How to Design a Building? A Big-Picture Overview of the Major Concepts

Building design can be a complex process with many details that can at times appear to be daunting. In order to add a little more ‘light’ to the ‘heat’ that may already be present in your consideration of this type of an undertaking, we are looking at the topic from a big picture perspective. From there, all of the details can be added as you proceed along the path of finally getting the building design completed.

So, this page is a “Big Picture Overview” description of the issues that surround the topic of How to Design a Building. In it we discuss a variety of issues, including:

  • Site Design – Placing the building’s position on the site in order to design for sun and climatic factors
  • Function – Insuring that the building does what it is supposed to do
  • Aesthetics – How does a building look?
  • The Process – What are the steps involved in designing a building?

Below is a video that the Architect, Charles Matthews, created in order to describe in some terms these big picture concepts, with the more specific aspects of consideration happening in the text written below the video.


If you think of designing anything, the ‘big picture’ involves the creation of an object or the arrangement of a set of objects in such a way that it solves a problem or set of problems. I like to think of design as a way of ‘squeezing’ out of the set of circumstances every possible way that I can conceive of to solve (with redundancies built in to insure that ‘mission critical’ functions happen) problems. Now, designing a building is more than solving a set of problems, but when I have my ‘Architect’s Hat’ on, I am thinking about living life and establishing life systems that must at least solve a few basic challenges. Some of the parameters for these challenges are included below.

What is the Location of the Building?

By far, if you are planning on building a new building ‘from scratch’ as it were, one of the missed opportunities that tract homes classically neglect are those of positioning the house or houses relative to climatic factors. Much of this ‘failed opportunity’ results from the laws that have established certain minimum requirements of things related to the position of the house relative to the street.

As an example, it may not be that designing the entry of the house to face the west would be the most intelligent, since the sun sets in the west, and the cooling load will increase dramatically for rooms that are located on that side of the house.

What Are Climatic Factors?

Climatic factors are those natural phenomena that happen in and around the immediate vicinity of a piece of land. These factors typically include sunlight, prevailing winds, topography (the shape of the contours of the land), vegetation and wildlife. Being able to understand how each of these factors impact a given site condition will help in shaping a building’s design.


The first factor that a designer can take advantage of is sunlight, or more specifically, the location of the sun in the sky relative to your building at any given day or season. The issue, when you get down to the most basic consideration, is achieved by answering the question, “What rooms do you want to have natural light and heat?” By way of knowing the location of the sun at the extremes of the year (June 21 and December 21), we are able to plan for all other times of the year. For instance, on June 21, the sun will be high in the sky; on December 21, the sun will be low in the sky. By designing the building in cross-section to take advantage of the available light, we can utilize the climatic features of the site in a way that can help us ‘down the road’ when we need to consider the effects of lighting on our electricity bills.

Prevailing Winds

By knowing the general wind speed of the site of your house or building, you can begin to make an intelligent decision regarding if you can use natural ventilation vents to wick hot air out in the summer and keep warm air low in the winter. You may find information about current wind speeds by clicking this link. Knowing the effective height of the major wind currents that surround your building area will give you the possibility of using wind  as a source of renewable energy through electricity generation.

What to consider in the summer?

During summer months when the Sun is high and temperatures may be also, you should consider how to increase shade and decrease heat gain to the house. Traditionally ‘Batt’ insulation (usually pink or yellow) is one of the means of dealing with the heat. However, if you planned the building originally to have more massive walls on the sides where heat gain could be more of an issue (the west side), then the building can have a slow ‘heating up’ cycle and a slow ‘cooling down’ cycle, thus reducing the need for air conditioning.

Built-in shade devices such as screens and awnings have shown to be really helpful, but God’s way of helping regulate cooling, i.e., trees, are remarkably effective in reducing the heat gain that any structure may encounter. Having trees nearby, especially in drought prone areas such as California, may not be an advantage, and so introducing some type of shading structure to the building can be a great passive way of reducing costs of cooling.

