Think Like an Architect

Think Like an Architect

Author
Hal Box
Year
2007
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Review

If you want to become the best in the world at what you do - be a student of your discipline and those that surround you. The best product managers have an appreciation for engineering and design. But as with the craft of product management; we haven’t been designing and building digital products for that long. Borrowing some inspiration from one of the world’s oldest design disciplines seems an entirely appropriate move for an aspiring product manager.

There’s much to be enjoyed and admired in this book. I was walking through London listening to the audiobook as the author described how to explore and appreciate a building. I wasn’t new to the area, but it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I now have a much greater appreciation for architecture.

Digital product builders can learn a lot from learning to think like an architect - the commonalities are clear, architects have to make tradeoffs just like Product Managers. I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to repeatedly build beautiful, functional and viable things.

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Key Takeaways

The 20% that gave me 80% of the value.

  • Much of the architects effort is above eye level.
  • Architecture being the art of space, can't be fully appreciated unless you experience it in full size.
  • There are too many people in positions of influence that aren’t amateurs of architecture.
  • Do you think about ways to make your city or neighbourhood more beautiful?
  • When you put pencil to paper to describe an architectural idea, do you get excited about getting it down so that you can understand it and explore it?
  • Being an architect is more difficult than becoming one
  • Things you need to become an architect…
    • Conceptualise 3D shapes
    • To draw (learnable through practice)
    • Extensive travel and an interest in architecture
    • High intelligence and enthusiasm
    • Be able to take criticism (the Crit session is an important part of learning)
  • An architect works at the intersection of art, engineering and business
  • Draw to think. Build useful things from your thinking
  • Start to place each part of the project in a hierarchy.
  • Once you have one that works. Start over and see if you can do better
  • First: do no harm - don't damage the neighbourhood, streetscape, natural environment or the budget
    • Most buildings are inherently ugly, unless great care is taken you're likely to make the street worse. Make sure what you build is better than what you’re replacing.
  • Pencil is the tool of choice, as much is erased as drawn
  • Focus intensely obsessively, passionately as an eccentric genius
  • Don't fall in love with your drawing too soon. "Architects are often too quick to form"
  • Every man is a borrower, and a mimic - it's OK, go and seek inspiration from elsewhere
  • Seek Complexity, avoid complication
  • Deciding design issues requires a generous conversation between you and others. A critique tests your design before you've committed to it
  • If after 7 iterations you end up where you started. What have you gained?.. Conviction!
  • Always ask how much a change will cost. A surprising number are free.
  • Once symmetry enters a composition, it demands to be continued.
  • There are number of special ratios
    1. Golden ratio: 1 to 1.618
    2. Square root of 2: 1 to 1.414 (made in ancient cultures, by taking the diagonal of a square with a rope)
    3. A square: 1 to 1
    4. Double square: 1 to 2 (softer and less overwhelming than a cube)
  • At the city level, streets are corridors, open spaces are rooms - parks are gardens
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Deep Summary

Longer form notes, typically condensed, reworded and de-duplicated.

Learn to see places and sense spaces. 10 ways to explore and understand a building

1. Learn why it was built and what its function was and is now. Understand it’s social purpose before you begin your physical understanding. Noe how it relates to its neighbours - the buildings and activities around it.

2. Raise your normal view. Much of the architects effort is above eye level. See how light hits the surfaces. Shape of the shadows. Number of layers in the facade. Starting closest to you. Focus on colour, texture, form, proportion rhythm, silhouette, mass. Look only for form for a bit, then look only for proportion. Then the other elements of design. Each in its own time

3. Sense the space by the size and shape of the spaces. How they sound as your speak. How the light slides in and bounces around. Sense the space formed by the building outside and inside. See how the spaces relate to each other and transition from one to another. Architecture being the art of space, can't be fully appreciated unless you experience it in full size.

4. Train your eye to understand the structure of the building you're seeing. How is gravity pulling down on the building. How is the structure keeping the materials in place.

5. Determine how the materials are workinG Are they in compression or tension? Heavy and massive? Light and airy? Hard or soft?Rough or smooth? Opaque or transparent? Solide or void? Reflective or dull? Man made or natural? Warm or cold? Local or exotic? Colours are they? Texture? What ideas do they conjure? Are they permanent or transient? Fragile or strong? Common or extraordinary?

6. Determine how the building was constructed. Steel frame or concrete. Stone masonry by hand, precast concrete panels installed by machine? Wood framing? Exposed structure with curtain walls or a solid mass? Was the building built... or was it crafted?

