(Disclaimer: Many of the examples of this post are as per Philippine Context)
For the most part, defining “good design” is pretty much subjective. Each architect will have his own guiding philosophy on what constitutes an effective proposal- so at least on the conceptual level, debating on merits of styles will be never-ending. However, unless you live in a culturati first world society that likes to live dangerously, you have to be sure that your design is safe and liveable. In order to do this, there are a number of key checks I’ve found to be essential when planning out your design. It’s best to consider these early on, lest you realize you’ve made a critical oversight or code breach too close to your presentation. Or worse – to find out during your deliberations itself while your jury grills you on your fatal flaws. I understand that they are some of the most boring design considerations around, but they are also the most critical in ensuring your architecture is safe and with integrity.
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Before we start, I just have to stress this:
On the topic of building codes, you can’t just refer to one. Sometimes related provisions are more stringent in some codes than others. You need to be diligent in cross-referencing all the codes (I suggest making an excel table), to be sure you are following the most stringent among all the conflicting provisions. Some codes that you may need (as per Philippine Context);
- PD 1096 National Building Code of the Philippines
- PD 1185 Fire Code of the Philippines
- PD 957 Guidelines for Subdivisions and Condominiums
- BP 344 National Accessibility Law
- BP 220 Economic and Socialized Housing
- Local Zoning Ordinances
- Deed Restrictions
- Developer Standards (if client is developer)
- International Building Code (if pursuing a certain global standard)
- Aviation or Naval Authority stipulations
A bit of foresight does wonders in giving your best work. So without further ado, here are 36 things you must consider when designing your projects. Think of it as a quick checklist meant to point the way for further research.
1. Classify your building.
This is a non-negotiable Step 1. All your codes and constraints are determined primarily by what exactly your development is. Without setting in stone what your building type/s are, you’ll be stuck forever, or going into the fray blindly. Commercial? Industrial? If Residential, what is the Density type? If mixed use on one lot, it’s safe to use the most stringent classification for all succeeding code checks.
2. How far as you pushed back by Easements and Setbacks?
Take a good look at your lot. Based on the streets and rivers that relate to it, what are the required easements and setbacks on each side? Don’t be confused by the difference. Setbacks may still have temporary structures and the like on it (canopies). Easements are public space – you can’t build anything in them.
3. How BIG (or small) can you go?
As much as we’d like to dream, there are a number of development controls set by your codes that limit the size of your developments. And you need to do some careful math because this will be the basis for all future planning. Some of the development controls you will need to acquire are:
- Maximum Percentage of Site Occupancy (PSO)
- Building Height Limit (BHL)
- Max Building Height Limit by Above Mean Sea Level (AMSL)
- Minimum Unpaved Surface Area (USA)
- Maximum Impervious Surface Area (ISA)
- Minimum Total Open Space on Lot (TOSL)
- Target Floor Area Ratio (FAR or FLAR)
- Cumulative Setbacks and cutting angles.
By synthesizing all these considerations, you should be able to come up with a visualization of your maximum allowable volume – and this can can get a bit confusing. I’ll be doing a more detailed follow up post on this later on, to make it more digestible.
4. Where does the wind blow and the sun shine?
What are the wind systems and sun paths as they relate to your site? Which parts will be heated up for most of the day (facing west and south), and which parts catch the prevailing wind systems (ex. NE Amihan and SW Habagat)?
Analyzing them plays an enormous role in lowering energy costs and increasing comfort levels, as well as gives clues in orienting your spaces to prevent glare. For instance, do you know the correct orientation for a baseball pitch? How about a basketball court? Get it wrong, and that’s one unfair field you’ve got there. Will go more detailed with this in a later post.
5. How steep are the slopes?
You might not notice it when you’re picking your project site, but if there are portions of the topography that have a steep enough slope, they could be potentially unbuildable as per law, or too impracticable to work with,. It’s important to see this from the early planning stages (aka, acquire or produce a slope map or 3D visualization), because unbuildable topography is a huge determinant of site planning – where you lay out your roads, major buildings, and temporary structures. Steep slopes shouldn’t always be seen as liabilities though. Provided you’ve did your research on soil erosion and the like, an impracticable slope just might be a good place for a hiking path.
6. Any special considerations in micro-climate?
A word of caution: your site’s micro-climate might have unique implications on things like ventilation and rainfall. If your site is on a plane surrounded on all sides by mountains, then your country’s wind systems are important to study, but also analyze the unique airflow circulation that stems from the plane-mountain dynamic. If your lot is on the edge of a rolling hill with an unimpeded view of the sea, be prepared for unprotected howling winds that will roll up the topography towards your architecture.
