What is Architectural Design Excellence?


In achieving architectural design excellence there are infinite Everests which beckon us: which Everest should we climb?

“The secret of architectural excellence is to translate the proportions of a dachshund into bricks, mortar and marble.”
Sir Christopher Wren, 1632-1723

There are as many criteria for defining design excellence in architecture as there are architectural designs. And climbing to the summit of design excellence is analogous to that of climbing Mount Everest. Yet in architectural design there are infinite Everests which beckon: which Everest should we climb? We can cite two examples among thousands, the first being that of the County of Los Angeles Public Works and the second that of the Walton Family Foundation of Northwest Arkansas.

County of Los Angeles Public Works: Best Practices: Design Excellence

Public Works values design excellence and utilizes a collaborative approach to design and construction, producing an aesthetically pleasing, high quality, and high performing project that fully meets the County’s established criteria described as follows:
Form: Design that articulates architectural form, massing, and detailing.
Architecture that is visually engaging, contextually responsive to the community, and timeless.
Integrate art in the fabric of design.
Architecture that creates a sense of “place”.
Function: Meet the programmatic requirements efficiently and creatively.
Innovative designs that add value beyond the expectations of the program without increase in cost. Provide a safe and productive workplace for County residents and staff. Design a building that is durable, operationally efficient, easily maintainable, and has low operational cost.
Environment: Incorporate sustainability/green building concepts in design. Reduce energy consumption or carbon footprint compared to mean baseline. Mitigate impacts to surrounding environment. Design that contextually responds positively to the site conditions and to environmental policies.
Technology: Utilize technology to meet and exceed program requirements. Incorporate innovation through multi-disciplinary integrated design.

Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program
The purpose of the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program is to ensure that the design of public purpose buildings and spaces in Northwest Arkansas is worthy of the rich architectural history of the region and elevates the experience of the public realm for residents and visitors alike. As such, sustainability and appeal to the human scale are the core values that are embedded in each of the guiding principles. Sustainability implies attention to the life cycle of the building, prioritization of infill and adaptive reuse projects, and energy efficiency. Appeal to the human scale means that projects will invite pedestrians and have superior accessibility to all members of the public—from children to the elderly.
Guiding Design Principles
Projects shall pay special attention to the present and planned ensemble of streets and adjacent buildings and spaces, so that the projects engage and improve the overall neighborhood fabric and its ecological context and function.
Designs shall adhere to sound construction practice and utilize materials, methods and equipment of proven dependability resulting in a long life cycle with possibilities for adaptive reuse.
Specific attention shall be paid to the possibilities of incorporating design qualities that reflect and reinvigorate the architectural traditions of the region.

Examining these, we might observe that the common factor between all excellent designs might be that of contextual correspondence, how well any particular design corresponds to its context. Context exists on many levels including historical (the context of time), phenomenal (the context of the zeitgeist), experiential (the context of the witness), and physical (the geographical, urban, and local presence of the physical artifact).

From this perspective, an excellent design could be thought of as that design which best maps, corresponds, and answers to a design problem in all its contexts, be they historical, phenomenal, experiential, or physical.

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