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Design Process of an Architect | Concept to Construction | EP2

In this episode, we talk about the design process.

On this podcast we cover ‘the design process for architects’. What is the design process? How does it vary for individuals and what are the different stages?

Podcast write-up

Table of Contents

Introduction 0:00

On this podcast we’ll be covering the design process for architects. What is the design process? How does it vary for individuals and what are the different stages? Jack & Adam will begin to break it down.

How do we define the design process 0:12
The RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] defines it via the RIBA Plan of Work 2020, describing what the RIBA work stages are and what each stage should encompass. However, it is treated more as a framework, and different people have different styles/techniques attributed to each stage.

Stage 2 is the most tangible of the earlier stages and where most of the work begins at the pre-planning process. At Studio RBA the preferred technique is to ‘front end’ the planning process to obtain as much feedback as possible ahead of stage 3 planning submission. Here we share our thoughts on stage 5 construction and stage 6 handover too.

The design process varies from individual to individual. Jack & Adam have totally different approaches to starting a project. Adam starts by getting as much down ‘on paper’ at the earliest opportunity, creating plans and massing studies to see it in 3D as soon as possible, whereas Jack does a lot of architectural thinking and research before he puts pen to paper.

Importantly, both start by researching precedents of existing buildings and thought is given to what the building should look like in the first instance, before a line is drawn. The brief dictates the first step at this stage.

The brief is the very first step in the design process. There can be differences in how a brief is established when studying architecture at university vs in practice, but every project starts with a brief!

Architects use a brief in different ways. Some architects go outside of the brief whilst others adhere to an architectural brief closely and allow it to evolve. Adam likes to create a list of how the brief can be achieved in the first instance and then discusses opportunities beyond it as he moves forward.

The initial brief can vary substantially from client to client in terms of detail, Jack prefers a slightly hybrid approach as a massive document can often create a less flexible approach.

Identifying constraints & opportunities 6:33

From the brief you will then move on to identify site constraints and try to ascertain what the client wants via a feasibility study. Site analysis and in-depth analysis of the local context then plays a key role.

You’re looking to identify if there an existing language evident and what kind of scale and massing is evident in the existing context. This will continue to inform your feasibility and should lead to the start of a proposed design/shape on the site.

The analysis will allow you to quantify or challenge the brief. For example, if the client wants a housing scheme on industrial allocated land, we would make them aware of this, which could potentially inform a change in brief. It is our job as architect to make the client aware at the earliest opportunity.

When do projects go from massing to choosing a brick and become detailed? That varies from individual to individual with Adam considering the detail very early whereas Jack stays at a very high level initially.

The site is the most important factor. You can’t design in isolation, and it is very important to visit site as early as possible, covid has made it acceptable to design remotely to start, but the chronology of the design process makes it very important to visit the site as early as possible as this will often inform your earliest design considerations.

Adam starts to think about a material palette at the point in which he has picked a palette. Your site analysis would also inform the palette. If for example the surrounding context is portland stone, this sets a very clear language so to then propose brick would need serious justification.

When is the right time to include consultants 15:05
When is the right time to bring design consultants on board? Jack advises he would probably answer that question differently now, with the more experience he has gained. Coming straight out of university he wanted consultants on board as early as possible but now with experience he knows to broadly lay out a road, service voids, fire escape distances etc so he tends to hold off until he has the broad design started and gets the consultants to reaffirm his decisions leading to tweaks rather than wholesale design changes.

Adam thinks that getting consultants on board too early can sometimes be a problem, as it can be overwhelming to have everyone’s information at an early stage. For example, moving one wall can then alter 50 other drawings, as opposed to just the one you’re working on and that can tie your hands a little bit. However, that is his opinion based on some of his own experiences and is not necessarily the strategy implemented industry wide. Ultimately it is important to get consultants working to the vision rather than the other way around.

Adam likes to check in with the client weekly as opposed to daily which strikes a good balance of productivity and conveying information. We tend to do a Friday progress issue in line with this. Weekly check ins keep the client engaged and excited, which is always important.

It’s important to note that the planning process varies between local authorities, and it is strongly recommended to get a planning consultant integrated into the design team as early as possible. Planning consultants are in effect the ‘opposite number’ of the local authority town planner and can always navigate policy more sensibly than architects.

Sometimes you can use a planning response to your advantage to help get your client on board with the design, using it to justify certain design decisions. Overall, whatever the planner’s response, it will shape the development of your project.

Townscape and visual impact are usually the predominant argument in the early stages of the planning process. ‘How tall’ is always the first question, height is the most disputed element in large scale residential developments.

It is at pre-planning where the principles of ‘building height’ are usually established. This is an integral part of the planning process and should be recommended to clients to ‘front end’ the design process, with a view to getting as much feedback as possible, as early as possible, while there is not as much riding on financial arrangements etc. The pre-planning process has become a lot more involved in the last 10 years and has become an integral part of the planning process – always recommend a pre-app!

At pre-planning the local authority feeds back with informal comments, which gives you a sense of their appetite to your design, in line with planning policy.

How to deal with design comments 24:40

The pre-planning process is normally split into a series of meetings and on major applications the process is split into a series of workshops which in effect allows the architect and local authority to work together.

