History teaches us many things, and it can carry valuable lessons on how to move forward in life. In architecture, when we are faced with a project, one of the first places we can look is the past – to see what worked, what didn’t, and what we can improve for our own projects.
This process comes in the form of architecture case studies, and every project can benefit from this research.
Here we take you through the purpose, process, and pointers for conducting effective case studies in architecture.
What is a case study
A case study (also known as a precedent study) is a means of finding relevant information about a project by examining another project with similar attributes. Case studies use real-world context to analyze, form, support, and convey different ideas and approaches in design.
Simply put, architectural case studies are when you use existing buildings as references for new ones.
Architects can conduct case studies at nearly every stage of a project, adapting and relating applicable details to refine and communicate their own projects. Students can use case studies to strengthen their research and make a more compelling case for their concepts.
Regardless of the size or scale of a project, case studies can positively impact a design in a multitude of ways.
How do you select a case study?
There are more than a hundred million buildings in the world, and your project could have similarities with thousands of other projects. On the other hand, you could also have a hard time finding buildings that match your specific project requirements.
Focusing your search parameters can help you find helpful references quickly and accurately.
The architectural program includes the spatial organization, user activity, and general functions of a building. Case studies with comparable programs can give you an idea of the spaces and circulation required for a similar project. From this, you can form a design brief catering to the unique requirements of the client or study.
Scale can be a strong common denominator among projects as it can be used to compare buildings of the same size, with a similar number of occupants or volume of visitors. Scale also ensures that the study project has an equivalent impact on the city or its surroundings.
Spaces and designs vary greatly between standalone structures and large-scale complexes, so finding case studies that emulate your project’s scale can give you more relevant and applicable information.
Project type is crucial for comparing spaces one to one. Common types include residential, commercial, office, educational, institutional, or industrial buildings. Each type can also have sub-categories such as single-family homes, mass housing, or urban condominiums.
Case studies with the same project type can help you compare occupant behavior, building management, and specific facilities that relate to your design.
Some case studies can lead you to specific architects with specialty portfolios in certain sectors such as museums, theaters, airports, or hospitals. Their expertise results in a body of work ideal for research and comparison, especially with complex public or transportation buildings.
You may also look into a specific architect if their projects embody the style and design sensibilities that you wish to explore. Many renowned architecture firms have set themselves apart with unique design philosophies and new approaches to planning.
Finding core theories to build on can help steer your project in the right direction.
If possible, you’ll want to find case studies in the same region or setting as your project. Geographically, buildings can have significantly different approaches to planning and design based on the environment, demographic, and local culture of the area. There are also many building codes and regulations that may vary across cities and states.
Even when case studies are not from the same locality, it’s important to still have a relevant site context for your project. A tropical beach resort, for example, can take inspiration from tropical beaches across the world.
Likewise, a ski lodge project would require a look into different snowy mountains from different countries.
How are they used?
Whether it’s for academic, professional, or even personal use, case studies can offer plenty of insight for your projects and a look into different approaches and methods you may not have otherwise considered. Here are some of the most common uses for architectural case studies.
Case studies are most commonly used for research, to analyze the past, present, and future of the project typology. Through case studies you can see the evolution of a building type, the different ways problems were solved, and the considerations factored into each design.
In practice, this could be as simple as saying, “Let’s see how they did it.” It’s about learning as much as we can from completed projects and the world around us.
When designing from scratch, it’s common to have a few blank moments here and there. Maybe you’re struggling to develop a unified design, or are simply unsure of how to proceed with a project. Senior architects or academic instructors will often suggest seeking inspiration from existing buildings – those that we can explore and experience.
Throughout history, architecture is shown to have evolved over centuries of development, each era taking inspiration from the last while integrating forms and technologies unique to the time. Case studies are very much a part of this process, giving us a glimpse into different styles, building systems, and forms.
A study project could serve as your entire design peg, or it could add ideas far beyond the facade. The important thing about using a case study for inspiration is beginning with a basis, instead of venturing off into the great unknown. After that, it’s all up to the designers to integrate what they see fit.
As Bruce Lee once said, “absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own.”
Case studies help architects make well-informed decisions about planning and design, from the simplest to the most complex ideas. A single finished project is often enough to show proof of concept, and showing completed examples can go a long way in getting stakeholders on board with an idea.
