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Living room renovation in San Francisco

Identifying Design Quality

We often hear about the “achievement of quality” in building work, but fail to clarify what this really means in physical terms. Because this claim remains vague, but desirable, it is casually made by individuals and companies marketing their services to us with examples of their past project work, which may indeed be but average!

Generally, the word “quality” is used to mean high quality — excellent or exceptional work. Regarding buildings, quality is usually assessed on two bases, design and construction. The achievement of high design quality does not necessarily mean that high construction quality has also been attained, and vice-versa. However, it is likely to find both good design and good construction in the same project because building owners and architects do not want to see their most thoughtful design efforts, and the resources expended to produce them, diminished by inferior materials, poor workmanship, or careless project management.

This commentary focuses on areas in which design quality can be identified. A later commentary will deal with construction quality. Of the two, design quality may appear more difficult to assess, but need not be if time is taken to critically view and sense what a building is like as an object with sculptural qualities and as a physical piece of its neighborhood environment, and to walk through it noticing the spatial flow, character, light, and construction detail of each of its rooms and open areas.

Listed below are a few guidelines that you might use when assessing a building’s design quality. Each of the points is open to personal interpretation and emphasis, and all are subject to exception when a special circumstance dictates that other design considerations must take precedence to achieve the best building result. However, I believe that you will find broad professional agreement on many of these assessment points:

  • A building should be related to its particular site by being oriented in a way that window, door, and deck placements capitalize on the site’s natural assets or special features — sun and wind orientation, views, a garden, water, a group of trees, etc. The building looks as if it was designed only for that site.

  • The building’s shape is an ordered composition of wall and roof planes, trim lines, and window and door openings — a composition sufficiently simple to understand the building’s spatial organization at first glance, yet complex enough to discover something new each time that we look at it.

  • The sculptural and textural characteristics of the building and its rooms, highlighted by natural and artificial light, should give it a distinctive appearance. The building should have features that allow us to relate it to other buildings that we have seen, yet be different enough to make it memorable.

  • The building should have an easily described plan scheme (an “H-shaped” plan, a “doughnut-shaped” plan, an “L-shaped” plan, etc.) that helps us understand where we might logically enter and leave the building, where we should expect stairways and common areas like bathrooms, and how corridors connect rooms.

  • Circulation patterns throughout the building seem logical. Stairways and corridors should be sufficiently wide to allow comfortable passage.

  • Well-designed rooms tend to have a focal point (a fireplace, a view, etc.) around which furniture and circulation space can be organized.

  • Room areas should be large enough to accommodate seating and table arrangements that permit comfortable conversation and other activities while allowing easy circulation around or between furniture groups and walls.

  • Countertops on cabinets should not have sharp corner edges adjacent to circulation paths where we can injure ourselves when moving around them quickly. The location of the end of a run of cabinets should not appear to have been chosen arbitrarily.

  • Wall and ceiling planes of rooms should be smooth or rhythmically articulated, without visually discordant “bumps” made to cover structural members or air ducts that were not considered.

  • Generally, exterior and interior trim should generally have continuous lines or repetitive patterns, and should not abruptly end or change for no apparent reason. Trim emphasizes transitions in floor, wall, and ceiling planes, and softens a building’s sculptural form. Observing the continuity of trim is one way to judge how well an architect may have thought through the design because he would have had to visualize almost every building plane to discover each trim situation.

  • The meeting points of different building materials should be designed in a way that their juxtaposition does not appear clumsy or awkward, but deliberate and elegant.

  • Fake materials are not a good substitute for the real thing. Ordinary materials used in a creative manner allow us to sense their character in fresh, interesting ways.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767