Precedent Study Guide

Precedent Study Guide

October 2019

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What is a 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 '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 starting points from one singular precedent.

How are precedent studies used?

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


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.


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 project, from how a building for example 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.


How to find precedents

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 singular precedents that cover everything is highly unlikely, 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

What to look for…

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 opening

  • Entrances

  • Interior finishes

  • External finishes

  • Furniture

  • External finishes

  • Landscape

  • Planting

How to assess and analysis your precedent studies

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

Below are a few key areas to look at:

Materiality - look at examples of how the 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?

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 cills are formed etc. This can be investigated on both a macro and micro level.

Structure - Structural strategies for 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.

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?

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 go once inside?

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?

Concept development - A precedent study can often lead to and influence concept development. Study the fundamentals of how your precedents where 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?

Proportions - Architecture is built upon proportion and often a buildings success is dependant 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.

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.


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 easier 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 organised, visit our page here, and for guide on how to use it, click here.

Thats 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 favourite 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, dont throw old precedents away …add them to your library for when you next need them.

Useful resources

  • Pinterest

  • Literature

  • Blogs

  • Exhibitions

  • Journals

Related guides

The best all round architecture books

Architectural design & concepts books

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