With this text we are starting new series of arcticles on Competitions.archi. We will be showcasing the case studies of the projects that were awarded in various architecture competitions.
The main focus of this series is to understand the design process behind all winning submissions. Thats why we will be asking all architects and designers ‘ How you won that competition ? ‘. We’re curious about their path, from the first draft, first blueprint to the full-scale plan. We’re also interested to see which solutions had been dropped on the way, what kind of choices had to be made, and most importantly, what was the grand idea behind the project. That is why we will be asking for sketches, drafts and detailed description, so that we can fully understand their technique and the process that resulted in the awarded works.
This article is part of Architecture Competitions Yearbook 2020 – where more stories and inspirations like the one below can be found.
Our acquaintance began at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. All three of us started there Master of Architecture and chose Extreme Studio wherein we were designing the Chamber of Commerce on the Caribbean island Sint Maarten. Even though we were in different groups, we met in one of the first classes. Probably it wouldn’t have happened if not the international environment that surrounded us and the great desire to talk to someone in a native language, that is Polish. In such circumstances, people from one country try to establish a thread of understanding. Maybe it results from a longing for a just abandoned homeland, customs that are close to us, behaviours and things that we know. However, we are connected by something more. Sometimes it is so that you just have to exchange a few words with someone and you already know that you have found your soul mate. We felt like we had known each other for a long time. It was natural for us to meet up again and again, to study together at the library at the university, to travel and also to take part in various events.
The experience we gained while designing the Chamber of Commerce turned out to be helpful for the competition. It was based on similar design assumptions because it was in a tropical climate zone, was associated with natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, for its construction most of us used wood as an ecological and durable but flexible material and its construction had to be financially accessible to the Caribbean community. Two of us also went on a trip to Sint Maarten, where we met the natives and listened to their touching stories about how their entire life’s assets were destroyed in a moment. All the experience gained during the design of the Chamber of Commerce later helped us with the Emergency Operation Centre. We not only wondered what construction of the facility would be the most appropriate but also tried to imagine what people affected by the disaster felt and what they needed. We knew that good architecture can give them a sense of care.
First advice – a clear presentation
To win an architectural competition you need to be able to show your idea. Jury usually has only a few seconds to look at the charts and will not read the descriptions or look at the details. Only works that seem interesting are later analysed. The rest is discarded. Of course, everyone wants to be in the first group and thus beat part of the competition already at the start. It is the best if the project has such a clear and simple idea that one scheme is enough to explain it. It should be, in our opinion, the best possible solution to the problem that the competition is asking for. In our case, it was a possibility to transport the object with one truck, its easy assembly and disassembly. All these 3 elements are shown in a simple and a clear diagram. After establishing the idea, preliminary sketches of the form and plans, we can move on to another important tool in our hands – visualisations, thanks to which we can not only present the project but also create the atmosphere of the place and thus influence the emotions of the recipients. Renders take up most of the space on the board and will probably be the most noticeable ones by the jury. It is not about being photorealistic. Often, for example, the form of a college is enough, but it should meet certain composition and aesthetics requirements. Here we would like to describe our main render and indicate its strengths.
Render – eye-catching element
Before starting to visualise the building we were looking for pictures of places where it would stand. We wanted to get to know the landscapes of Sub-Saharan Africa, its vegetation, terrain and a colour palette. Then, from the collected materials, we used the elements that we thought would work best – a rocky slope, cracked earth, dry vegetation and a range of mountain peaks in
the distance. In this way, we reduced the number of dominant colours in the picture to two main ones: beige and azure (sky). If you look at most of the highly acclaimed films, their pictures are also shown in 2 dominant colours (e.g. Ad Astra, shot by Hoyte van Hoytem). It is important what colours are used because there are certain stories and emotions hidden behind them. On the main render – a view when approaching the building, we decided to place the view of the building in a single-sided perspective, perpendicular to the elevation. Actually, we did not even consider other options in this matter. We knew that such a frame arrangement works well with simple objects which geometry can be visually simplified to one mass, e.g. a rectangle, a square or a triangle. A human eye is sensitive to such forms and unintentionally simplifies a geometry to them. Moreover, our brain considers them harmonious and thoughtful. In our case, it was also extremely important that in this perspective, a distant landscape will be visible between the structure and thus the whole object will appear to be a part of its surroundings. In this way, the building blends in with the environment.
Other aspects that guided us in the creation of the main visualisation were the hidden lines of sight and the story written by them. Here we mean the path leading to the EOC, a clump of grasses on the right and left, the shape of the gradient of the sky and people heading towards the building. Looking at such an arrangement of elements we have no doubt which part of the visualisation is the most important and thus our eyesight does not get lost in the picture. All the elements form a single, coherent story.