7. Wind shadows and funnel points?
An often overlooked consideration in planning out your buildings on site are wind shadows. Based on how you locate your buildings, the wind that passes through your site can either get funneled into a strong stream or create dead zones where the breeze will not be able to reach. This is an important comfort consideration because dead air in public spaces is undesirable, but immensely strong wind tunnels are a terror for hats and umbrellas as well. With regards to this, it’s normally a good ventilation idea to place buildings oblique to the wind systems, or create some staggering in your layouts.
8. Belief systems and prevailing superstitions.
If you’re designing, say, a cultural center for a certain people without considering their belief-systems, it’s a time-bomb waiting to go off. Imagine if you designed a mosque inspired by the human form. That’s an explosive failure right there. Designing stairs in the Philippines? Then don’t forget your steps can’t be a multiple of 3. Remember, oro, plata, mata. Is your client traditional Chinese? Then you have to know the basic planning principles of Feng Shui. And your stairs can’t be a multiple of 4. If your building is put up in the Philippines then the stairs can’t land on both multiples of 3 and 4. Little design constraints like this can add up, and considering them shows that you are well-learned and culturally sensitive – two qualities of a good architect.
9. Topography – where will surface runoff go?
If you were to drop a ball on different places in your site and let it roll freely, where would it end up? Chances are, that’s where your rainwater would collect during a storm as well. Knowing your site’s surface run-off tendencies are crucial in planning your flood management systems – including location of drains, sump pumps, and where not to put your electrical equipment, among other things.
10. What’s your soil like and what does this mean for your foundation?
Your school might require you to do conceptual structural plans for your design project (mine did). In order for you to do this in a well-guided manner, you will need to make time in understanding your site’s soil profile, bearing capacity, depth of bedrock, and the like. The depth and nature of your foundation system will vary greatly from case to case. A foundation for loam soil resting on adobe will generally be easier and less costly to work with than, say, sandy soil on reclaimed land. Tying into tendencies for erosion and landslides, your soil profile will also guide you in measures for slope protection (like rip rap, retaining walls, etc).
11. Determine your Occupant Load.
How many people will your architecture serve? And who are these people? It’s a very fundamental question, but many students make the mistake of not calculating their exact occupant load and just winging it according to feel. This is dangerous when it comes to planning, because your occupant load will be a prime determinant (along with building type) of a number of things, like: size of corridors, number of parking slots, size of vestibules and area of refuge, and the like. Bottom line: Determine your occupant load right away. It’s proper practice.
12. Minimum Distance Between Fire Exits
Fire safety is always a recurring concern when your jury deliberates on your work, and for good reason. If there is one body of concerns beginning designers tend to overlook in their planning, it’s minimum and maximum distances set by their Fire Codes. First off, you need enough fire exits – and occupant load helps you calculate how many and how big they should be. Now, these fire exits can’t just be in one end of your building, of course. To cater to the users equally, they need to be spaced a certain distance apart, the minimum of which is in your local code. Find out what the parameters are. If your building code is prescriptive, it will tell you a minimum distance; if it is performance–based, it will give a scenario that must be achieved (ex. an old man must be able to crawl to the nearest fire exit within 40 seconds).
13. Maximum Distance from within a room to exit door.
This is especially crucial when you’re doing a residential project and you’re planning your unit layouts. In the event of an emergency, your users can’t be bothered to travel a litany of corridors just to get outside of their unit. Make sure you know the maximum time or path of travel(not displacement) allowed from anywhere in the unit to the exit door. This will vary according to type – is it a hotel room? Apartment? Commercial establishment?
14. Maximum distance to fire exit door from any point in the building.
From any point in your building, you will also have a prescribed maximum distance or time to be able to get your users to the nearest fire exit. It all ties together. Be wary of schemes with exceedingly long corridors will fire stairs at the ends. Take note that the standard could be different based on your fire protection systems. In the National Building, the maximum travel distance from any point in your building to the nearest fire exit is 45 meters, but this extends to 60 meters if your design is rigged with a sprinkler system. However, the Fire Code has different distances according to occupancy. You may have to do a comparative table to determine the most stringent provisions that you’ll follow between codes. (It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s needed).
