Matter of Scale Blog - ADG Architecture Design Graphics

It’s a Matter of Scale

Matter of Scale

“The size or level of something, especially when this is large.”
“The size or level of something in comparison to what is average.”

Scale is often hard to appreciate. The difficulty seems to come from our perception, because although size is finite, determined by linear measurement of length, width, height, area and volume, our perception of these measurements is often in relation to other adjacent and nearby objects. For example, when travelling from a very large room to a smaller room our perception might be of entering a small space, when in fact that second room may still be of generous proportions. We appear to unwittingly develop an idea of what is average and then place other things into two categories, either large or small.

To be able to have some grasp of the size of a space, we usually need to perceive physical boundaries to it. There’s a strange phenomenon that occurs during the construction life of a project whereby the spaces appear to grow and shrink, and it normally pans out like this. The site often looks too small for the building, sometimes causing brief panic. Once the slab is poured the building suddenly looks much larger. The walls go up and the space shrinks, they are plastered and then painted and suddenly they grow again and appear OK. Essentially what’s happening here is that the walls provide visible containment to the space, whilst the slab just provides a 2D plain which is harder to imagine as enclosed volume. Unpainted walls also have the effect of absorbing light and this in turn produces the effect of reducing visible space. To that end, colour and tone will also play their part.

In the planning stages I would almost guarantee that most people will over-design the spaces of any building when considering them in plan form. It’s hard to appreciate the scale of space that is required for the purpose, and that most of us are used to operating within. We tend to over-estimate and when applied across the whole building this quickly adds up. There are tools we can use to gain a better idea of space requirements when considering the brief for a new building, extension or reconfiguration, and these can apply to a variety of building types.

What space do you operate in now? – Take a more detailed look at what you have now, run some measurements and consider if it currently works. You will need to consider what furniture and fittings you have, and what you will need. Don’t design spaces around existing furniture unless you are entirely committed to keeping it, such decisions can be very costly.

Efficiency and operation – If you are looking to expand, consider how you will use the new space. Does it need to accommodate a specific increase in capacity, or is it more about process and use? You may not need a proportional increase in area if the new spaces can be designed more efficiently than the current ones. Doors and windows will have an impact on useful area, and if a large proportion of any extension is simply required to gain access between old and new, the initial concept may well be flawed. You may be able to make spaces work harder for you by having them perform more than one function or by being flexibly subdivided.

Get something down on ‘paper’ – I say ‘paper’ but more than likely this will be on CAD in some form. Even at this early stage it will be very helpful to understand the general spatial requirements of the project, and survey what you already have. An architect can start to assist at this stage, even in very outline form. Basic 3D massing, scale physical models, montage views and the like will help to convey what a 2D plan will not.

Interpreting and visualising scale is largely to do with comparison, but also to do with change. For instance, many of us will walk past tall, multi-storey buildings every day, and as they already exist as part of our environment, we simply accept them, ignore them even. But proposing to insert something similar within these same environs is often met with resistance. ‘Tall’ buildings are considered as such when they represent something that is considerably taller than surrounding buildings. So, a 3-storey building could be considered ‘tall’ if placed within an area of predominantly single storey construction.

Why is scale important in our built environment? This is largely to do with preserving the unique character of an area. That’s not to say that good quality contemporary buildings can’t have a part to play, even if they are a little taller than their surroundings. In urban areas in particular, buildings and structures provide wayfinding and spatial interpretation, landmarks. Just as using large hills or trees, buildings provide a way for us to navigate and make sense of our urban surroundings. They can create memorable skylines, setting and enclosure to space, end-stops to streets and landmarks at nodal points and intersections.

Architects ‘play’ with scale within their designs and in various axis. Over-sized window and door openings can change the apparent scale of a building. Ordering a building with different materials to top and bottom storeys will start to break down the apparent scale and height of a building, as will combining window openings into larger elements of glazed facade. Larger scale internal spaces create different acoustics, adding to the feeling of drama. Large open plan spaces need more ceiling height than smaller ones, so as not to feel as if the ceiling is pressing down on its occupants.

Large, wide, open spaces won’t generally create the right environment for people to spend time and relax, we need a degree of containment to feel secure, we generally like to have our ‘backs to a wall’. This idea of urban scale lies at the heart of successful place-making and can drive acceptable building heights and the placement of urban spaces. A city such as Plymouth can, and probably should, absorb greater height within its centre. This would create a greater perception of activity and interest as well as providing better containment to spaces where visitors can spend time. Variations in height are also often welcomed to provide more visual stimulation and better wayfinding via distinct landmarks.

The huge, green Morisons distribution centre adjacent to the M5 displays how horizontal scale can be dealt with. The randomised long, green cladding panels would likely not work aesthetically on a much smaller building, appearing too fussy, but here at this scale I think they make sense and create a kind of interesting ‘camouflage’.

Scale is hard to visualise without the tools to do so. In the office we use a range of methods to virtually model space and mass so that the result is always a known, not an estimate. Whilst personal interpretation can differ (because this is a partly subjective matter) good factual presentation can help to sway opinion of those who are simply fearful of change.

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.