Design Process - The Plans

The floor plan is probably the most widely recognized sign of an architect's work. To someone unfamiliar with the design process it's appears as simple definitions of rooms in space. To an architect, it represents much more. It's the manifestation of ideas, concepts, and a considered synthesis of many disparate pieces of information: the site, the client, the budget, cultural context, and building traditions to name a few. I thought it would be fun to walk through the design process for a small project I’m just digging into in my studio. It reveals my early design thinking and more importantly how design problem solving works. Here's a short video I recorded that describes the early evolution of the floor plan.

The details of how I arrived at these options are described below.

The Request

We begin with a client’s simple request for a multifunctional recreation and studio space. It must also have a bathroom to support a nearby pool, overflow guest-sleeping space, entertaining space (indoor and outdoor), a kitchenette and the flexibility to convert it into an in-law apartment in future – oh, right - I almost forgot the fireplace. This will be an ancillary structure on an existing property and it must be subservient to the existing architecture of the site and modest in size.

As it turns out, there’s a lot we’re asking of this little structure.

However, this isn’t everything we’ll need to include. What isn’t in the client’s wish list is often just as important. The infrastructure. We’ll need circulation space or walking space to get into and out of and around, storage space, and mechanical space too. These are items I know we’ll need given the things my client has already said – the idea that it will accommodate sleeping means it must be heated and of course that means it needs a heating plant. Walking space and storage must be baked in just to accommodate every day life. This is what architects call ‘The Program’. It’s a list of all of the required spaces.

Larger projects will have extensive program lists, this one is fairly small and manageable. Once the program list is developed, the next step is to assign each space a square footage estimate. The main flexible space will be the dominant element in the plan. I know from my client that the new structure is to appear secondary and play a supporting role on the estate. I also know that it’s to be positioned close to the driveway and pool. At this point I can make some informed guesses at the size of the structure. If I make it too wide it will compete with the existing structures as the wider it gets the taller the roof becomes. If the structure becomes too long – again it begins to compete.

Sizing the Structure

The existing nearby garage is about 44’ long. That's a good reference point to shape the building and I can revise it later if need be so I’ll start there. Many people think that architects have an innate sense for the size a building should be – immediately. While we have a general sense of the size of spaces, garages, living rooms, kitchens, the more important exercise for an architect is determining the scale in relation to the context. A 44’ long structure next to a 24’ long cottage will dominate while a 44’ long structure next to a rambling, highly detailed, 150’ long home will read as an ancillary structure. The context determines the scale.

Usually, my client’s arrive with a notion of what the structure will look like. While this isn’t always appropriate, in this particular case their image was that of a barn. Which, to me, makes perfect sense. Barns are open, multifunctional, flexible, simple, supporting structures. This already satisfies almost every parameter we’re working with.

The Building Site

The one thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the site. The site can be an extremely strong generator of form and layout for my projects. In this case, I have to know a little more about the site than I already do, but because it’s an existing property in a relatively flat area it holds a secondary place in the design process. The existing buildings and adjacencies will dictate where the Barn Studio will be located. The client has sent me their site plan and I’ll make do a cursory site analysis to get started.

Site analysis for a new project on an undeveloped site can be quite extensive. In general all sites will require an understanding of topography, local climate conditions, how the sun moves, and other significant site features (trees, water, neighboring properties) and of course code and zoning restrictions.

For this project, one of the initial priorities is for me is to determine whether or not the site can accommodate an additional dwelling unit. Whenever I'm designing a structure for habitation, zoning regulations will play a role. Many properties are zoned based on an allowable square footage per dwelling unit. This property already has one dwelling unit in place and we’ve determined that a second is allowable.  The general principles at work in this phase, beyond the environmental factors (which are easily divined for most sites) are a confirmation of the rules governing construction. Zoning is the key player at this stage – dictating development, height, setbacks, lot coverage and other constraints. Deed restrictions and special restrictions based on the site’s location can be factors in the general design process, but for this one it’s straightforward. We can move on.


Now the fun begins. I’ll pick up my favorite lead pencil, my black sign pen, and a sharpie and begin by quickly sketching concepts on tracing paper. I’ll block out plan shapes on the site plan where I can think about access, building size and location. I’ll sketch out my initial impressions along with a three dimensional concept for the building. I like to work at all scales at this point. I’ll think about what the materials might be, what the doors might look like, and very specific nuances of how the building meets the ground and sky. These sketches frame the problem and help me to quickly test and work through ideas without a lot of commitment. The process of sketching for me reveals the latent possibilities of the project.

Design is an iterative process, where I test and re-test, either confirming or repositioning and re-testing all the while building on previous set of decisions.

The Plans

Once I’ve narrowed it to a few strong organizational ideas, I begin blocking out the floor plans, the process is best described in the video.

Client feedback is of course extremely important. Once we get to this stage, I’ve already put a lot of time and thought into the project. Unfortunately, all of this thought isn’t explicit or necessarily visible. By the time I’ve generated floor plans in my CAD (computer aided drafting) program, I’ve internalized, processed and devised a solution to many of the problems presented by the client. Now, it’s my job to communicate that to the client and solicit their feedback. Which will necessitate the next iteration and an evolution of the design.

I'm eager to hear from them about what they liked and what they didn't. This is where the building begins to take on a life of its own - with the client weighing in. To me, it's the best part. We all engage and contribute, fine tuning and pivoting and each step brings the final building more into better focus.

Stay tuned as we move forward with the next steps designing the Barn Studio. If you’d like your very own Barn Studio it's now available for download.