15. Minimum width of corridors.
Your building type and your occupant load will be the prime factors of how wide your corridors should be. Naturally they should have a bit of breathing space from the minimum, but make them too large and they could encourage loitering. Take into consideration unique typology concerns when sizing your corridors. For schools, students will be hanging out in the corridor while waiting for classes to start. Hospital corridors need a lot of breathing space because a bed or two could be set temporarily at the side as a standby contingency. You can also take into consideration costing. If your calculations say your corridor should be 2.942 meters wide, you can make it 3.0 meters to save on the labor of trimming down your 600 x 600 sized tiles. Not to mention materials wasteage.
16. Did you include your areas of refuge?
An area of refuge is the part, parts, or even whole floors of a building where occupants go to wait to be rescued during the event of a fire. Their size will be determined again by (surprise surprise) building type and occupant load. They also have to be rigged with stringent fire rated walls, sprinkler systems, and smoke protection systems. Locate them carefully.
17. Where will Fire Exits open?
Had to include this, because a classic mistake of beginning designers is to provide enough fire exits, but have one or two of them open up inside the ground floor of the building. Your fire escapes should open up to an open space, one that allows you to get further away from the burning building. Otherwise, if there’s a fire on the ground floor, you’re basically toast.
18. Did you include a Fire Command Center?
If your building is a high rise or a residential condominium, it’s essential to allocate a Fire Command Center in your space programming. The Fire Command Center is the headquarters of all your building’s fire protection systems. In it you’ll find things like a communications system linked to the fire department, monitors and controls for your fire protection systems, electrical transfer devices, and the like. Don’t forget to include a small office. Squeeze this place into your programming from the start, and find a good place for it. Chances are, your FCC will need to be accessible from the outside.
19. Minimum Curb cut-out distance.
Another textbook mistake for young designers. If your lot is located at an intersection, your local code dictates that your development’s entrances and exits will have to be a certain distance from that intersection point. Otherwise, it would be a real traffic hazard and choke point. It’s based on building type and occupancy density. A very high density commercial development that amasses a lot of vehicular traffic may need to locate their entrance/exits at least 50 meters from the intersection point, with 100 meters away being more ideal.
20. How does your building relate to landmarks in the area?
The smartest of buildings relate to their cultural context, whether harmoniously or as a point of contrast. It’s tragic when you see a building that has a firewall facing an iconic view or worse, one that hampers pedestrian views of a significant monument from the street. There are many creative ways to go about relating to important landmarks. Echo the spirit of the monument through your building’s character, puncture your mass to frame a view from approach, vector off an edge of your building to “point” to it. There are many ways to do it, and doing it shows that you care.
21. What are the best views on your site?
You might have a gorgeous double glazed curtain wall encompassing an entire side of your building, but if all it shows your occupants is a parametric view of a neighbor’s firewall, you deserve an ungodly face-palm. When you do your S.W.O.T. analysis of your site (yes, you must), finding which points have the most beautiful views is a good clue of where to put your buildings and how to orient them. A view is free to capture, and also priceless to behold. Take inspiration from the Japanese concept of shakkei or “borrowed scenery”, and integrate it into your planning and design.
22. Don’t just cast aside natural features and structures.
As students, it’s so easy to erase an existing tree or working shed (especially if your professor won’t notice), but in your heart you know that isn’t good practice. In real life, tearing down a tree has a cost and permit implication. But more than that, it’s also an enormous waste of a prime natural amenity. Try and have a “not-one-tree-less” attitude when first addressing your site planning. It’s proper process, and a responsible use of land.
23. Where will commuters go down?
Don’t just throw an impressive form on site and expect users to magically teleport into your architecture. The best developments allow for pedestrian and commuter-friendly circulation. This means transport hubs, arcades, taxi-stands and lay-bys, and planned drop-offs for all modes of public transportation (tricycle, jeepney, bus, etc). Be wary of the traffic, noise, and pollution that tends to gravitate towards areas like these, so zone them on your site accordingly. No office worker wants to be pestered constantly by the honking of horns and shouts of barkers all throughout the day.
24. Where will private vehicles pass, drop-off, park, and move towards pickup?
Private vehicles may or may not mingle with public transportation within your site, depending on your security and organizational programming needs. The general guideline when planning out your road networks to serve your private and public vehicular circulation is the less roads you need, the better. It’s a more economical use of space. Your site should serve primarily people, and not cars. Also, laminar (streamlined, unidirectional) paths are simpler, more efficient, and less-accident prone. Of course, ensure there is enough space for a by-pass lane, in case a careless chauffeur rams into the rear of the car in front of him. Lastly, and this I must stress: Know the turning radius of the largest vehicles that will pass through your site. If you’re in need of a guide, whip out your graphic standards. Crit jurors love to pick-out if the presenter didn’t give thought to turning radii when determining road and roundabout sizes.
