How to Design a Building That Works

There’s nothing worse than designing a space only to discover too late that it’s not buildable or operable without significant modifications. For example, space numbers are often designed to be easy for the designers—they may number rooms in a way that makes sense on paper rather than with an eye toward what will be understandable for the occupants over the long term. Perhaps they’ve numbered them sequentially from the center of the building out, leaving future occupants wandering and wondering why room number 104 is directly across from room 179.

Beyond helping people simply find a meeting spot, room numbers get enshrined into documents and programmed into data systems, fire alarm systems and other facility databases. Think of them as Social Security numbers, as they serve as a unique identifier. Imagine if everyone in the company decided to change their Social Security numbers but neglected to inform HR—it would wreak havoc on payroll, tax reporting and other systems. In much the same way, you can’t just update the sign on a door without thinking through the implications of how room numbers have been programmed into the building’s systems.

Room numbers are just one of the many things that can go wrong given the amount of details and systems involved, from Wi-Fi and AV to acoustics and more. A few key steps, however, can help you ensure that you can meet your goals for the space while minimizing hiccups along the way.

  • Start with the end in mind. You can’t get the results you envision if you don’t know what you need from a space. Determine your programmatic goals for the building, not just how much space you need but also how you want it to function—and, most importantly, why. If, for example, your company has aggressive ESG targets, how will this building fit into your overall corporate goals and footprint? You may find that you need to think differently and put in more work toward sustainability than you might have when designing a similar space a decade ago.

Ensure that everyone involved in the building’s design understands your performance goals—the building’s “why.” Only then can you marry your wish list to what’s possible given the unique constraints of the project, from budget to timeline and more.

  • Simplify as much as possible. You may have a sophisticated lighting system for a conference room that gives users precise control over the visual environment—LED lighting that focus attention on a podium, lighting interspersed evenly throughout a room to facilitate note-taking, lights with adjustable color temperatures, or even smart lights that change as the meeting format does. But if the meeting facilitator must press 10 or 20 buttons to get the scene just right, it’s not particularly usable.

When designing lighting, technology or another system for a space, one should make it as simple and intuitive, with as few steps as possible, for the end user. Simplification takes time and thought, analysis and evaluation, and revisions—and perhaps even a creative labeling system for the buttons and switches involved.

It’s easy to do simple, but it’s hard to do simple that works—it requires, time, creativity and the willingness to look at how all of the elements and systems of a building will work together.

  • Bring specialists into the design process at the very beginning. Acoustics, for example, is very different from other disciplines, and getting it just right requires a blend of creativity and an eye for detail. It’s entirely possible that the aesthetic that has been chosen isn’t compatible with the acoustical environment you are seeking, such as a modern glass-and-concrete interior that blocks all of the sound from the office next door. There are always methods to make most, if not all, of the goals and materials work together and be acoustically effective, but this isn’t the case if they are already “set in stone.” Regardless of discipline, the earlier specialists are involved, the more likely the design will be buildable and deliver on your “why” for the space—without unnecessary complexity, expense or delays.

Whether you’re designing for LEED certification, an equitable hybrid office environment or a complex medical facility, a building is only a success if it works and serves its occupants. By taking a holistic approach that focuses on bringing elements of the building together in the simplest way possible, you can translate data and specifications into something that’s practical and functional and brings your “why” to life.

Authored by: Jim Perry, managing director at Trinity Consultants’ Cerami team, and John McFarland, principal at Trinity’s Consultants’ WorkingBuildings team.

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