7. Examine the historical precedent. Understand the cultural antecedents of the buildings form, materials and techniques

8. Analyse the composition, the proportions, the rhythms of what you're seeing. What relates to what? What lines up? What vectors of force do you see in the composition? Is it a classical composition? - Having a well formed bottom, middle and top. What are the colours and textures doing to each other? What are the qualities of light and shadow? What spaces have been formed How do they feel to you as you move through them? Do they give delight?

9. Observe the appropriateness of the building in terms of its setting. Does it complement that which is around it? be it natural or urban? Is it as good as what was there before? Has it improved the beauty or meaning of the setting?

10. Analyse what makes THIS building special. Each building is unique, quirks of construction or site. Look for new ideas, craftsmanship and workmanship. Each construction site has its own culture.

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The importance of being an amateur. Most buildings are built without the involvement of professional architects - they never aspire to be architecture - that is, artful. Amateur now has negative connotations - but it really means someone who has a deep interest in and appreciation of something. Effective amateurs improve homes, public buildings and neighbourhoods by educating themselves, being involved in the design process, and by helping to make good design decisions in their community. There are too many people in positions of influence that aren’t amateurs of architecture.

Are you an amateur?

Test below

  1. Do you travel to see buildings and cities of the world?
  2. Do you keep a clip file oh photos of beautiful rooms?
  3. Do you think about ways to make your city or neighbourhood more beautiful
  4. Do you like to make things?
  5. When you look at a piece of land, do you sometimes imagine building something on it?
  6. Do you get giddy just thinking about what you could see from the rooms or how your building would fit into the landscape or the streetscape?
  7. When you put pencil to paper to describe an architectural idea, do you get excited about getting it down so that you can understand it and explore it?
  8. Have you found yourself engaged in building projects that are so important to you that they overwhelm you and give you goosebumps?
  9. Does your collection of books on architecture, cities and buildings outnumber all your other books?
  10. Do you think about what you might have done, or might do as an architect?
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  • Architecture is rare, excellent architecture is even rarer
  • A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.

Becoming an architect

  • Starting late is OK
  • Architects get joy from being creative and solving a complex problem with clarity. From making something happen that's better than you thought it could be.
  • Things you need to become an architect…
    • Conceptualise 3D shapes
    • To draw (learnable through practice)
    • Extensive travel and an interest in architecture
    • High intelligence and enthusiasm
    • Be able to take criticism (the Crit session is an important part of learning)
  • Architecture school will teach you how to draw and build models, you'll live in the studios
  • Charrette is applying intense effort in a small amount of time. Origins of the word come from a horse-drawn cart "Charrette" that used to come and collect the papers of students. If you hadn't finished, you'd jump on and do the last finishing touches going along the streets on the cart.
  • An architect works at the intersection of
    • art
    • engineering (technician)
    • business
  • Being an architect is more difficult than becoming one
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Thinking like an architect, the design process

  • Draw to think. Build useful things from your thinking
  • Architects find the intersection between:
    • the site - place in community, place in landscape
    • the program - clients list of needs and desires
    • the budget - how much it costs
  • A client joked 'Hal Box' is the only architect that can exceed an unlimited budget
  • To extract & agree a clients requirements. Use the techniques in the book: Problem solving, program making
  • Start to place each part of the project in a hierarchy.
    • Give it preference in size, orientation, location, proximity.
  • You will start to see form, and develop progression of spaces
  • Use a long wall as a reference plane and start drawing
    • If it's dull, twist it, overlay it, reverse it, manipulate it.
  • Find progressions through spaces. Look for ways to create surprise on discovery.
  • Visualise roof shapes and sculptural form, don't be too quick to adapt a roof
  • Once you have one that works. Start over and see if you can do better
  • Work towards an architectural concept:
    • functions and budget are resolved
    • you create the building in your head
  • It's not enough to make the client happy, you must make them ecstatic
  • First: do no harm - don't damage the neighbourhood, streetscape, natural environment or the budget