What to Consider in the Winter?

In the winter, you want to take advantage of the low location of the sun (relative to the horizon), and so having the angle of the shade structure designed to take this into consideration may be helpful; deciduous trees (which lose their leaves in fall) can be really helpful in consideration of having more sunlight hit your building in the winter.

The use of massive building materials such as poured-in-place concrete or concrete blocks can help to store the heat and release it into the house in the evenings, thus decreasing the overall need for heating as well.

Prevailing Winds Direction and Location

It may vary from place to place, but knowing the general direction that breezes blow in your locality could help in considering where you would place the entry of entries into your building, if you would need an ‘air lock’ or foyer to help guard against the elements. Wind powered turbines as a renewable source of energy can be very helpful – at a certain height in your area, the wind speed is relatively constant and can provide a means of offsetting expensive electric bills.

MicroClimate Factors:

The other major items that could be added for your consideration in the design of the building involve an understanding of the site’s MicroClimate factors, namely, what are the things that a person may see at the site?

  • Topography – What is the natural / current existing shape of the land; what is the configuration of the sloping of the areas surrounding the site? Are there natural ridgelines present or is the land flat? Is there an area on the site of major drainage, or does the land  slope in such a way as to shift the water off of the site? Is the building to be located on a hill, in a valley, or somewhere in-between? The location of the building relative to the surrounding natural land features can provide opportunities or detriments based on its location. An example of this detriment could be that of having a site on the North side of a hill or mountain. The prevailing winds may be low enough, but because of the various pressure zones that occur naturally, a North facing site may be a place to avoid due to the strong wind presence that will need to be dealt with.
  • Existing site features – Are there any special species of plants present? In the Santa Clarita Valley, which includes Newhall, Valencia, Saugus and Canyon Country, there are ordinances which protect Oak trees. If your design was dependent upon the removal or relocation of these trees, it could potentially add $60,000 or more to the final cost of the job.
  • Wildlife – Being ‘Grizzly Bear Architecture and Design’, we can appreciate wildlife. But, if there is a protected species on the land that you seek to develop, the need to take into consideration the presence of the wildlife becomes important, especially in California.
  •  Type of soils – Certain types of soils allow for a greater potential for building upon them than others. Take for example clay – if a building was to be built on certain types of clay, it would need to take into consideration the fact that the clay can expand up to 1000x its normal size when exposed to water. To have that volatility to a foundational / load bearing situation isn’t desirable. Therefore, knowing the site factors is critical for the person needing to develop a building.

What is the Function of the Building?

Regarding the function of the building, a building’s function concerns every aspect of how the building will perform to meet the needs of those who will inhabit it. These functions can be divided into the purpose needs as well as the physical needs:

Purpose needs

– Concerns those issues that surround why the building is being built in the first place. It isn’t merely to keep water off of you as you are doing your work. It would most certainly include things such as, if the purpose of the room is for a large number of people to get together, then to have them meet in a room that can only hold a few people isn’t meeting the ‘purposeful’ need of the building.

Purpose needs would include things such as: is the building a house, a commercial building, a building where people worship? By answering these questions, the driving issues of the project begin to emerge. The purpose needs would include such things as will the building be new or will it be an addition or remodel project?

Proximate Functions –

Various classes and categories of actions and behaviors need to be grouped together or separated from one another. Public spaces many times should be separated from private spaces and supporting spaces should be hidden and primary activity spaces should be emphasized or even celebrated. Examples of this would include things like a drive up pantry being located next to a kitchen, bedrooms having closets and the like.

What is to be happening in the building? – The big picture is the primary focus of the activities that will be occurring in the building


Physical needs

– Concerns the needs that all structures have of resisting climatic forces including wind, rain, in some cases earthquakes, and the like. These forces would also include gravity by way of the materials being capable of not collapsing under their own weight and being capable of remaining intact when a dynamic or moving load is applied.

