Material Knowledge for Design: The architect's vocabulary

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This paper investigates how architects select materials during the design process. It argues that not only performance aspects are factored in, but also aspects related to the experience or sensorial stimulation take part in this choice. The argument starts by constructing a hierarchy in the vocabulary that is used to discuss spaces, elements and materials. This hierarchy is derived from the data collected during five in-depth interviews with architects, discussing their own projects, and provides a framework to discuss the different concepts considered during the design process.
Five primary domains could be identified to describe the different characteristics considered by architects during the design and material selection process: Physical behavior, Experience, Function/Use, Context/Environment and Manufacturing process. The majority of words used to describe materials can be grouped within the domain of Physical behavior. In contrast to this, more than half of the words used to describe a space belong to the domain of Experience. The analysis of the interviews reveals that there is a strong correlation between the experience of a space and the materials that are applied in that space.
Consecutively, one of the interviews is studied in more detail - in reference to the developed framework - in order to find out how the attributes of space and elements help defining the attributes of the materials, and vice versa. This section shows that the relations between space, elements and materials are very complex and diverse. Even though a lot of architectural reference books and systems are organized according to a hierarchy of materials, elements and spaces, we find that this hierarchy is not reflected in the design process. Architects do not think in terms of materials, elements and spaces but rather in terms of the experience they want to create and the attributes they need to create this experience. Within the thought process a constant iteration between the existing or intended experience of the space and the physical attributes of the materials is noticed.
The paper is concluded by indicating how further research will help consolidating the early findings of this study.

The authors wish to thank the architects that participated in the interviews. This research is funded by a Ph.D. Fellowship from the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), Belgium.

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Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIASDR 2007 International Association of Societies of Design Research, Emerging Trends in Design Research, Hong Kong, November 12-15, 2007
PublisherSchool of Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
Publication statusPublished - 12 Nov 2007
EventFinds and Results from the Swedish Cyprus Expedition: A Gender Perspective at the Medelhavsmuseet - Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 21 Sep 200925 Sep 2009


ConferenceFinds and Results from the Swedish Cyprus Expedition: A Gender Perspective at the Medelhavsmuseet


  • architecture
  • experience
  • material selection
  • design process


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