25. Do you have enough parking slots for all kinds of vehicles?
Parking slots are calculated according to our perpetual favorite development indicators – building type and occupant load. But remember, parking requirements are not only for simple sedans. Don’t forget that you may also need: Additional PWD slots, bus slots, maintenance truck slots, bicycle racks, golf cart parking, depending on your program and organizational set-up. But more than just allocating parking slots and ensuring good traffic flow – always design your parking lots with security in mind. Dead ends tucked away from the light are a no-no. It’s always best to harness the elements of natural surveillance to ward off shady activity. Ask yourself if users can be seen/heard from the guardhouses and waiting areas within your designed parking lot. Also, when you are just about done designing your parking lot, try and imagine where your security cameras will be mounted to be able to efficiently and holistically capture the space. And don’t forget – make the parking lot a pleasant place. Try to make easier the jobs of the private vechicle drivers. Make sure you programmed a Driver’s lounge with a good view for when their boss is exiting the building. And put ample trees and foliage for a touch of well-being.
26. Where will services pass, without disturbing other users?
You’ve got your public transportation and private vehicle circulation down – but don’t forget your services. No one wants their pristine architectural experience spoiled by the constant noise of a 13-wheeler truck maneuvering through private vehicle space. Make your service corridor and parking discrete but clear, easily surveyable by security and management, and include ramps and drop-off platforms that are the correct height and slope.
27. Will people get lost or disoriented in your design?
Sure, some typologies like malls aim to get the users immersed and absorbed by the experience of exchanging goods. But for the most part, you have to ensure that your building’s users will have a pleasant and clear experience of weaving through your spaces. Good way-finding concepts are not limited to the placement of “This is where you are” maps, but also in the clarity and predictability of plan, visual corridors, and minimizing path complexity. This doesn’t mean your circulation will be boring. You just have to make sure it is navigate-able, unless your intent is to disorient.
28. Are all your spaces Zombie Apocalypse-proof?
One of the best metaphors for safe or “defensible” architecture are designs that allow you to outrun, outmaneuver, and see zombies coming in the ever-approaching apocalypse. (Be afraid) This means no dead ends, dark corridor paths that are barely used at night, notches where people can hide-and-strike, and other shady areas. Always imagine that a mother with an infant in her arms is traversing your design at 2 am in the morning. Put yourself in her shoes and adjust accordingly.
29. Where will you put your plumbing system elements?
As I mentioned in What Can You Expect to Learn in Architecture School – PART 5, you’re going to need to be able to do conceptual engineering layouts – and you need to start thinking about them early on in the design process. For plumbing, the most critical of considerations is where the tapping point is, where to put your water meter, cistern, and overhead water tanks (if any), so that they are easily serviceable, save on pipes and fittings, and aren’t an eyesore. Plumbing is tricky because horizontal branches have a slope of 2% or so. This is why you have to be careful and visualize exactly how deep that long horizontal line you’re planning goes. It might already be approaching the Earth’s Mantle. Edit November 11: By the way, on the subject of plumbing, I just realized another crucial consideration many beginning designers overlook:
29.5) Do you have enough toilets, lavatories, and mirrors?
We know them. We hate them – those buildings that house hundreds of people, with the ungodly line to that smelly, under-capacity bathroom. Be a good architect and humanely provide relief to our most basic, primal human needs (no, not procreation). Early in your programming stage, calculate how many bathroom fixtures each floor and each space will need to be served adequately. Again, computed by building use and occupant load. As a quick planning aid, know the standard dimensions of each cubicle (including waiting space), and make indicative rectangles out of them. Then it’s a matter of moving them around – while constantly imagining if the circulation will be pleasant. Don’t forget the minimum interior dimension of a PWD urinal (1.8 m x 1.7 m for some codes), how the door should swing, and where the railings should lie. A crucial thing to take note of when designing bathrooms: Girls and boys have different programming needs. Boys, we know you need more urinals, but take note that girls need more counter tops, mirrors, and space to move back to take group selfies. And ladies, when designing urinals, don’t forget to put a divider of adequate height in between.