When clients or jurors show skepticism or confusion about an idea, case studies can help you navigate through the hesitation to win approval for your project. Similarly, as a student, case studies can bolster your presentation to help defend your design decisions.
Unless your clients are architecture enthusiasts themselves, you’re likely going to know a lot more about buildings than them. Because of this, certain ideas aren’t going to resonate with the audience immediately, and you may need additional examples or references to make a convincing presentation.
Case studies help to make connections to existing projects. Beyond the typical sales talk and flowery words, case studies represent actual projects with quantifiable results.
With a study project, for example, you can say “this retail design strategy has been shown to increase rentable space by 15% in these two projects”, or “this facade system used in X project has reduced the need for artificial cooling by 40%, and we think it would be a great fit for what we’re trying to achieve here”.
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What to look for during your research
Each case study should have a specific purpose for your project, be it a useful comparison or a key contribution to your ideas. Sometimes a case study could look drastically different from your project, but it can be used to communicate a wide variety of features and facets that aren’t immediately visible to the eye.
Here are a few things to look out for when doing your research.
If you’re looking to build a museum, the first kinds of buildings to look out for are other museums from around the world. A building with the same typology as yours is almost guaranteed to have similar aspects and approaches. You’ll also be able to see how the building works with its surroundings.
In the case of a museum, you’ll see if the study projects stand out monumentally, or blend in seamlessly, and from there you can decide which is more applicable for your design.
Function is another important aspect that will inform your research.
If for example, you’re comparing two museums, but one is a museum of modern art and the other is a museum of military equipment, they’re going to have vastly different spaces and functions. Similarly, schools can take inspiration from thousands of other schools, but an elementary school’s functions are going to vary greatly from a college campus.
Finding case projects that function more or less the same way as yours will give you more relevant information about the design.
There are also study projects that work well together despite having slightly different functions, such as theaters and concert halls, or bus stations and train stations. These projects, though not exactly the same, still share plenty of similarities in spatial and traffic requirements to be used as effective case studies.
If you’re exploring a certain style, you can find projects with a design close to what you’re trying to achieve.
However the forms don’t necessarily need to look the same.
For example, if you’re planning a museum with a continuous experience from one exhibit to another, you might use the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as a case study – being one of the earliest and best examples of such style with its round, gently ramped design. But your design doesn’t need to resemble the Frank Lloyd Wright landmark.
The main purpose for finding similar styles is to see how it’s been executed with comparable planning considerations, and to see the effect the style has on a particular project type.
Whether your project is relatively small or large, it’s good to consider how projects of the same scale fare when built. Even if a building has nearly identical features and functions as your project, if it operates on a completely different scale the same principles may be far less effective on your site.
Site conditions can hugely influence the architectural design of a project, especially when working with extreme slopes or remote locations. You’ll often want to study projects that are in a similar part of the world geographically, with comparable site conditions and nearly identical settings.
Check if your site is in a rural or urban area, if it has generally flat or rolling terrain, and if the lot is a particular shape or length.
Similar to the site itself, environmental considerations will have a large impact on the way case study buildings are designed.
It’s important to know the climate, weather, and scenery of study projects to fully understand the challenges and opportunities that their designers worked with. Buildings in tropical, humid environments use very different materials and elements than those in arid or icy environments.
Circulation is a crucial aspect of projects as it directly affects how a building is experienced.
With case studies you’ll need to look out for the flow of people, the ingress and egress areas, and how people and vehicles pass through and around the building. Circulation will determine how the design interacts with the users and the general public.
Though often overlooked, accessibility is becoming increasingly more important, especially for large-scale projects in dense cities. This involves how people move from the rest of the city to the site. It includes traffic management, road networks, public transportation, and universal design for the disabled.
If the target users can’t get to your building, the project can’t be used as intended. When doing case studies, it’s important to consider what measures were taken to ensure the sites were made open and accessible.
Landscape architecture encompasses far more than vegetation and trees. Each project has a unique way of approaching its landscape to address specific goals and tendencies on site.
How does the building integrate itself with the site and surroundings? How are softscapes and hardscapes introduced to create a desirable atmosphere, direct movement, facilitate activity, and promote social interaction?
Government buildings, for example, are often accompanied by wide lawns and open fields. This conveys a sense of openness, transparency, and public presence. It also frames the buildings as significant, monumental structures standing strong in an open area. These are the subtle aspects that can shape your building’s overall perception.
