How to tell if a building is well-designed

Want to know if what you're looking at is 'good architecture'? Here are the questions to ask







M&S Chesire Oaks © Paul White 

Vitruvius, the author of the Roman treatise on architecture ‘De Architecura’ made a famous statement that is still quoted by architects. He said that a 'well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity and delight'. Put in the more modern language, we could say this means that a good building should be solid and sturdy, and be useful and pleasing – or perhaps provocative – to the eye.

While these attributes of what makes good architecture will probably always stay the same, when considering new buildings there are other questions experts must ask. These are some of the most important:   

1. What effect will it have on the environment?

These days, a building doesn’t just have to look good, it should ideally be good for the environment too. A great example of sustainability spliced with style from the past few years is the M&S store at Cheshire Oaks Retail Park in Ellesmere Port, designed by Aukett Fitzroy Robinson.

Energy during the construction process was saved by using FSC-certified glulam timber instead of steel to create the building’s distinctive wavy roof, while the store’s external walls use hemclad, a highly innovative insulator made from hemp, which, like all plants, absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows. An 80,000 litre water tank below ground provides water for the store’s toilets and waters the site’s ‘green wall’, which provides natural insulation, acts as an all-natural pollution filter near the car park, and helps to encourage biodiversity. The result is a building that uses a fraction of the energy of structures of a similar size, and is still very popular with local shoppers. 


Giants Causeway © Hufton + Crow

2. Does it give more than was asked?

The best architects can create designs which will give clients and the public things they didn’t even realise they wanted, and this is especially important when architects are given the difficult brief of creating structures in much-loved, iconic areas.

An example of a huge success is Heneghan Peng ArchitectsGiant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Using the large difference in level across the site, the architects created two folds in the landscape. Bold, but not conflicting with the rather bleak natural environment, these folds draw all the man-made areas together and create one fitting man-made break in the natural landscape. In the words of the architects themselves, 'There is no longer a building and a landscape, but building becomes landscape and the landscape itself remains spectacular and iconic'.


Astley Castle © Helene Binet

3. Does it meet the test of time?

What is new and exciting now can quickly begin to look tired and out of fashion, so the best buildings don’t just consider what will be interesting to look at now, but also how it might look to people in five, fifty or even a hundred years’ time. 2013’s hotly contested RIBA Stirling Prize went to Witherford Watson Mann Architects for their work on Astley Castle, Warwickshire. In what RIBA Past President Stephen Hodder has described as an 'extreme retrofit', the project essentially saw a new building inserted subtly into the heart of the old, with a new, two storey residence now hidden within the sandstone walls of the ruins of this medieval castle, to be used as a holiday home for up to eight guests.


Manchester Metropolitan University Business School © Hufton + Crow

4. Does it delight and engage passers-by as well as users?

A good building should make you want to look at it. Even if not always liked by passers-by, it should always make them feel somethingManchester Metropolitan’s University’s business school is a building that effortlessly fits this criteria. Indeed for many, the building by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios is their first taste of the architecture of Manchester as they travel along the arterial road, Mancunian Way. With its distinct ski-slope roof, and glittering mirrored appearance, it provides a flash of silver, and a dazzling break from the dull greys of the motorway, greeting motorists in a slightly space-age way as they enter the city.  


Hayes Primary School © Kilian O'Sullivan

5. Does it represent value for money?

Value for money is not, and never was, the same as being cheap.  Value for money means making the most of whatever budget is available. A good example of this is Hayes Primary School in London, by Hayhurst and Co. Having to contend with a tightly controlled £3 million local authority budget, they worked with the existing structure of the primary school to give it a much needed update. A striking polished stainless steel brise-soleil façade installed at the school’s entrance, gives the school’s many different buildings a sense of identity, while new classrooms have been created in a range of shapes and sizes, and are often flooded with natural light.

Inside the school, a wall made of cross-laminated timber separates classrooms from the main corridor, providing a space for storage and study. With very little to work with, the architects have managed to create a building that is much more than just the sum of all of its parts.


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