better designs.

Think of it as learning from the past to make the future better. We’ll see what these studies are, why they matter, and how architects do them. We’ll also look at some examples and the challenges that can come up. Plus, we’ll share where architects can find information to do these studies well.

So, let’s jump into the world of architectural precedent studies to discover why they’re a big deal in the world of architecture.

What is an architecture precedent study?

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary a ‘precedent‘ can be defined as “something done or said that may serve as an example or rule to authorize or justify a subsequent act of the same or an analogous kind”, and a ‘study’ as “a state of contemplation

So when defining the term and meaning of a ‘precedent study’, it can be classed as the sourcing and contemplation, of related and relative, past and present influences, that aim to serve and provide inspiration and help with the justification of an idea.

These examples often come in the form of visual aides, and form vital parts of a projects foundation and overall concept, with many projects finding their initial starting points from one singular precedent.

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What is the difference between a case study and a precedent study?

Case studies and precedent studies are related but have distinct purposes and focuses within the fields they are commonly used.

Case Study:

  1. General Overview: A case study is a detailed examination and analysis of a specific project, event, situation, or instance. It can be applied to various disciplines, including business, medicine, law, and architecture.
  2. Focus: Case studies typically center around a single, unique occurrence or project. They aim to provide an in-depth understanding of the particular subject under investigation.
  3. Purpose: The primary purpose of a case study is to gain insight, gather information, and draw lessons from a specific instance. It often involves a detailed narrative, describing what happened, why it happened, and the outcomes.
  4. Application: Case studies are used to examine real-world scenarios and provide a comprehensive examination of various factors, including context, processes, and results.
  5. Examples: In architecture, a case study might focus on a particular building, discussing its design, construction process, challenges faced, and its impact on the surrounding environment.

Precedent Study:

  1. General Overview: A precedent study is a research and learning method commonly used in architecture and design. It involves the investigation of existing buildings, designs, or projects that share similarities with the one being planned.
  2. Focus: Precedent studies concentrate on studying existing examples that are relevant or analogous to the design problem at hand. The emphasis is on extracting design principles, concepts, and ideas from these precedents.
  3. Purpose: The primary purpose of a precedent study is to inform and inspire the design process by examining successful or innovative solutions in similar contexts. It provides a source of reference and a foundation for creative problem-solving.
  4. Application: Precedent studies help architects and designers understand how others have addressed similar challenges, integrated design elements, and achieved desired outcomes. They guide the design process by offering valuable insights and ideas.
  5. Examples: In architecture, a precedent study might involve researching and analyzing buildings with similar functions, climate conditions, or cultural contexts to inform the design of a new project. It focuses on design strategies, materials, and spatial arrangements rather than documenting a specific project’s history.

In summary, while both case studies and precedent studies involve in-depth examinations, case studies typically delve into a single, specific occurrence or project, aiming to understand it comprehensively. Precedent studies, on the other hand, focus on extracting design inspiration and lessons from existing examples to inform the creative process in architecture and design.

How are precedent studies used when designing buildings?

Precedent studies (similar to case studies) form the backbone of a projects creation and remain just as relevant at its inception as they do during its construction, aiding with:

Inspiration – From seeking initial design inspiration, through to sourcing the right material finishes, precedent studies provide an excellent resource and visual library of thought provoking media.

Design concept generation – Studying past and present examples of work in and around the arts and architecture, helps to develop an understanding of the thought process that lead to a projects creation and its underlining driving force, ’the design concept’.

Sometimes directly, but most likely indirectly, this will inspire and open up alternative lines of thinking towards your own concept development, adding depth and justification to your design process.

Justification – No matter what stage you are in your learning, or what level of creative thinker you, we all need justification that our ideas and approaches will ultimately work and be successful.

This is particularly important for architecture, where not only must it be physically possible to build, it in most instances must also outlast its creators.

Finding examples of similar design and construction approaches, provides us as designers with a degree of confidence in knowing that we are pursuing the right direction.

Explanation and Communication – Precedent studies can be used to explain and communicate the vision of a project, for example from how a building might house its occupants, through to material choices and its finished appearance.

Peers, tutors, and clients have confidence in what they can understand, and if you can provide examples of what already exists, then it becomes far more difficult to misinterpret the designers vision.

Architecture Precedent Study

How to find precedent studies

As listed below in the resources section, there are a few key places to find good precedents, however ultimately its just research, and relevant precedents can and will come from anywhere, and will always be bespoke to a particular project. They are rarely carried over from one to another.

For architecture in particular, you should focus on breaking the project and brief down into segments and create sub categories for your research. This way each category will influence the next and help to form an overall vision.

Trying to find a singular precedent to cover everything is extremely difficult, and will only lead to frustration.

