What is “Spatial Purpose”?
When we think about buildings and structures, we often think about their physical appearance and their practical function. However, there is an underlying concept that informs the design and construction of a building: its Spatial Purpose. This concept encompasses the Architectural Program and the Design Intention, which are integral to the success of a building project.
In simple terms, we can describe Spatial Purpose as the ultimate goal of a space - be that a room, a floor, a building or an entire campus. Take a hospital as an illustration: its primary objective is to provide a setting where individuals can receive medical attention. This objective can be accomplished in two manners:
- By implementing a strategy that encompasses operating rooms and temporary care facilities.
- By creating a layout that promotes a sense of tranquility, facilitates easy navigation, and fosters comfort for individuals.
Combining these two, you have a very clear, structured spatial purpose: Care.
Now think of the office: its primary aim is to provide a space where people can work productively. This objective can be achieved in two ways:
- Through a layout that includes designated work areas, meeting rooms, and collaborative spaces that are equipped with the necessary tech gear.
- By designing an environment that promotes creativity, fosters a sense of organization, and ensures employees' comfort and well-being.
Combining these two, you have a very clear, structured spatial purpose: Productivity (Other examples could be Collaboration, Innovation, Synergy)
“Architectural Program” vs “ Design Intention”
When we think about objective, measurable goals, we usually think of the Architectural Program. The Architectural Program outlines the objectives and requirements of a building project, such as its intended use, functional requirements, and spatial needs. It serves as a guide for the design and construction process, and helps ensure that the building meets the needs of its users.
An architectural program typically includes information such as:
- The type of building.
- The number and types of rooms.
- Maximum and expected occupancy levels.
- Information on the intended users or occupants of the building.
- The overall square footage.
- The required structural elements.
- Special considerations or requirements.
- The site and surrounding context.
- Any regulatory or zoning requirements.
The Design Intention, on the other hand, captures the underlying concept of the design. It is the secondary goal or objective that the designer has in mind when creating a space and can vary depending on the project and the client's needs. As we saw in the above examples as well, the design intention for a commercial project may be to create a space that enhances productivity, promotes collaboration, and attracts customers. These can be expressed through various elements of the design, such as the color scheme, lighting, furniture, peoples' flows and overall layout.
Are these two connected?
The success of a building project depends on the integration of both the Architectural Program and the Design Intention. When a building project “fails”, it can often be attributed to a lack of alignment between these two concepts. Here at Butlr we have seen times and times again how misused rooms, especially when not all stakeholders or occupants are informed, can negatively impact productivity and collaboration, and disrupt the intended use of the space.
What does failing to meet the Spatial Purpose look like?
Firstly, a quick way to identify failing designs is to look at spaces that are being used against their architectural program. When a space with costly equipment and specifically designed to support large-scale activities is generating unfavorable ROIs, it's time to look at occupancy. Take a conference room for example: these rooms are typically designated for formal meetings and presentations and may be furnished with technology and equipment tailored to accommodate such functions. However, if a conference room is used as a personal meeting space, it may not be accessible when required for its intended function. This circumstance could create scheduling conflicts and impede other employees from utilizing the room for its intended purpose. Moreover, it could interrupt the organization's workflow and adversely impact its productivity.
Staying at the conference rooms for a second here: what about Design Intention? A common goal for a conference room is to provide clarity, structure and inspire clear communication. Now think of a conference room that is unofficially being used as a storage room. If, after every meeting booked, clutter usually piles up and the predefined cleaning schedule does not follow actual occupancy aka how the space is actually being used, this can be problematic because it can lead to a lack of space for actual meetings and hinder collaboration and productivity. The clutter and disorganization may also negatively impact the perception of the workplace by visitors or clients. Yet, most importantly, misguided usage can render expensive equipment and amenities idle. And do you think the clutter example is too much? One of the most common reasons for low and misguided occupancy we see in our projects at Butlr is broken tech equipment that nobody bothers reporting!
How do you measure Purpose?
As you would never kickstart a project without defining its success metrics or launch a website without having analytics in place, same applies to spaces.
Each space has a purpose attached to it and the latter has a set of success metrics that you can define based on your current business model and goals. Some of them are rational numbers, deriving directly from the Architectural Program. Some of them, on the other hand, are qualitative information pointing to Design Intention.
Take, for example, this co-working zone:
This zone is defined by the Communal Working Table which has 10 stools and 10 power outlets. Measuring against Purpose here can be pretty straight forward. For a successful performance regarding the Program, you would expect the zone to be occupied more than 60% of the time by 10 people.
However, the Intention of the space can change that. For instance, let's assume that the space is intended to inspire serendipitous interactions instead of focused work or scheduled collaboration. Serendipity is a dynamic state that causes constantly fluctuating traffic. In this case, you would not expect the space to be occupied at maximum capacity, but you would rather look for frequent clusters forming instead.
With Program & Intention now set, peak performance for this area could be described as
“Zone is significantly used during working hours. The majority of this time people meet and interact with each other and have short conversations”
Does this sound too qualitative? Here is what our success metrics would look like:
1. Utilization: 80%
2. Fullness: 25%-80%
3. Dwell Time: 15mins (minimum)
Measuring at scale
Nonetheless, spaces rarely function in isolation. The performance of your zone can directly influence and be influenced by the occupancy trends of neighboring areas, especially in open-plan settings. Hence, the performance of neighboring areas should also be measured in relation to your zone.
Back to our example, if your co-working zone succeeds in creating serendipity but leads to low dwell times in a neighboring “focus area”, it means that the goal of your zone has a negative impact at scale. Building on top of our past metrics, we could also say that peak performance means that “Activity in Zones does not disturb peak performance hours and usage of Focus Area”. Let's assume that you have already observed peak utilization for Focus Area logging in between 9am and 11am Tuesday to Thursday. Translating these into our metrics:
1. Utilization: 80%
2. Fullness: 25%-80%
3. Dwell Time: 15mins - 30mins
4. + Peak Fullness: Anytime after 11am
5. + Dwell Time (Focus Area): 2h (minimum)
In other words, the success of one area may be detrimental to the overall success of the workspace. Therefore, it is crucial to measure spatial purpose not only for individual zones but also in relation to the surrounding areas.
Design for Your Team
Should the above metrics be applied blindly? Far from that. Each team has its unique patterns and ways of working, and it's crucial to take those into consideration when evaluating spatial purpose through workplace utilization metrics. While the metrics can provide valuable insights into space utilization, they should always be interpreted within the context of the team's specific needs and work processes.
Most importantly, however, metrics are not intended to impose a specific way of working on a team, but rather to amplify or redirect already established organic behaviors. For example, if a team tends to work collaboratively and frequently holds meetings, a high utilization rate for meeting rooms may be expected and desirable - and a potential negative impact to adjacent spaces might be minor in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, if a team primarily works individually, a high utilization rate for private workspaces may be more relevant.
Therefore, it's important to consider the specific needs of the team and the nature of their work before making any decisions based on workplace metrics. By doing so, workplace managers can ensure that the metrics are used effectively to enhance team productivity and well-being.
Spatial Purpose is the underlying concept that informs the design and construction of a building, encompassing the Architectural Program and Design Intention. While the Architectural Program outlines the objectives and requirements of a building project, the Design Intention captures the underlying concept or purpose of the design. A successful building project depends on the integration of both the Architectural Program and the Design Intention, and a lack of alignment between these two concepts can negatively impact productivity, collaboration, and the intended use of the space. Success metrics for a space should be defined based on the Architectural Program and Design Intention to ensure the space fulfills its intended purpose.
Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. (1977). A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press.