The human eye is used to seeing more of the sky than the earth, so it is also important to show such proportions in the render. The horizon should not be higher than halfway through the picture. The position of the sun is also important because from its side we should leave more space on the visualisation. Following this advice, our visualisation can breathe and the frame is not crowded. The element that adds lightness are the birds flying towards the sun, which provide a rest.
Planning and management.
Teamwork requires excellent communication – effective contact with each other to achieve the best possible final design while having a pleasant time. We must admit that we created this team, knowing our characters and abilities. We knew that it would allow us to work dynamically, that we can rely on each other and complement each other’s skills. The three-person team consisting of friends with a similar view of architecture seemed to us to be ideal for achieving the desired goal.
Plan your work and plan your collaboration.
Even if you know the rest of the group well, what you can do before the start of the collaboration is to write an agreement. It could include the requirements and expectations for all the team members, how people want to contribute, and how much time they can devote to working both together and individually.
A good plan is a feasible one, one that motivates, but is not excessively demanding. After two meetings, which were supposed to be a loose start to work sessions, we have arranged a meeting plan together. Each meeting was tailored to a specific topic – we knew how much time we wanted to spend on what. We also set up a time reserve knowing that in the design process not always everything can be predicted.
The points we distinguished in the calendar:
- Developing a composition of plans and ideas for the technique in which it is solved;
- Designing the roof and foundations.
- The final floor plan and a cross-section
Diagrams explaining the idea of the project
All the materials needed as a base to create a 3D model
Further meetings were about presenting what we had designed. We planned the work in such a way, as to know when we want to have a finished element of the project. However, this did not mean that we would not allow ourselves to go back in the process and rethink decisions made in previous stages.
At first, we met for longer sessions. During the lockdown, the meetings were online, and we usually met twice a week for 2 hours. We wanted to keep the balance between individual work and meeting together where we were discussing the progress. That’s why we gave ourselves time and didn’t meet every day. This had a good impact on our creativity and productivity. We gave ourselves time to think and approach with a fresh mind. We believe that the more time we spend doing competitions, the better the chances for good and fruitful cooperation.
An effective plan is one in which we know how to proceed to the next stage. For example, it wouldn’t have been possible to start developing a floor plan if it hadn’t been for the research and sketches made during the first meetings. We didn’t create a plan to get stressed or frustrated; it was just for our motivation and smooth thinking in the process.
Honesty in communication and Courage. We were open for a change, even if the time was shrinking. We think it came out naturally, so it was not like we forced ourselves
to be honest and direct in the communication. It was an obvious fact that we always shared with other team members what was on our mind. It helped us develop the design at every stage and kept in the position that every voice matter and when you sometimes think your thoughts would not contribute to the work you might be wrong!
Attitude. We tried to keep the neutral attitude to what we were doing – being ready for change and not emotionally attached to what we do. The attitude to cooperation and design determines not only how you spend your time working together, but also what the outcome of design will be. Sometimes it happened that one of us was in a bad mood or wasn’t able to handle a task. It is essential that the submitting the project for a competition is not a goal in itself. It is also about being positive about the time you spend designing; to give your best, but to take care of your psyche – for the sake of yours, the project and the people you work with. Before jumping to work we usually talked about the things other than architecture and we recommend small talks to every architecture student!
Manual:Thinking through sketching
- Think what is needed
One of the very first remarks that we would like to address to anyone who sets about an architectural competition is that you should not focus on designing each element separately nor that you should design an overall appearance first to give it a certain impression. Instead, it is needed to focus on essentials that are required for the competition as they will be a departure point for your design.
Therefore, it is crucial to carefully read the competition brief to get an idea what are the most important parts of your future design- which aspects are obligatory, which might be freely explored and which are just optional. Moreover, it is helpful to look at the other projects from previous editions to get an idea about the scope of the design that you need to produce: should it be a conceptual project? Or maybe a more detailed one, with technical drawings and diagrams? This will definitely direct your thinking into the right track.
- Look at what do you have
The second step is to critically access your findings.
In our case, we analysed the competition brief a multiple of times and later we wrote down the aspects that can be categorised as ‘crucial’ for our future design. We divided them into four groups:
- adaptability/flexibility of use
2. easy assembly/disassembly process
3. structure that is easy to transport
4. sustainability, usage of leftover materials
Then we looked at the brief again in search of aspects that could give us certain freedom of choice. It was stated clearly that participants were given two options- to either design a temporary structure (one that is easy to build and transport) or a permanent one that later might be adapted to the different uses of the community. Also, the strong emphasis was placed on a sustainability aspect and a usage of leftover materials, those available on the site or even those coming from the emergency itself.
