Inside Out

AIA Design Theory- September 2009

Beauty in building is born out of restriction. It is the restraints of building materials, site location, client personality, spatial needs, and budget that prompt a building design to blossom into an elegant solution and a refined object. It is for this reason that a building that is both functional and beautiful must be designed from the inside out, from a thorough understanding of the confines of its specific situation. When a building is designed this way, its exterior and interior will be one of harmony projecting confidence in its attributes.

FInal-johnson_wQ: How do you approach design from inside out?
A: An architect must recognize building design as a sort of word problem. Since requests for designs rarely come neatly packaged, a designer must take the time to dig deep into all the variables that will influence the design. What is the personality and taste of the client? Do they like to keep it simple or do they prefer to put on a show? Is the budget ample or is it going to be a stretch? Does the site offer up answers to the geometry and posture of the building? Prior to designing a home, I recently pitched a tent on the site and spent a full day trying to absorb the issues that would be important when placing the building. The result was the ability to take advantage of subtle views and the careful orchestration of approach by car that I would not have noticed by a quick walk on the site. The problems of highest priority are usually best studied in floor plan; from this, a building’s massing and flow can begin to take shape. As a result of this study, window and door locations can then be found as they relate to the context of the site. The character of the skin will then inform the design based on the properties of the materials used.

Q: What are some examples of the so-called “restrictions” That become apparent as you are designing?
A: For example, the client wants no fossil fuels used, the site is unlike any other that I have worked on, and the city ordinance restrictions have impacted the design in a new way. These “restrictions” are actually all good things. It becomes obvious that certain issues already have time-honored solutions; for example, the weather in Maine is a messy business, so mudrooms are popular, two-story designs are efficient, and it is natural to put the least active rooms on the second floor. If I have endeavored to be true to the process, a building takes shape that is the synthesis of old and new and a unique answer to the problem. Most often it is different in appearance than what either my clients or I had imagined since I approached it, not from a “How-do-you-want-this-to-look?” perspective, but from a “What-is-the-natural-answer-to-the-question?” perspective.

Q: What are the benefits of a building designed in this way ?
A: This concept of designing from the inside of a problem to the outside, more famously stated as “form follows function,” ensures that a building will feel authentic because it will have grown out of the truth of its parameters. More importantly, it will ensure that the building conforms to the practicalities that initiated its construction. A building designed in this way has the opportunity to soak up the personality of its owners, the natural use of its materials, and the beauty of its site. These restrictions will turn into inspiration and result in a unique patina that will give the building timeless value.



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