The artform of Conceptual Design

By Mike Bechtel

August 20, 2015
It’s common to think that the artistic component of building design is in the sketch or rendering itself. The fine details and perfect perspectives are skillfully drawn to be visually compelling. It’s in getting to the point of drawing, however, that the true art lies.

An architect’s value and skill is in taking the results of a thorough discovery and problem definition process — through which we uncover the owner’s wants, needs, challenges and vision — and interpreting those parameters in a way that allows for the creation of space in which people genuinely WANT to work, live and play. It isn’t a linear process and it certainly isn’t the same for everyone. There are no checklists or steps that must be followed. There are, however, some guidelines that are important in making this part of the design process successful for owners, contractors and the design team.

  • Parallel processing
    Having achieved a clear understanding of the overall project goals, program requirements and specific project problem definition, an architect can begin developing creative strategies to solve the outlined needs and begin to define what physical construct will best address those needs. The challenge is in holding all of these factors in mind, prioritizing the constraints to formulate options that solve those problems in various ways.
  • Scale and significance
    Focusing on the scale and significance of the needs and constraints allows for an effective balance of conflicting priorities to solve the problems that matter most. Often the most interesting designs are singular solutions that solve multiple problems, as they are not only cost effective but often the most quietly creative solutions.
  • Quantity and quality
    It is imperative to have a strong working knowledge of materials, spatial efficiencies, building typologies, energy requirements, cost and construction. The implications of various solutions are necessarily tied to project metrics such as monetary value, local construction skill, building envelope performance and schedule. Thoughtful inclusion of these parameters when conceiving design solutions is integral to the decision process and provides necessary balance.
  • Options, options, options
    Offering the client multiple concept options is well worth the effort. Each option should weight the project priorities differently, thereby presenting the client different choices as to which priorities are paramount. Options aid discussion and help refine the understanding, between the architect and the owner, of what is truly important. Throughout the discovery process, preconceptions will evolve. Multiple options help the team challenge predetermined opinions with creative possibilities that often better fit the ultimate need.
  • Conditional approval
    The creation of options should not be misconstrued as selecting option one or two; this is not an eye exam. It is important to take the time to talk over the drivers behind each of the various options. Often the final design concept will incorporate aspects or thoughts derived from more than one option. The initial conditional approval of a concept is only the beginning. If the solution is well conceived, it will survive the gauntlet of constraints ahead when seeing that concept to fruition.

A great artist can draw a beautiful design, but a great architect knows that there is much more to it than the drawings. Good design provides the most value when the solution effortlessly solves problems in an efficient, effective, and beautiful way.