Physical needs are addressed by the durability of any specific material when it encounters climatic forces such as fire, wind, rain, etc. as well as the strength needs of that same material, such as using concrete for a bridge vs. steel or wood. Other innovative materials may also be used such as fabrics and plastics; the use and the needs of the function will guide the creation of these elements and dictate the final design parameters.

In considering how the physical needs are addressed, one must consider the budget especially and understand the availability of the materials in question.


– An example of this is that wood is relatively plentiful and many people know how to construct items from wood, but concrete block is less available and the resources needed in order to fabricate a concrete block wall are not available to most people. So, wood has the advantage of being able to be used quickly, and cheaply by cost of construction, but is not as durable, especially in the case of a fire as concrete block construction.


– Concrete, as mentioned above, is very durable in most cases. But, due to the nature of the material requiring sand, cement, water, aggregate, mixing and finishing devices and skilled labor, the use of concrete for structure, whether it be concrete blocks or poured-in-place concrete, is limited. The benefits of durability would need to outweigh the potential detriments of cost.


– Modular building units composed of stone, clay or concrete and held together by mortar is thousands of years old, and was used in structures as ancient as the Tower of Babel. Masonry structures, like concrete structures, will last a long time if designed well. The design of these structures, if not purely used with the strength of the materials themselves, require reinforcing to handle tensile loads, as most masonry buildings have classically been constructed in compressive situations. Tensile forces in this case would be those encountered in earthquake loading conditions.


– As a building material, steel is relatively new to the scene. But, because of its great strength, especially when working in concert with concrete, allows the capability of massive sizes and heights being achieved. With fire protection (which incidentally concrete can provide), incredible uses of steel are capable of being wrought. But, the elements need to be resisted, and in the case of steel, it is not only the possible presence of fire, but also water which can compromise the steel by way of rust.


Ventilation needs

Natural ventilation using high and low pressure zones.


f. Reconcile to codes i. Type of building ii. Construction type 3. Aesthetics – how do you want it to look a. Visual concern i. Primary ii. Interior vs exterior of the building iii. Person experiencing the space iv. Budget for interior of space vs. beautiful on the inside 1. Style 2. Area you live in 3. Design intent – personal tastes a. Type of materials – not only functional i. Includes stylistic concerns b. Historical nature of development i. Location ii. Available materials v. Context: 1. Analogous – fit in 2. Complementary – stand out a. Difficult to do well vi. Space 1. Not the final frontier 2. Depth perception faculties 3. Complexity vs simplicity – a. Dynamic forms and shapes b. Simplicity: flows of space with rhythms, large to small, etc. 4. Soul-centric – experience of a person as they are occupying the space a. Church vs. theme park b. What way does being in the environment affect a person, emotionally, physically, mentally, intellectually, spiritually… how do you want the person to be able to react and respond 4. Process: a. Schematic Design i. Cycles of design ii. Custom design is not like buying a toaster. iii. No end to the possible number of iterations: 1. Infinitude of imagination 2. Number of iterations are based on amount of time or money a person has. 3. Things start and finish. There is a limited amount of time in completing iterations of designs. 4. Must be based on a budget 5. Must be based on a time to completion 6. Research 7. Formal Analysis, history, technology 8. Form integration – how brought together 9. Realize your functional goals 10. Cycles: reviewed, approved, process keeps on going 11. Number of cycles in high design or custom a. 3 extreme design considerations- types i. Conceptually ii. From a place that you go too far and then come back, to spark the imagination iii. Push the design ($5 mill); scaled way back iv. Start from small then get large… additive vs comprehensive formal v. Theme park vs. Church vi. I like this, and don’t like that vii. Hone in on a design. 5. Design Development a. Design strategy 6. Construction Drawings 7. Approval from governing agencies 8. Building permit stamp 9. Certificate of Occupancy – approved building in order to be built and occupied.

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