Where do architectural ideas come from?

I have been practicing architecture for about 25 years, having gone to school to study architecture, worked in construction to understand tectonics and craft, been in private practice as a principal, and spent considerable time researching the nature of creativity and where inspiration comes from. I still feel a giddy sense of unease when I need to sit down and whip out a design. Over the years, the process has become a bit easier, and the tools I bring to the challenge are a bit more honed. Creativity occurs in fits and starts, and usually does not proceed linearly. But, the design process does follow a by-now-familiar path.

There is the client. There is research into precedents. There is identification of the major themes that need to be addressed.

I design for clients, so the first part of the design process involves the client. We talk to our client. What is it they want? What are their project aspirations? What are the little things they need? These questions are easy to understand in the context of a residential project, but they apply equally as well to commercial and institutional work.

While I ask questions and listen to responses, my own thoughts are also running through my head. The client may be interested in a view, but I am thinking about energy efficiency and solar orientation. They may be interested in expansive decadence, but I am thinking about efficient use of materials.

Thus, a tension gets created between where I find myself as a designer, and where the client is telling me he wants to be. In actuality, I am often designing with my wife at my side. She is having her own internal conversation about what the client is saying and where she finds herself as a designer. At some point, my wife and I will have our own conversation about what we heard, how we responded, and what we feel is a reasonable way to internalize our clients’ desires.

In addition to our client’s wishes and our own predilections as designers, there is a third leg to the design stool: history. How did previous architects resolve similar challenges? What are the historical precedents for our particular design brief? Taking the time to research precedent is very rewarding. On a recent project, I went over to our library of books on architecture and pulled six or seven off the shelf. Yes, research can be done on the Internet, and we do that all the time. It is nevertheless still true that the best stuff out there is in books.

A Concrete House

A current project of ours has and interesting brief, or program. Located in western Maine, it should be like a castle. The owner collects weapons, and desires a shooting range and weapons display area. He wants a large area for entertaining, and four or so bedrooms for guests and family to come visit. There is a spectacular view to the northeast. This is an unusual brief. Compounding this, he wants the house built out of concrete. It needs to be secure.

My thoughts turned to the nature of concrete. It can be malleable, in the sense that concrete is poured like a liquid into a mold. That mold can be any shape. Concrete can thus take on a plastic quality.

Yet, most concrete is planar. We usually see concrete poured inside parallel planes of formwork. Concrete at its most basic is planar. Tilt-up concrete is even more essentially planar. Because we did not have an unlimited budget, I chose to see the concrete requirement as a suggestion to search for an architectural idea that was based on planar elements.

I wrote down the basic parameters: View. Concrete. Planar. Castle. Firing range. After much contemplation and scribbling, I came up with an idea, about views, articulated through planar elements, of concrete, defining a space where a linear shooting range could feel at home.

This, in a nutshell, is where my architectural ideas come from. There is the client. There is research into precedents. There is identification of the major themes that need to be addressed. There are lists of nouns or adjectives. There are diagrammatic sketches. And finally, there is a click when all of the balls that I threw into the air start to feel like I’m juggling. They have come together in a serendipitous Venn diagram: the intersection of each theme. That is where the satisfying design idea resides.

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.