Architect Skills

Architecture Precedent Studies

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Posted By Matthew Von Dohre

During the early years of my architecture schooling we were always asked to produce architecture precedent studies with little understanding or direction as to why. We would capture images of architecture elements that we liked and use those images incorporated into our designs.

It was not until later in my career that I truly had a better understanding of the importance of the architecture precedent studies as I was working in a firm that specialized in theme park design.

We would design the buildings and attractions to a level of design development, which would include floor plans, building elevations and sections plus pages of architectural precedents that would then go to a team that produced the construction documents. By providing the drawings and precedents the team could fully understand the 2D black and white drawings that we were producing and what the design intent was.

What is an Architectural Precedent Study?

So what exactly are Architectural Precedent Studies? They are examples of elements or designs that have been established over a period of time and can serve as a model for the development of new ideas.

The precedent studies help by aiding you in narrowing your design ideas and concepts to major and minor concepts. Then using these inspirations and not exact copies, you can create new elements or concepts to solver your design problem.

When looking at precedents a few things to consider include their elements or structure, the relationship of these elements or adjacent spaces, the ordering of elements by symmetry or balance, the parti or formal relationship of the elements as a whole.

The precedents can help to communicate the meaning and form dialogues about your design , provide an understanding to others and provide them with a vision of your design.They can also lend authority to your design and help you solve problems in your design process that have been previously solved in other designs.

Starting Your Precedent Study

You can start your architectural precedent study by establishing a brief about the problem you are trying to solve for. Be selective as you seek inspiration and only select suitable precedents for your design.

An example that I was working on and referenced below, was for a theme park restaurant adjacent to a beer themed rollercoaster. The theme I developed was industrial warehouse, such as a brewery or bottling facility that worked with the rollercoaster design.

Brewery Themed Restaurant

By exploring the design of breweries and restaurants I was able to develop a concept package that lead me to discover the requirements, conditions, and problems that this restaurant might present.

Brewery Restaurant Precedents
Brewery Restaurant Precedents

Finding your References

The internet is a massive place to look for design inspiration and precedents. However, a lot of other valuable resources are out there, consider books and magazines at your local library.

Take a trip to places you find of interest, experience the designs, sketch what you see and experience. Being able to visit a building, touch the materials, experience the emotions of the building or spaces and use that as part of your precedent study as well.

When doing your research be sure to look at both modern as well as historic buildings since, they can both provide you with a great deal of insight.

A few things to understand as to why you might include it as a precedent:

  • Why do you like or dislike the design?
  • How did they construct the space and what materials did they use?
  • What parts of their design would influence your own?
  • Why do you feel the design was successful?
  • What sets it apart from similar buildings?

Analyze and Applying Your Precedent

Now that you have found some designs elements that you will use as your precedents you need to analyze them to help you solve the design problem.

Evaluate the what is the important inspiration of that precedent and why you feel it is important. It could be the scale of the building or space, the exterior building skin or cladding, the height of the spaces in or around the building or maybe the details of how the building was put together.

Take the time to interpret these aspects or the precedent and take sketches and noted to allow for further investigation or research into each condition.

Remember that each architectural precedent may offer different experiences and solutions as to how they solved the design problem for that building or space.

Some may have good floor plans that offer good movement thru them yet have lower ceilings or building height that make you feel compressed. Larger open space may provide relief but too large and they make one feel alone.

By taking note of the different precedents you can later arrange them in different combinations to develop new ideas and solutions and weaving these new concepts into your design.

Consider the following when evaluating each:

  • What is the structure?
  • How are elements scaled?
  • What proportions are used?
  • What shapes or forms are used?
  • What are the materials or surface finishes?
  • Does it have an aesthetic appeal?
  • Does it have a cultural or social impact?

Gaining an Appreciation

As you experience the built environment around you may come to appreciate the established precedents and take note for future precedents. Remember that it is important not to make an exact copy of what your precedents are but to find creative ways to integrate them into your design solution.

Be inquisitive about what you find and research each further to gain more insight behind their design. Use what you find to increase your architectural and construction vocabulary while creating a precedent library for solving future design problems.

I hope this has provided you with some insight and a better understanding of why you might create architectural precedent studies for your designs. Let me know your thoughts and any suggestions for future posts in the comments below.


Matthew B. Von Dohre, AIA, ID, NCARB, sUAS RPIC

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