Design......It's a process.

Legend has it that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the iconic Fallingwater Residence in one 2-hour design session.  I have heard many versions of this story.  The basic bones of the legend are that the client, Edgar Kaufman Sr., called Frank one day alerting him that he would be stopping by to see the design and he was about 2 hours away.  Meanwhile, Wright had yet to even begin the first drawing of the house.  Rather than postpone the meeting like any sane person would do, Wright sat down at the drafting table and proceeded to pour out one drawing after another of the now famous Fallingwater.  And let's just say he nailed it. Fallingwater is one of the most influential residences of the 20th century.  2 hours...and he nailed it.

Apparently, Wright was known for completely conceptualizing his designs in his head before putting them on paper.  And would often draw them in one draft.  I am sure that these stories have been embellished over time, but I do believe that there is a kernel of truth in there. Wright was a genius and over his long career he had an incredible output of ground breaking designs.  If you are going to design as many buildings as Wright did, then you better be quick.

The reason that this is 'legend,' is that Wright's process is nothing like how the rest of us work.  For the rest of us mere mortal architects, the design of a building takes much more time and energy.

Design is a process.

Design is an iterative process that involves a continued refinement of an idea. You draw it once, twice, thrice and so on.  Each time improving upon the last. (hopefully)  And the design of a building can be quite complex in which you have to juggle things like, function, cost, durability, aesthetics, site, build-ability and let's not forget those pesky Design Review Boards.

To help illustrate just how much is involved in the process of designing a building, I am going to share a recent project that is currently under construction.  That project is the chapel for the new Catholic Diocese of Charleston Pastoral Center.  The Pastoral Center includes 3 buildings: an office building, an assembly building, and a chapel.  The entire project is quite amazing, but for the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on the chapel.  And specifically on the front facade of the chapel.

I had the privilege of serving as the project architect for the project and lead the design efforts on the chapel and assembly building.  My colleagues David Burt and Brian Wurst were also heavily involved with this project and saved me on more than one occasion.   


At the beginning of a design my main focus is on the building program and the building site. The building program is essentially the list of rooms planned for a building.  And for this chapel, the program was pretty simple: the narthex, the nave, the sacristy, some restrooms and a utility room.  The narthex is that vestibular space that separates the front door from the nave.  The nave is the main central space of a church.  The sacristy is a small room where the priest prepares for a service.  The building program also will list requirements for these rooms, such as the nave needs to seat 200 people.


I am a firm believer that a building must recognize and enhance its context.  The site must be a better place after our building is built or the project cannot be deemed a success.

And what a site we have here.  The Pastoral Center is being built on an amazing piece of property that fronts the Ashley River.  Between the site and the river is a beautiful stretch of marsh.  There are also some great trees on the property and the views are dynamite.  Some of our initial goals for the project were to preserve as much of the natural beauty as possible and to design the buildings to best take advantage of the views.  


We will also frequently pull together some images of other inspirational buildings and places at the beginning of a design.  Pablo Picasso famously said "good artists copy, great artists steal."  I am not a great artist, but I am a design theif.  I am always scouring print and the internet looking for ideas from existing projects.

Here is a pic of one of the image boards I compiled for the chapel.  Because we had such a naturally beautiful site, I wanted to create spaces that embraced and framed the views. Typically, churches can be described as very introverted buildings, but for this specific site, I thought that it was important for the building to also be a bit outwardly focused.

Chapel Image Board

I began a series of sketches of very very simple and glassy churches.  And specifically clear glass rather than the traditional stained glass.  I became fascinated with the idea of the church functioning almost as a telescope for viewing the marsh.

The Diocese client team was lead by the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone.  I had a great time working with Bishop Guglielmone.  He was just a sweet guy and had many insightful things to say.  At one point we were considering a single slope shed roof rather than the traditional gable roof.  Bishop Guglielmone preferred the gable form and said that, "the roof of a church is symbolic of the ascent to heaven."  I thought that was extremely poetic and a terrific reason to stick with the gable version.

The shed roof version.  Definitely more modern than the gable.

The gable roof version.

The gable and the shed version.

These were conceptual renderings of the chapel nave.  You can see how by using clear glass we were able to draw the landscape into the interior.  I also thought it would be very powerful for the alter to be framed by the marsh.

Here is a model that one of my colleagues made.  It is very effective at illustrating the framing effect.  I love this model and still have it at my desk.


We continued to develop the concept.  In Charleston, we love porches, so we added a porch to the chapel.  This is often referred to as a loggia, which is just a fancy architecture word that means a porch with columns.  We took a more modern spin on it and were thinking that wood columns would be a great way to relate to the context.  