These categories may include:

  • Building use
  • Building occupants
  • Type of site
  • Building location
  • Building plan
  • Building elevation
  • Building section
  • Building typography
  • Building type
  • Building size
  • Materials
  • Sustainable strategies
  • Construction strategies

Choosing an appropriate precedent study is important, as it allows you to derive relevant lessons and insights for your current project or situation. Here are some steps to consider when choosing a precedent study:

  1. Identify Your Purpose: Understand why you need a precedent study. Are you trying to learn new techniques, understand the possible outcomes of a decision, or get inspired by past work? The answer to this question can help guide your selection process.
  2. Criteria: Determine the criteria that your precedent study should meet. These criteria might be related to your project’s context (e.g., geographical, cultural, social), the scale (e.g., size, complexity), the specific issue or problem you’re focusing on, or the type of solution you’re seeking.
  3. Search for Potential Precedents: Begin a systematic search for potential precedents. This might involve looking at academic articles, case law, architectural journals, design portfolios, historical records, or other resources depending on your field.
  4. Review and Select: Review the potential precedents you’ve found and assess them based on your criteria. Choose the precedent study or studies that best meet your needs.
  5. Justification: Be prepared to justify your choice. Whether you’re presenting your work to a supervisor, a client, or a review board, you might need to explain why you chose a particular precedent and how it’s relevant to your project.

Remember, the goal of a precedent study is to learn from the past. A good precedent is not necessarily a perfect match, but one that provides valuable lessons or insights that can inform your current project or decision-making process.

What to look for in a precedent study

Similar to the above you should aim to collect pieces of the bigger picture, which for example can include:

  • Representation and presentation styles and techniques
  • Architectural model styles and finishes
  • Architectural diagrams
  • Form and massing
  • How a building interacts with light and shadow
  • Window openings
  • Entrances
  • Interior finishes
  • External finishes
  • Furniture
  • External finishes
  • Landscape
  • Planting

Analyze your architectural precedents

The direction in which you analyze your precedent studies will be dependent on the nature of the precedent study itself, for example is it addressing the overall design concept, or is it a particular study into how access and circulation can be instigated and designed?

Below are a few key areas to look at:

01 Materiality – look at examples of how a building finishes work with one and another and their surrounding context, what influenced the architects decisions, how do different materials meet and interact with each other, how are junctions detailed?

02 Details – Materiality merges with and plays a large role in how a building is detailed, but aside from this you can use your precedents to influence how connections between structures and the site are made.

Look at how openings are formed, and how wall, floor and roof junctions meet each other, how a staircase connects two floors, and how it interacts with them, and how window sills are formed etc. This can be investigated on both a macro and micro level.

Architecture Precedent Study

03 Structure – Structural strategies form the foundation (literally) of a buildings design, and so study how your precedents are supported and span over their open plan spaces, how columns and beams are sized, and is the structure exposed or hidden.

04 Scale and volume – Put simply a building must fit, and so a scale and volume precedent study would look at how buildings and sites of a similar size to your proposal interact with their surrounding environment. Are they successful, are they overbearing and if so why, and how could you avoid this? If they work well, then how do they achieve this? what can you learn?

05 Access and circulation – There are many ways to address access and so study the variations of how buildings attract their inhabitants, how do people know where the entrance is? and how do they know where to go once inside?

06 Light shadow – light and shadow play an extremely important role in how a building is experienced, and so look at how each of these are addressed; how has the architect brought light into the building? How are elements accentuated? and what does this feel like?

07 Concept development – A precedent study can often lead to and influence concept development. Study the fundamentals of how your precedents were formed and where they started, how were the volumes and spaces created, what influenced design decisions, and what was the driving force behind the project?

08 Proportions – Architecture is built upon proportion and often a buildings success is dependent on it. So study how volumes and forms interact and sit next to each other, how large and small openings sit within an elevation, how floor levels influence a buildings height and the proportions of its openings, how different materials break up massing.

09 Atmosphere – It can be particularly difficult to communicate atmosphere and emotion through a sketch or 3D model, and so using examples to demonstrate this becomes crucial.

…These are of course just a few examples of how this can be approached, and in reality each study is bespoke to a particular project and brief, and so should be tailored accordingly.

The below video further breaks down how analyze architectural precedents by examining a collection of Maggie’s centers in the UK:

Create your own precedent library

Collecting information and inspiration, has never been easier, gone are the days of scanning magazine and journal pages and collecting a vast quantities of back issues. Particularly with Pinterest, it has never been more simple to collect and build your own private libraries of resources and precedents.

In fact there is not a tool more perfect for it than the platform Pinterest provides; from multiple board and category creation, through to shared boards and group conversations, for architecture in particular Pinterest provides an extremely vast resource.

For an example of how this can be organized, visit our page here, and for guide on how to use it, click here.

That’s not to say however that this is the only method of building your own library, literature still sits firmly at the top of the list, and a private collection of books featuring your favorite architects and architecture, is an invaluable resource to have, that should be slowly built over time.

The underlying message here is to collect and keep everything, don’t throw old precedents away …add them to your library for when you next need them.

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