Architecture 101

I have several good friends who are architects, and I have a great respect for the profession as a whole.


There do seem to be some basic rules which not all architects, bless them, appear to have picked up on, but everybody else understands (so you’d think it ought to be drummed into them at architecture school).

I therefore offer a few pointers for any architects who missed the first class at college. (I expect there are plenty of blogs where architects complain about their software, and rightly so!) So here we go:

1. Concrete and cement buildings always look horrible after ten years.

You can understand them wanting to experiment with this nice new material when it first came out, but that was a very long time ago. They should have realised the error of their ways before our city centres were filled with all these nasty stained buildings. Yes, there are some structures you can only build this way – like motorway bridges – but if you have to make buildings out of it, for God’s sake cover them up with something aesthetically pleasing afterwards.

2. Flat roofs are a bad idea.

Things fall on roofs (like leaves and raindrops). If the roofs are flat, they don’t fall off again. It’s not that hard.

Yes, I know we like Frank Lloyd Wright, but haven’t you noticed the number of houses where flat roofs are replaced with pitched ones? As well as being more practical, they usually look a lot better. Put it this way: how many people do you know who go the other way? “You know, I’ve always liked this house, but that sloping roof is a pain. I’m thinking of taking it off and replacing it with nice flat one.”

3. Innovate around heating and ventilation at your peril.

Here in Cambridge, Norman Foster’s striking Law Faculty building was plagued with internal gales as the single centralised temperature control tried to equalise things around a vast building. (The dramatic open plan design also caused major noise problems. Both issues were dramatically reduced when the architects reluctantly introduced more glass partitioning, something that had been gently suggested by the faculty staff before it was built.)

A mile or so away, the new Computer Lab building rejected traditional heating and air conditioning in favour of a system which took into account the high density of power-hungry cathode-ray-tube monitors and tower PCs. It was completed in 2001, just as people were starting to move to laptops and LCD screens…

So those are my starting suggestions; get those under your belt and, I think we can agree, you’re well on your way to having happier clients.

Any other suggestions for Architecture 101?

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It needs to be possible for the building occupants to override any automatic systems. This is particularly true for ventilation and lighting, but applies more generally. There are many stories of ‘intelligent’ window-opening systems that prove to be anything but (the Berrill Building at the OU Campus in Walton Hall is the one I’m most familiar with). There are also stories of lighting systems that plunge people in to darkness at inopportune moments, or burn all night.

“Windows that open and lights you can turn off and on” is not a bad guide.

I’ve had numerous arguments with architects about doors and push plates. Architects apparently hate them, and really want doors to have the same furniture on the ‘push’ side as on the ‘pull’ side. Those of use who imbibed Don Norman at an impressionable age think usability is more important, so it should be obvious when you approach the door whether you can pull or push it: handle = pull, push plate = push. This argument almost invariably ends up in a worst-of-both-worlds situation where the door furniture is identical on both sides (so you can’t easily tell which way the door swings) but there are ugly signs up saying ‘push’ and ‘pull’ (so the aesthetic simplicity is lost).

2. Flat roofs are a bad idea
– except when they incorporate a green roof?

Doug –

Yes, I agree. ‘Windows that open and lights you can turn on and off’ is a good rule no. 4.

I too enjoyed Don Norman. I always thought that the ‘pull’ handle on doors should be made of something floppy – a loop of rope, perhaps – so it was impossible to ‘push’ it!


As the son of someone who spent his whole career as a planner for a big construction firm, I’ve heard plenty of stories of architects’ ideas that sound great on paper but simply won’t work in practice. My favourite was always the architect of a “C”-shaped children’s hospital, who had to be told that – while eye-catching – his design would need to be made of solid concrete if it was to support its roof.

That, unsurprisingly, didn’t go down to well with the hospital client, which funnily enough wanted room inside to actually put some patients.

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