A Quality of Homecoming

Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Cara Slifka

Rick Renner’s take on humanistic architecture


Good buildings are designed to be functional, sustainable, beautiful. The best buildings are those also designed with the emotional needs of the people who inhabit them in mind.Rick Renner and his firm, Richard Renner Architects, practice a humanistic approach to architecture; regardless of building type, people and their functional and emotional needs are the focus of their efforts. Renner says design should seek to create a welcoming and supportive framework for people and their activities, as well as a positive reciprocal relationship with the landscape and adjacent built context. We asked him to tell us more.

Q: What are the characteristics of humanistic design?

A: In the words of Aldo van Eyck, a good building should have a quality of “homecoming,” so our goal is to design buildings that welcome and support those who use them. Designs that clearly express the functional characteristics of their purpose; that provide logical and welcoming paths for approach, entry, and circulation; that express with appropriate scale and clarity the means of construction; and that use resources responsibly and harness natural forces are better places for people. So, too, are buildings that are grounded in the particular characteristics, opportunities, and constraints of their location and context. They work with the land instead of against it. They fit into their sites instead of looking like they have “landed.” They create a range of opportunities for occupants to engage with their surroundings.


Q:How do you design for all of those needs simultaneously without compromise? 

A: It may seem that designing in harmony with humans, the landscape, and the need for sustainability would compromise a designer’s creativity, that attention to the details of environmental responsibility are incompatible with creating aesthetically interesting buildings. But it is worth noting that not having to think about these issues is a recent luxury, made possible by the availability of cheap energy. For most of recorded history, the designers and constructors of buildings have had to pay serious attention to climate, energy, and resources. In fact, the charm and attraction of many of the places that we spend time, money, and energy to visit derive from their response to local climate, resources, and landscape conditions.

Vitruvius stated that good buildings possess three important qualities: Commodity (functional appropriateness), Firmness (strength and durability), and Delight (aesthetic quality). In the face of climate change and environmental degradation, we have the responsibility of expanding the scope of these categories, and doing this can be an opportunity instead of a burden. So, I am suggesting that “Commodity” should now include meeting functional needs with a rigorous economy of space. At the same time, it should also include the recognition that building use almost always changes over time, and buildings should be designed to facilitate such change.

“Firmness” should be expanded beyond strength and durability (which, itself, needs renewed attention) to include reduced vulnerability to unpredictable and expensive energy sources and to making the structure more robust in the face of a wider range of potentially destructive forces. It also means that buildings can increase, instead of compromising, the security, stability, and livability of their natural and/or built contexts.

And “Delight” should recognize that a high level of aesthetic interest and quality can derive from a building’s expression and celebration of the imperatives of efficiency and environmental responsibility. For example, if walls must be thicker to increase insulation levels, windows can have deeper sills, flared sides, and therefore, more character. Techniques for gathering daylight and controlling solar gain can add distinct and interesting architectural interest to buildings. Window patterns can, and should, respond to the different environmental conditions (daylighting, shading, heat loss and gain, etc.) of each side of the building (which means that environmentally responsible designs should not look the same on all sides).


Q: How do we meet the challenge of climate change and approach sustainability in design?


A: Our designs must respond to the specifics of climate, microclimate, and context. We see this as an opportunity to develop buildings that are profoundly and positively affected by the constraints and opportunities of their location and, therefore, define strong regional and place-appropriate design vocabularies. An architecture that effectively addresses the challenge of climate change will embody, express, and enhance patterns of place and life.   

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