Not the author of the book - but a good illustration of the process

  • Scale is the relationship of the building to the human body, or the building nearby. Too big, too small or just right
    • Massing - proportional relationship of one mass of the building to another, to the whole building
    • Complex masses become the solids and voids of sculptural form. 3D models are needed to understand them.
  • Most buildings are inherently ugly, unless great care is taken you're likely to make the street worse
    • Make sure what you build is better than what you’re replacing
  • Take into account planning laws and structural strength
  • Pencil is the tool of choice, as much is erased as drawn
  • Prepare with a thorough investigation
  • Focus intensely obsessively, passionately as an eccentric genius
  • Dream and play, release cherished notions, and explore new ideas
  • Seek a flash of insight by visiting the site, discussing idea, assessing precedents
  • Work effectively to develop the ideas into a design that solved the problem
  • Assess your work. If it's not wonderful, repeat the cycle, perhaps from a different point of view, until you reach the result you seek
  • Don't fall in love with your drawing too soon. "Architects are often too quick to form"
  • Every man is a borrower, and a mimic - it's OK, go and seek inspiration from elsewhere
  • Seek Complexity, avoid complication
  • When looking at a model, lower your eye to the base, so you view it as you would from the street
  • Moore - "the goldilocks theory" the quest to find something "just right"
  • Commodity, firmness and delight (the things you need to balance
    • Commodity: functional aspects (how it satisfies the program)
    • Firmness: vital properties (structure, drainage, mechanical, electrical etc)
    • Delight: aesthetic qualities
  • Delight comes in many forms. Perception of space. Light Proportion. Form. Handsome proportions. Rhythmic sequences. Richness of form. Balance of composition. Dramatic events. Stimulating colour. Delight in the fine details - God is in the details. Sounds. Touch - the quality of the hand rails. Smells.

Learn to read a building

  • Windows - how you look in and how you look out
  • The facade - edges of the window, how deep? what materials? surrounds? Divisions? Proportions? How does it relate to the other windows? something special? Is it the right height? What supports the weight?
  • Learn to look at the doors, the roof, the cornice, the walls in the same way
    • Roof: materials, slope, shape, supports
    • Walls: structural or infill? Materials, how the mass hits the ground, colours
  • Do you perceive what is going on on the inside from the outside?
  • How does the building address the street, the sky?
  • Does it have authenticity?
  • Does it look real?
  • Innovative, derivative or both?
  • Architecture in magazines and journals is not necessarily good. Its simply the editors choice of the newest and most unusual work available

Visualising with drawings, models, pencils and computers.

  • Visualising & Drawing is key to the architect's work
  • Visualisation focuses your imagination
  • Do whatever you can to visualise your project
  • Start with a napkin sketch. Start with a dot.
  • Trace the boundaries and sketch the surrounding buildings
  • Decide where not to build first.
  • Think about orientation - views, sun, prevailing wind
  • Get something down
  • Get loose, get creative... play with it
  • Then start to think about structure (14ft wide rooms need reinforcement, as do 6ft wide openings)
  • Place windows, doors, the roof and other features
  • Create a model, with the surrounding landscape building and elevation
  • Sometimes its hard to put a roof on. You may want to start over and start with a roof
  • Try out several ideas before you commit to one
  • Be able to articulate what you're doing in a single sentence - what is it you're designing?

3 key types of architectural drawings

  • Plan - Birdseye view
  • Section - slice through the building
  • Elevation - sides of the building (horizontally without perspective) - 1 for each side

The critique

  • Deciding design issues requires a generous conversation between you and others
  • A critique tests your design before you've committed to it
  • Basic process to test, vet and evaluate. To gather new ideas, to confirm thinking, to call into question or propose a new direction.
  • The crit is not an exercise in negativity. It is a way of assessing and reviewing the design, its effectiveness and the quality of what is proposed. Is is your friend
  • 1 on 1 crit, is essentially coaching. Its the best way of teaching design
  • "If you don't love it, don't build it!"

Building architecture

  • If after 7 iterations you end up where you started. What have you gained?.. Conviction!
  • Phases of design and construction:
    • The program: describes the why
    • The site selection: determines the where
    • The design process: determines the what
    • The construction documents: describe what you want in detail
    • The bidding and negotiation: determine the who, the when and the cost
    • Everyone makes it happen
  • On budget:
    • The more detailed the plans the better.
    • Always ask how much a change will cost. A surprising number are free. Avoid expensive ones by getting the design right
    • Save some budget back pocket

