"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Home office of a San Francisco renovation / addition


"To design takes talent. To program takes genius!" — Jerzy Soltan, Architect and Professor

The first steps in a building or renovation project include (1) defining the overall goals of the work, (2) listing the specific rooms, room sizes, furniture, and equipment that are to be incorporated in the project design, and (3) describing the spatial relationships among rooms and the desired character of each.

All of this information is compiled in a written document called a building program, to which you, your architect, and (possibly) your builder will refer at various points during the design of the work. Without this document, there is no clear frame of reference against which the evolving design can be measured. It is the foundation for that design.

Professor Soltan said that programming takes genius because it involves predicting changing building needs and design preferences for several years into the future — no easy task! You, the owner, have to think analytically about your needs, desires, and motivations and, then, clearly present your thoughts to your architect. If you develop your building program with care and in detail, the building design work should proceed smoothly and cost less, and you will be better assured that the finished project will incorporate the majority of your stated wishes.

Your architect can assist you in the development of your building program. He or she will push you to state precisely what you want to do and question why you want to do it. If your stated goals and ideas either conflict with one another or pose significant design, construction, or budget problems, you will be asked to reconsider some of your building requests and priorities.

Programming assistance is usually considered a preliminary, additional professional service to the design services typically provided for construction projects. If you are compensating your architect on an hourly basis, this distinction is not important. If your architect’s fee is to be a percentage of the construction cost or a fixed price for services from schematic design through completed construction, his or her fee will probably need to be modified to include the cost of the programming work. The value of this assistance will quickly become evident.

Basic Program Information

The following kinds of information are usually found in a good building program:

      •   Prioritized project goals and building strategy
           What do you hope to accomplish and why?
           Do you plan to have the work done in phases or all at once?
           Do you plan to remain living (working) in the house (building) while the project is under
           What is the project budget and how is the work to be financed?
           Are there any scheduling requirements or constraints?
      •   Types of rooms and spaces
           Main living and work areas
           Entry and circulation spaces (hallways and stairways)
           Garage space
           Mechanical and electrical spaces
           Workbench areas and storage spaces
      •   Desired sizes and shapes of rooms and spaces
           Overall dimensions or general square footage
           Preferred room configurations
      •   Description of the main and secondary activities in each room
      •   Desired adjacencies of rooms, spaces, and outdoor areas
      •   Types and sizes of furniture and art objects (if any) in each room
           Width, depth, and height of each freestanding piece of furniture
           Width, depth, and height of any new or relocated built-in units
           Sizes of art objects
      •   Preferred furniture arrangements in each room
           Living areas
           Dining areas
           Work and meeting areas
           Sleeping areas
           Media (TV, stereo, home theater) spaces
      •   Types, sizes, and power requirements of equipment in each room and space
           Electrical and communications equipment and connections
           Mechanical equipment
           Office equipment
           Computer equipment
           Stereo and TV equipment
      •   Types and sizes of storage space in each room or space
           Hanging clothes storage
           Clothes shelf space
           Bookshelf space
           Bulk storage space
      •   Degree of openness of each room or space to adjacent rooms and spaces
           Separation between rooms (no wall openings, regular size door openings, wide openings,
              low-height wall, no wall)
      •   Natural light requirements for each room and space
           Preferences for light intensity, direction, color, and variation
           Darkness requirements
      •   Artificial lighting requirements for interior and exterior areas, and for art
           Seating / reading areas
           Dining areas
           Work areas
           Decks and yards
           Artwork mounted on floors, walls, and ceilings
      •   Preferred character of each room and space as affected by:
           Room finishes and textures
           Amount and type of natural light
           Degree of openness
           Relationship to exterior spaces, views, and focal points
           Preferred color schemes

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