Here we had to make the first important decision – in which direction do we want our project to go? We were tasting and discussing different material and construction options, e.g. thinking about materials available on-site that can function as a building material (like bags filled with sand) but above all aspects like flexibility and sustainability were the key ones to push our ideas further. Taking into account the unpredictable conditions of emergencies that may threaten the Sub-Saharan region we concluded that building from materials available on-site may significantly limit our design as the project will have to vary from site to site and such alterations will be labour and time-consuming. Moreover, using materials that come from emergencies may create a certain danger of introducing harmful particles to the construction and consequently, have severe consequences on people’s health.
Therefore, we decided to design a temporary structure that will be easily transportable and quickly assembled on any site. Such a decision implied that the subject of sustainability will be satisfied by durable materials that can be used a multiple of times and which will not leave any traces on the site. This decision has immediately brought us to the next subject, namely that of ease of transportation- how to transport all the elements quickly, preferable by one truck? And also how to design them so that a repetitive assembly and disassembly will not cause any damage?
Having all of these questions in mind we realized that construction was the most important aspect of our design. So we sat down together and through sketching, we started to discuss and express ideas that we had in our minds. Sketches took the form of loose thoughts, diagrams or even more technical drawings. We were trying to test different options, then comment on it together, draw it, again and again, to understand what is the most accurate answer to a particular problem. We were not in a rush. We gave ourselves enough time as we knew that the decisions we will take now will significantly define our project – the rest will be just ‘an outcome’ of it. Also, it is important to say that we were not thinking about the final form yet nor that we were very attached to our own ideas. We were bringing them only as a trigger for a bigger discussion.
One of such discussions brought our attention to a simple box that in fact is both an inseparable element from humanitarian actions (transporting goods) and a basic unit to store things. We realized that theses two aspects explain the essence of our shelter- we only had to translate it into an architectural language.
The main challenge was to think about the structure that will make use of a rigid box but at the same time, its elements will not occupy a lot of space during transportation.
We started to look at the essential characteristics of a box- it is composed of four planes that define a space in the inside. We realized that the same happens in the bookshelf, only in a reversed condition- a box is defined by a void. Having that we looked at ways to construct a simple shelf that later can be flattened down and easily transported. We came up with the idea of single boards with cuts that can slide one into the other and create a waffle-like structure. This solution allowed us to get rid of any screws or glueing adhesives and therefore the structure might be assembled/disassembled a multiple of times without any damage to the construction.
- Make it work
Answers to all of the aspects mentioned in the brief do not necessarily mean a successful project yet. The last step you have to take is to think about your project through the associations it should evoke: an emergency shelter by its nature should be quite simple and modest while the conference centre for example- more elegant and complex. It is important that these keys values are visible in all of the elements of your project like the floor plan, a section, details and the overview of the building to create a coherent whole. Additionally, think about people who will use the space – what are their needs? How would they feel there? Which emotions will the space trigger in them?
In the example of an emergency shelter, it is clear that a building should also find a right balance between openness and privacy – people should not be afraid of seeking help there but on the other hand, they should also feel safe and protected inside. Moreover, its structure should be quite simple and should clearly define spaces with a different function but also must be very flexible and adaptable to changing needs of emergencies. Also, a tight budget does not necessarily mean a poor quality design.
A floor plan which we designed after a hundred of sketches tries to capture these essentials in a simple square-form plan. It clearly defines two spaces by having two different entrances on each side but also connects them by means of a storage room located in the middle. Also, the exterior space shows a palette of different niches that give different levels of privacy, adequate for different users of the space- wider waiting area for people visiting and a narrower corridor at the back for volunteers taking a rest. This simplicity was also expressed in the construction principle as we were aware that our building might be constructed by unqualified workers so it should have an intuitive method of assembly and a clear function. At the very end, after combining all of these elements together we took a more distant look to see if the overall design satisfy our aesthetic needs and in case it does not- go through the whole process again and think what can be adjusted.
We believe that the above mentioned way of working is not the only way to achieve a successful project. However, it worked very well for us when at the very beginning we detached ourselves from the final image and instead engaged in the process of discussions, sketches and tests to get to the essential elements of the project. No matter which way you follow, make sure that all decisions you take make up a coherent final image.
Authors: Aleksandra Wróbel, Agnieszka Witaszek, Kamil Owczarek
If you would like to ready more case studies like the one above please check our annual publication – Architecture Competitions Yearbook. This book is perfect for you if you want to know:
- Whats the secret behind winning submissions?
- What makes a good project?
- How to create an innovative solution to the given problem?
…and much more.
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