30. How about… Mechanical System elements?
If you have a large scale development like a high rise, you’re going to have to learn a thing of two about ducting, and its required spaces. The good news is, you’ll probably be provided with the space requirements – typically for fan rooms and equipment rooms, or you can consult with a mechanical engineer. What’s critical here is to ensure that you don’t place your mechanical systems anywhere flood prone, and that they will be easily serviceable and accessible when something goes wrong. Also note that they have to be properly ventilated, and you should know where their wind blows (if you know what I mean).
31. Lastly, Electrical and Communications System Elements?
Electrical spaces are a matter of division and location. You first have to determine the size, numbers and relationships of your genset rooms, transformer rooms, vault rooms, sub-stations, communications rooms, and the like. Then, similar to mechanical rooms, put them in places safe from flooding, ventilate them to prevent overheating, and accessible for maintenance. Be wary that local codes might require all utilities to be placed on a certain level, or to have genset rooms accessible from the street. If not forseen early, they can be an eyesore or worse – be in conflict with your circulation scheme.
32. Are your changes in elevations PWD friendly?
If your best friend on a wheelchair were to traverse your building, would he be able to access all key spaces without having a segmented experience from the people he is with? There is beauty in designing vertical circulation measures that are in harmony with normal circulation paths. It’s a great way to foster equality and community – provided you don’t neglect the small details. Do not forget a landing at most every 6 meters of the run of your ramp. Do not forget the maximum allowed slope (1:12). And never forget that a ramp shouldn’t terminate in the line of a driveway. Splat.
33. Program your essential structures with enough lee-way of error.
If you’re designing a disaster essential structure (like a hospital or school), make sure your rooms and corridors have a good amount of “breathing room”. I’m saying this because essential structures need to be structurally over-designed by a factor set by your local structural code. If your columns for a non-essential building type would be fine at a 500 x 500 size, they might reach 750 x 750 or even 1000 x 1000 as per code requirement. That is potentially a lot of space eaten that could affect how you layout your beds, furniture, or even cause you to decrease seating capacity. So make sure you set your allowances right, or better yet, find a structural consultant early-on so you can be pointed in the right direction and waste less potential space.
34. Don’t be deceived by “Minimum Ceiling Heights”.
Just because your local code says that the minimum ceiling height for a naturally ventilated room is 2.7 m, and you know that a reinforced concrete slab may be around 0.1m, – it doesn’t mean your total floor-to-floor height would be adequate at 2.8 m. There is a whole lot that potentially goes on in your ceiling, so you need to visualize and make allowance. If you look up at your soffit, there are a number of things that will actually have to be fit there. Your lighting systems with have wirings, conduits, housings/heat sinks. Your fire protection systems will include sprinkler systems spaced evenly. Your plumbing systems may have a renegade p-trap rearing its ugly head in the corner. How about air conditioning ducts of the adjacent rooms? Or kitchen exhaust ducts (with insulation, mind you). And then you’ll need to cover it all with, say, recessed edge gypsum board on metal furring channels. Oh, and the depth of your beam is also a factor to consider. Bottom line: with all that’s fighting for space under your pristine dropped ceiling – 2.8 meters?? More like 3.4 meters please.
35. Don’t forget: Make your design Firetruck friendly.
A final note on fire safety. In the event of a fire, especially in large complexes, it’s important that you plan out paths and routes for fire trucks to be able to enter your development, tap their hoses, and fire on any rooftop. You’ll have to know the conventional size and turning radius of your local fire truck, as well as the maximum length of a fire hose. Other than this, also determine if your locally sized ladder can reach all your areas of refuge. That’s length, and angle.
36. Lastly, Never forget the composition of all your pieces.
As you’re weeding through all these planning and programming considerations, never lose sight of the big picture. This is your design, and you need to work with these constraints and not let them be the seeds of an ugly architecture. A great architect isn’t one who disregards technical considerations to produce a completely beautiful (but not feasible) intent. Rather, a great architect is one who carefully and meaningfully integrates these considerations in a holistic design process – and makes a completely beautiful intent anyway.
I get that a lot of these things are technical, boring considerations. I agree. I prefer to think about the fun, artistic, creative, semiotic side of the design process. However, these considerations are prime factors in the safety and proper planning of your design from the get-go. They prevent future headaches, and more importantly – allow you to be confident that your design is feasible and works humanely and safely. With that said, stay diligent, and keep thinking meaningfully. Cheers,
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