Skip to content

An Integrative Design Approach

Post date:

Another problem with today’s architecture is the lack of an integrative approach towards designing buildings. What’s happening is that parts of a building component are designed without taking into account any other parts it may affect, thereby possibly affecting those parts in a negative way. I especially sensed this during my education at architecture school, and it’s not that different in the real world where the part that gets designed first is often the shape of the building.

I remember we were told to first come up with a shape for the building – a stage usually referred to as “3D”, and which came after the ‘concept’ stage. We had to come up with a nice 3D shape that fitted the concept we had chosen. Apart from fitting the concept, this shape had no other reason for being.

“3D” concept and initial form finding

However, in most cases, those shapes were altered until they looked “right” to the instructor and so weren’t even about the so-called concept anymore.

more “form finding”

Now despite all the problems I had and continue to have with that approach – and which I talked about here – there seems to be one very important factor that is neglected in this process and that is integration. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that the 3D shapes architects come up with at the beginning of any design are actually beautiful and actually do help make the building a better one. Would that beautiful shape not screw up all the other things in the building that are at least as important? I believe it would.

Let’s look at planning first. Planning is one of the most important attributes of a building, and yet it comes second to “form finding”. Planning usually gets done so that the building can be used once a nice form has been found, especially if the building is an iconic building at architecture’s high-end. We all saw what a terrible building you get if the planning hasn’t been so well thought out, as in Graham’s earlier posts on the Villa Savoye or the Unité d’Habitation, or my earlier post on the Villa Savoye where I described its terrible daylighting and thermal properties. Here’s another example:

Haramain High Speed Rail Link Station:

It was a competition entry by Atkins in 2008. The building’s “canopies” got me interested, especially when I read about their reason for being there.

In the sketch made by the architect, you can clearly see how the shape of the building was ‘inspired’ by that sketch, and how little it changed since the idea first somehow popped into the architect’s head. The “concept sketch” is usually featured on entries and posters for projects to show you how it all began and is generally regarded as a good thing.

But what this also means is that the design team, regardless of any studies or simulations they might have done for the project (since there’s a bit of talk in the description about cooling loads, daylight, and solar gain) did not use the results of that to optimize the building by perhaps changing its shape slightly, for example.

The canopies provide a bright, dramatic enclosure and reduce the cooling loads, covering a large floor area without introducing the need for daytime artificial lighting.

Well, I’m not so sure about the dramatic enclosure, but I think the cooling load could have been reduced just as much by normal shading devices that might allow better light into the space, rather than by canopies. However, as we know, doing this doesn’t show off your architectural skills and architectural solutions to “problems” so much, and you don’t want that as an architect do you now?

Another good example is the Swiss Re Headquarters in London (1997-2004) by Foster & Partners.

They seem to be saying in their description that it’s a good performing building, and that its shape actually contributed to that.

Conceptually the tower develops ideas explored in the Commerzbank and before that in the Climatroffice, a theoretical project with Buckminster Fuller that suggested a new rapport between nature and the workplace, its energy-conscious enclosure resolving walls and roof into a continuous triangulated skin. Here, the tower’s diagonally braced structural envelope allows column-free floor space and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views. Atria between the radiating fingers of each floor link together vertically to form a series of informal break-out spaces that spiral up the building. These spaces are a natural social focus places for refreshment points and meeting areas – and function as the buildings lungs, distributing fresh air drawn in through opening panels in the facade. This system reduces the towers reliance on air conditioning and together with other sustainable measures, means that the building is expected to use up to half the energy consumed by air-conditioned office towers.

Firstly, a lack of integrativity can be spotted in “and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views.” Well, it might bring in a little more light, although any window lower than 762mm from the floor is pointless. Doing this will also bring in more heat into the building (or make it lose heat faster), which they haven’t talked about. Perhaps they could have achieved the same amount of energy savings if they thought about the glazing ratio.

Have a look at Lord Norman’s first sketch of the building:

Norman SKetch As in the previous example, the building looks quite like the first sketch. Now unless Lord Foster did a lot of simulations and calculations in his head comparing his approach, with several other approaches that could have brought the same or even a better result, in terms of views, daylighting, ventilation, and solar gain, BEFORE this sketch, then the building is nothing but a meaningless shape that an architect came up with. And after finding an iconic and special form, some engineering company like Arup had to be hired to help the creditability of the architect’s claim about the building being “London’s first ecological tall building”.

Since we’re talking about London, F & P, and sustainability, here’s another building they did:

City Hall, London (1998-2002)

But, in this case, ‘sustainability’ meant stepped floors that are supposed to work as shading devices. It’s hard to think of a more expensive way of shading some windows. I wonder if  Swiss Re is still sustainable, since it hasn’t got any stepped floors as shading devices, or any shading devices at all, for that matter.

Misfits is proud of the building (Stacey) they designed using an integrative design approach. All its systems where designed in parallel so that they all work together in harmony, with no system compromising the functionality of any other. These systems including planning, because enclosing space requires building resources and heating and cooling that space requires energy resources. Inefficient planning wastes both. Good planning makes every square metre work harder and as part of more than one system. These systems include but are not limited to planning, orientation, daylight, views, solar gain, ventilation, renewable energy, and constructions. You can read more about this in Part I, Part II, and Part III. Here’s how the horizontal systems were solved.

Now, designing a building with no regard to all the others systems would be treating the building like a piece of sculpture – something not intended for human use, but for the  momentary pleasure that could be gained by looking at it, or as a monument used to make any kind of statement. This happens too often with current architecture.

It’s easy to see why. If you look on the internet architecture sites at posts of buildings, you can see how carefully-taken photographs or computer graphics from specific angles are the main way that buildings are described. THESE ARE IMAGES. They cannot describe how the light changes, how the air flows, how much heat the building gains or losses, how easy it is to get from one place to another, and whether the planning takes into account the MEP. Images can only tell us how a building looks, and only from certain angles. It’s not surprising that we continue to judge buildings on that basis. We need a way to represent all the other systems and attributes of buildings so we can make better judgments, and maybe have better buildings.


  • All too true, Bashar. For a while, it seemed like “Integrated Design” might offer some sort of solution because it at least recognized that the architect’s contribution to a design was only one part of the entire building and no more or less important than the contributions of other consultants.
    In a true integrated design process, one aspect of a design shouldn’t progress until all of the other consultants are satisfied with it. This rarely happens. Instead, the very concept of Integrated Design Process is being neutralized in two ways.
    In the first way, the architect remains the “lead consultant” and talking to the other consultants is now known as an “integrated design process”. This is no different from how it always was. Recently, I heard a shared data base described as “facilitating an integrated design process”. Now, telephones and emails and even meetings can be said to facilitate an integrated design process, but the essence of integrated design is how the design proceeds, not how information is shared.
    In the second way, the scope of integrated design is restricted to isolated elements such as a facade, for example. Facade engineers can produce an integrated design for all factors relating to it but nothing integrates the facade with other aspects of the design.
    In both cases, the essence of an Integrated Design Process is being ignored. I suspect that architects’ vested interest in maintaining an image-centric concept of architectural value has something to do with it.
    They managed to kill “sustainability” very quickly. At first, it might have been a new way to generate buildings but soon, anything with a green roof became “green” as far as images were concerned. Whether a building looked “green” was more important than whether it actually was. Architects quickly learned to design images of sustainability and pass them on to other consultants to “green it up”.