Consultants can help to navigate any disagreements in the process by underpinning the design in terms of policy and logic in terms of townscape, heritage, highways etc. You deal with a negative response by either;

  • Doing exactly what the planners request or;
  • Challenge the comments by grounding your initial approach/response in policy and logic.
  • Never take negative feedback personally and try not to become annoyed. It is about all sides working together to find a positive outcome.

You can sometimes feel friction if you don’t have a planning consultant on board, as responses can be blunt and ground in policy. Planning consultants speak the same language as their opposite number in the council and usually have a pre-existing relationship, which helps set a smoother tone for discussions.

Where to look for precedents 35:40

Precedents are vitally important in the design process. Jack believes precedent selection is key, in university you will pick precedents with very little thought or consideration but in reality they are a powerful tool to convey ideas and justification of a design.

It is extremely rare that you would be designing a building style for the first time so it is key to underpin different parts of your building in corresponding precedents. Early precedent choice acts like a mood board breaking down the aesthetic of the building into its component parts. For example, you may use a certain window type as precedent, a type of brick detailing, brick choice and reveal depth etc. to inform your initial design thinking. You would never realistically copy a building, as no two sites are ever exactly alike in their constraints.

The powerful thing with precedents is that they convince people that what you’re doing is actually achievable in real life built form, which is something that drawings and CGIs can overlook.

It is important to articulate the reasons why you have chosen certain precedents, it is key to apply critical analysis to your precent choices via your design and access statement or respective design reports.

Good sources of inspiration for precedents are publications such as Dezeen and Archdaily for example. We tend to stay away from Pinterest as the offering is very repetitive with regard to the precedents available.

A key source for our inspiration is from other architectural practices and over time we have come up with a list of preferred architects where we go to for inspiration. By looking locally and then nationally, you can create a ‘favourites list’ of 10 that will serve you well. We tend to bookmark our favourite practices so that they are readily available when needed.

Regional precedent examples are good as they are easily accessible to visit which is often useful and allows you to visit them and pick up on details you would miss by viewing images online.

Adam discusses how in university for a module he had to intimately analyse one of Stephen Hodder’s buildings in Norway which opened his eyes to in depth precedent analysis. He notes that ArchAdemia lessons are structured around a famous building which allows you to get into the mindset of all the steps taken to design it.

One of Jacks favourite sources of inspiration whilst in university was the RIBA Presidents Medal site which displays the work of all of the top students around the UK. The Brick Bulletin is also a great place of inspiration, which is a very useful website displaying high quality projects completed in brickwork. Rheinzink is another. Finally, top material manufacturers are a good source of inspiration as they market their products in the best possible manor.

Even the most iconic buildings around the world would still start with precedents, ideas, research, and analysis. The Al Bayt Stadium in Quatar was inspired by the inside of a Bedouin tent. Your precedent might not always be another building, it could be a form of inspiration from nature.

Projects Studio RBA are looking at have been informed by the historic analysis of the site and historic maps could offer inspiration, another site was bombed heavily during the war and site analysis shows that there is a high potential for unexploded ordnance buried beneath, all these things need to be taken into consideration and key stakeholders should be informed. In depth analysis could save lives!

The impact of scale during the process 46:30

Adam breaks each design stage up by ‘drawing scale’ and that sets what information is conveyed. For example, at planning (stage 3) you typically would not go above 1:100 or 1:50 in scale but at stage 4+ you really zoom in calling out elements and details at 1:20, 1:10 or 1:5. For listed buildings it is sometimes necessary so convey information at 1:2 scale.

At 1:50 scale the information is usually setting out, with all key information identified such as wall types etc. This type of plan is known as a general arrangement drawing and in some instances can be 1:100 depending on scale and complexity of the job. 1:20 scale is more detailed with sections and other important construction information being called out, such as how the walls interface with other junctions.

Think what each drawing is trying to achieve 52:49

Information shown should be limited to 1 or 2 key things. If you show everything on one drawing, you technically show nothing, as the information is competing with one another and becomes too confusing to read.

A drawing is there to make sense for planners/builders/subcontractors. It should be simplistic and show a specific piece of information. For example, if you do a drawing just showing light weight partitions without room furniture etc, this would go to the manufacturer/installer who doesn’t care about furniture. A good way to understand it is to break a drawing up per trade or building element.

At stage 4 it is sometimes difficult to fully resolve a drawing as without a manufacturer paid and on board there is a limited amount of information they will offer you. Commissioning a manufacturer via a formal order, will allow you to finalise the drawings to construction level as they will produce their manufacturer drawings which you can then re-coordinate back into your drawing.

As the saying goes ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’. Jack and Adam have opposing design techniques and there are pros and cons of how both architects design a building, but either way the outcome is a well-designed scheme and a happy client (most of the time)!

Q&A 1:04:30

In this Q&A session our members ask who our favourite architects and buildings are, featuring Le Corbusier, Tadao Ando, Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind Rem Koolhaus, Richard Rogers, Meis Van Der Rohe and locally Tim Groom Architects and Strom Architects.

We discuss different architectural styles including deconstructivism, brutalism, minimalism including buildings such as unite d’habitation, church on the water and others.

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