Updated: Jul 15, 2021
This article address the importance of site in building design. Site visit is the first step to any design process. Many a times the importance of this step is overlooked. Architects are often expected to start working on a building design by just looking at site survey plans and site pictures or videos. There are several things that a visit to the site can offer which you cannot see, experience or understand from photographs. It is crucial to understand the context before you build on it. This allows to establish continuity between the building and the conditions it is built for. To quote renowned architect Tadao Ando, “You cannot simply put something new into a place. You have to absorb what you see around you, what exists on the land and then use that knowledge along with contemporary thinking to interpret what you see.” This pretty much sums up the first lesson of building design. A good design must complement the landscape it is built for.
Sketches by Tadao Ando of the site and context that helped him to establish a relation between site and his buildings
P.C. "Tadao Ando" by Taschen Publications
This practice of site analysis and site development needs to start as early as from Architecture schools. Most common practice that you see in architecture schools is that young architects design for hypothetical sites. The idea of a design concept is usually limited to the form development while the methodology for form development is left unexplored. It is important for an architect to know what to look for when they visit a site and how to use these findings to derive a concept. Keeping aside the tangible elements such as the climate, geology, existing vegetation and neighboring views, there are several intangible elements such as the culture of a place, political-economic conditions etc. which needs to be considered before beginning a design. The sensitivity of the architect with which all these elements gets integrated to generate a design is what makes each design unique. Optimizing the true potential of a site is the best sustainable approach towards design. Let us look at some examples of how site and its features paved way for concept and design development.
Building Orientation and Massing
Positioning of a building on its site, as well is its size and shape are influenced by the microclimate and terrain of the site. It is these features that play a significant role in providing the building with thermal and visual comfort. Orientation and massing in turn influences other design aspects such as size and location of fenestration to take maximum advantage of the daylight, heat gain and views offered by the site. All these aspects play a key role in dictating the form of the building.
The interesting form of the office building Crescent, designed by Sanjay Puri Architects situated in Surat, India, is a result of designing to suit the microclimate of the site. The main motive of the architect was to achieve a solar efficient design model as a response to the hot climate of this region. The horse shoe shaped building is oriented pointing towards the north in order to beat the harsh southern sun. The building comprises of overlapping curvilinear wall extensions which serve as sun shading fins. Large north facing glazing bring in ample natural light into the interiors and allows views of the city as well as the pool which helps to keep the interiors cool.
The Crescent by Sanjay Puri Architects comprises of overlapping curvilinear wall extensions which serve as sun shading fins.
The site plays a huge role in influencing the materials chosen for construction. Construction using the locally available materials is cost effective and at the same time puts forth the possibility of exploring and including the indigenous building craft into the design. A perfect example is the Palmyra House designed by Studio Mumbai. This project explores the full potential of the locally available materials and the craft.
The Palmyra house was envisioned by Ar. Bijoy Jain to fully adapt to its environment, integrating with the landscape and providing much needed comfort to its occupants.
This two- storey weekend retreat house is built on an extensive coconut grove on the south of Mumbai, India. The façade of the building is characterized by louvres made out of dried and locally sourced Palmyra wood. Local basalt was used for making the boundary walls, plinth and for paving. Plaster finishes were pigmented with sand obtained from site. Moreover design details were developed by collaborating with the local crafts people.
The type of plants used for landscaping is also region specific. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright pioneered the idea that buildings should be extensions of the environment and their three dimensional forms should depend upon the properties of materials. The Riparian House, a weekend retreat designed by Architecture Brio, situated by the foothills of the Western Ghats is a true embodiment of this idea. This residence is designed as an extension of the natural landscape in the most unobstructed manner. The house is concealed beneath a green roof which helps in keeping the house cool. The stone boulders uncovered during the excavation process retain the surrounding earth. These stone boulders further enhance the experience of being embedded into the earth.
These examples not only give us an insight on the importance of designing to suit the site and context but at the same time are testimonials to how an Architect can draw inspirations from the site to create unique monumental structures. We also need to understand that for a design to be holistic, it needs to be responsive to its surroundings. This could also be the reason why principles of vernacular architecture and critical regionalism are valid and relevant even today as they underline the idea of creating harmonious design with the geographical context of the building. From the above examples and many other buildings designed with the same principles, we can safely conclude that site must be considered as the source or starting point of any design process.
P.S. All images taken from the internet have been hyperlinked for further reference.