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How to Design for Your Occupants Sense of Building Orientation

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Image Credit: © ragnar1984 | Flickr

Buildings often rely upon wayfinding design to give their occupants a sense of building orientation, and to perhaps spark that mental map that tells them where they have been as well as pointing them in the direction of where they need to go. And while wayfinding signage and other directional elements found within buildings can be helpful, I do think that a good architectural design should not be dependent upon such signage. That is, the design should inherently convey to its occupants a sense of where they are when within it, and a sense of direction subtly instructing them on how to get to where they want to go.

For instance, an implied axial alignment of a well-positioned window which lets in a certain quality of light can pull an occupant in that direction if they sense it from another room. Another example is one of an exterior building element which wraps around the corner of a building in a way that pulls pedestrians toward the entrance as they are subtly cued to turn the corner.

Thus, within your designs there are ways to gently pull your occupants through, as they experience a harmonization of building orientation elements, where one leads to the next. And as such, designed building elements (as opposed to wayfinding signage) can be used as milestones to be experienced along your occupants’ journey. Additionally, such architectural milestones serve to not only pull your occupants through your building, but to also create a mental map created in your occupants’ minds about the experience of your building as it will be stored within their memory.

In designs where it is important for an occupant to get from point A to point B, without getting lost and within the shortest time frame — such mental maps and experiential architectural milestones should be considered. As such, there are times were it is just simply not enough to only use color or material texture to imply a change in location within a building. For instance, this may not work well for your occupants, as can be seen within many hospitals or office buildings today, where corridors and rooms become redundant and repetitive in their layout and are only distinguished based on color change throughout the design.

To help with a more memorable and intuitively easy to navigate building design, think about the milestones that your occupant will experience along their journey when within your building. Use wayfinding signage as needed, but as an architect do not become overly dependent in your reliance upon such signage because you will be missing out on great opportunities with which to engage your occupants by taking them on a unique and memorable journey that “fits” your building, its occupants, and its intended functions.

Think of building orientation as a design challenge — where its solution can lead to more comprehensive, customized and intuitive building designs.


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Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is an award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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