Making design decisions

  • First decide where not to build. Deciding where not to build reveals where to build. Build on the worst part of the plot, cover it up. Similar to "first, do no harm".
  • Focus on making a place. Places are spaces that get fixed into your memory, and become part of your life. We cherish memories and the sensations of place, and we seek discovery of new places. A place can be a city, park, house, chair or a paragraph in a book.
  • Form space. Places form space and give it shape (walls, floors and ceilings). Space and area are different, area is flat, space is 3D. Spaces around the building create the presence of the building, think about spaces, interlocking spaces, connections and spatial progressions.
  • Locate for the 5 senses. Think about what you'll see, where the wind will blow, what you'll smell and what you'll hear. Facing south makes light manageable. Face East or West and you have to manage low angle penetrating light. which can be harsh.
  • Orientate for energy conservation. Make shade in a warm climate, and bring sunshine in a cold one. Trees are great assets. Organise the plan to give rooms a lively natural light. Shape the building by considering the organisation of the inside spaces as they create outside spaces.
  • Shape the building by organising the functional spaces. Plan forms, the simple rectangle is the most economical shape to build. Design what the eye will see, visualise walking through the site.
  • What is the buildings intention, express that in scale. Is the building to be monumental, or intimate and cozy? Or something in between. What is the proportional relationship with the human body?
  • Design the roof to form shelter and shade. Start with the roof. Make it simple, each complication invites a leak.
  • Make your building look like it works with gravity not against it. Seeing gravity calmly at work is more comfortable than the struggle and stress of a cantilever.
  • Express the structure. There are 4 forces: compression, tension and their combination in bending and torsion. The eye still wants to see what is holding up the building.
  • Manipulate the structural system. Lightness is the fascination of our time, but heaviness has its reasons too. Permanence, stability, security, compression and identifications with Earth.
  • Walls do most of the work. Use walls to form space, to enclose, to screen. Give them colour, texture, thickness and proportion.
  • Foundations come first. Water goes downhill, slope everything away from the building.
  • When selecting materials, consider first the natural materials indigenous to the region. They'll fit in, travel less, be cheaper, use less energy, be suited to the environment.
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Ancient rules of composition and proportion, that the eyes find satisfying

  1. Compose objects in groups of three. Rather than 2 or 4.
  2. Columns are best in pairs, rather than in threes. Always have an even number of columns. You don't want to end up with a column in the middle.
  3. Avoid putting objects in the middle of a space. It restricts movement and makes space static not dynamic. The space not consumed with objects is the place where people can be.
  4. Compose an arbitrary division of a line or plane at its third point, or centre.
  5. Symmetry brings order. Strength and familiarity (human face). Can feel static and functionally difficult. Asymmetry can be dynamic or balanced. It can bring emphasis.
  6. Once symmetry enters a composition, it demands to be continued.
  7. There are number of special ratios
    1. Golden ratio: 1 to 1.618
    2. Square root of 2: 1 to 1.414 (made in ancient cultures, by taking the diagonal of a square with a rope)
    3. A square: 1 to 1
    4. Double square: 1 to 2 (softer and less overwhelming than a cube)
    5. image
  8. Use the circle as an organising device (containing the most area and the least perimeter)
  9. Use the 345 triangle to create a right angle
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10. Colours can often affect the appearance, size and ambience of a building or a room

  • Colour is perceived in 3 ways: the colour, the light that illuminates it and the eye of the beholder.
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Useful guidelines for refining the design of a wall or facade

  1. Facade studies require many trials before finding the one that is just right
  2. Determine the geometric composition of parts of a wall.
  3. Visualise how sunlight will fall on the surfaces of your building
  4. In the design of a wall, draw absolutely everything that you will see and compose it as a whole (look for switches, wires, vents)
  5. A garage door hurts any street facade. Find another place for the car
  6. Glass is rarely transparent - it reflects if you're on the bright side.
  7. WIndows happen - difference between a building and a sculpture. The size and the shape of the window expresses what's going on behind it.
  8. If you want to use columns and moldings, follow precedent or don't use them at all
  9. The entrance makes a statement about the character of the building. Can be dominant or hidden, but make it's location obvious.

Space and Light

  • Ceiling heights: Good = 10 ft, Better = 11 ft ... music 14ft
  • Great rooms have great ceilings
  • Rooms should be 13ft or wider, 16 ft is better. 21ft for the main room. 7ft for corridors.
  • Hide light sources, you should never see a lightbulb, glare is the enemy
  • Have natural light come from as many directions as possible. Like sitting under a tree (dappled from above and from all the sides)
  • In the absence of a light, use the 3 lamp rule (on perimeter walls)
  • Keep the light balanced with a low brightness ratio (ratio of brightness to darkness)
  • Use mirrors to expand space
  • Sound can be as important as light in some spaces.

Making Connections

  • How you build can be as important as where you build
  • City planning connects architecture with the neighbourhood, the city and the land
  • Location, location, location.
  • At the city level, streets are corridors, open spaces are rooms - parks are gardens