Construction methods and structural systems are vital for making our buildings stand safe and sound. Some systems are more applicable in tall buildings, while others are more suited for low-rise structures, but it can be interesting to see the different techniques used throughout your case studies.
You can explore systems like cantilevered beams, diagrid steel, thin shell construction, or perhaps something new entirely.
If you’re thinking of using certain materials like stone or wood, and you’re curious to see how it was executed elsewhere, case studies can offer some great examples of materiality and the different ways a single material can be used.
The Innovation Center of UC by Alejandro Aravena is a good illustration of how a particular finish – in this case raw concrete – can be used in an unusual way to the benefit of the overall design.
Building services are one of the many aspects that make architecture a science. Understanding how a building handles things like energy, ventilation, vertical transportation, and water distribution can help you see beneath the surface to get a better idea of how the building works.
Although there are common practices, buildings can deal with services and utilities very differently. A prime example of this is the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which famously turned the building inside out to expose its services on the facade while opening up the interior space for uninterrupted volumes of light and movement.
This style became known as bowellism, and it was largely popularized by the late Richard Rogers.
Some building types are much more demanding when it comes to building services. Airports, for example, have to deal with the flow of luggage, heightened security, and all the boarding and maintenance requirements of the airplanes themselves.
The final thing to analyze while doing your case studies is the building program. This is how the composition of spaces works in relation to the building requirements. It’s helpful to see what makes the building look good, feel good, and function well.
If your study project is accompanied by a program diagram, it can be an excellent way to see how the architects were thinking.
For instance, OMA’s big and bold diagrams show how their designs are organized in a simple and logical manner. It’s become a signature and memorable part of their work, and it communicates the program in a way that everyone can understand.
A building’s arrangement of spaces can often make or break a design. It can be simple and easy to navigate, or complex and intriguing to explore. It can also be confusing or at times, troublesome to get around. Spaces can feel spacious, cozy, or cramped, and each space can evoke a different emotion whether deliberate or unintentional.
The building program is a fundamental aspect that must be considered when conducting case studies.
How do you write and present an architectural case study?
Select the most applicable projects
There are often hundreds of potential case studies out there, and you can certainly learn from as many projects as you want, but sticking with the most relevant projects can keep your study clear and concise. Depending on the focus of your research, limit your case studies to those most suitable for communicating your ideas.
Stay on topic
It can be tempting to write entire reports about certain buildings – especially if you find them particularly interesting, but it’s important to remember you’re only mentioning these projects to help develop yours. Keep your case study on topic and in a consistent direction to keep the audience engaged.
Use graphics to illustrate key concepts throughout your projects. Even before preparing refined, colorful graphics, you can sketch visual representations as an alternative to notes for your own personal reference.
In addition to making diagrams, you can present multiple examples of similar or dissimilar concepts to compare and contrast the core ideas of different designs. Offering more than one example helps people grasp the ideas that make a building unique.
If the visual speaks for itself, your verbal explanation will only need to describe the essence of it all. When presenting, your speaking time is valuable and it’s best to prepare your slides for maximum engagement so that you don’t lose your audience along the way.
If you carefully select and prepare your visuals, you can optimize your presentation for attention, emotion, and specific responses from the target audience.
Create a narrative
Creating a narrative is a way of tying the whole study together. By using a sequence of visuals and verbal cues, you can take the audience through a journey of the story that you’re trying to tell. Instead of showing each case study differently and independently, you can uniformly relate each project back to the common themes, or back to your project’s design.
This helps to make the relevance of each project crystal clear.
What if your project is unique?
If you’re struggling to find relevant case studies for your project, it could be a good sign that you’ve created a typology that hasn’t been done before – a first of its kind. New building types are important for shaping society and expanding the boundaries of architecture.
Innovative buildings can make people’s lives better.
As far as case studies go, you’ll likely need to gather a handful of reference projects that collectively represent the idea for your project. You can also present a progression, explaining how current and past typologies have evolved into your proposed building type. New-era architecture requires creativity, not only in the ideas but also in the research.
Case studies show us – and our clients – the many great success stories and mistakes of the past, to learn from and improve on as we move into the future. They serve an essential role in guiding our decisions as we design the buildings of tomorrow.
From school, to practice, and everything in between, case studies can be made as the foundation on which we build upon.
For a deeper dive into how case and precedent studies can build upon and influence your conceptual design approaches, we cover this and other key determining factors in our resource The Concept Kit below:
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