In the rendering below you can see that we tweaked the porch to be separate from the main chapel roof.  The lowering of the roof helped break down the scale and just felt better.

End of Schematic Design

At this point in the process we had finished schematic design and were excited about the design.  We had successfully fit all of the program requirements on the site and were happy with how the buildings were fitting into the landscape.  The chapel had a very dramatic nave and a real presence from the street.  And most important, we had received positive feedback from Bishop Guglielmone.

Back to the drawing boards!

Then we hit a bit of a snag.  The contractor put together a construction estimate based off of the schematic design drawings.  Unfortunately the project came in significantly over budget, especially the chapel building.  There were many factors to this estimate, particularly that the scope of the project had grown, and construction prices had escalated.  We would need to revise the design significantly to get the project back in budget.

And on top of the budget challenges, the client team told us that they were not ecstatic about the exterior design.  They were originally pleased with the concept, but had circulated the design amongst various members of the Diocese and the reviews were lukewarm.  I think that it just seemed too different to them.  Perhaps a bit too modern.  They decided that it would be best to have a more traditional looking chapel that was more reflective of South Carolina churches.

This was definitely a tough spot for us to be in.  Every project comes with some sort of budget challenge, but it is atypical that we miss the mark on the design.  Or else we wouldn't be in business.  In a ways I felt like we had lost some of their trust. 

So we literally scrapped the design and went back to the drawing board.  Brian Wurst jumped in and gave me help in generating some new ideas.  Brian is our design champion in the office and was a big help.  Sometimes it can be easy to get fixated on one idea, so having a team to bounce ideas off of and inject new energy is a big plus.  We produced a series of new sketches in preparation for our next meeting with the client.

We produced 8 different options for the new chapel design.   Providing a client with options is always very helpful.  You will get much more feedback from them and it makes them feel more involved in the design process.  In hindsight, 8 options was probably a little overkill, but it was important for us to express to our client that we were committed to delivering their project and gaining back their trust.  

Our main goals with the re-design were to lower the building cost and to create a more traditional aesthetic. 

8 New Chapel Options

At the meeting we presented all 8 of the options.  The client team was very pleased with our efforts and were most drawn to scheme #8.  They gave us permission to proceed with option #8.  And just like that, we were back on track.  

Here is one of the earlier revit models of the new scheme.  Revit is the 3d modeling software that we use to design and document all of our projects.  We typically start designs with hand drawings before moving them into the computer model.

Conceptual revit model of the revised design.

At this point the detail level was very low and a little crude, but you can see the basic shape forming.  The image below is a rendered version that has been photoshopped into the actual site photo.

This project is in a flood zone, so the buildings have been elevated approximately 3' to mitigate potential flood damage.  In Charleston we have to design our buildings to withstand some pretty serious forces.  Because we are in tropical storm country our buildings must withstand 135 MPG winds.  And because we are near a major fault line we must design buildings for seismic forces.  Of course it rains a ton here also and we are close to sea level so many of our projects our located in flood zones.  This means that buildings have to be detailed well and there is added cost with building here.

The Gothic Arch

At this point in the project we were in design development and things were going smoothly. At one meeting with the client team we were asked if the pointed window top could be curved to form an arch.  Or a gothic arch, which is an arch with a point at the top.  This is a snapshot of our first attempt at a gothic arch.  You will notice that instead of the side walls being sloped like the above rendering, we changed them to be straight and stepped them in. This created the same tapering effect and we would not have to cut as much stone.

I liked our gothic arch but something didn't seem right.  The proportions were off.  I remember saying that, "I think it should be pointier?"  There are lots of rules and mathematic formulas that govern the proportions of classical buildings.  But, I wasn't quite sure what the rules were for drawing a gothic arch.  So I did what any professionally trained architect would do......I googled it.  How to draw a gothic arch?  Next time I will ask siri.  

It turns out that there were tons of diagrams on the googlenet showing methods for properly drawing a gothic arch.  I went with this one:

Here is the revised arch. just feels's pointier!  Getting proportions right can sometimes be a funny exercise.  A lot of trial and error.  Except if you're Frank Lloyd Wright.

Here are some additional drawings of the revit model showing the interior of the church. Although we cut back on the amount of glass from the original scheme, the concept of engaging the landscape and framing the altar is still there.

Final Renderings

Here are some of the final renderings of the Chapel.  The building to the left of the chapel is the assembly building.  They are connected by a covered loggia.  The chapel and the assembly building will hold 200 people each.  The buildings are skinned in mostly brick and fiber cement siding.  That pink material on the front of the chapel is pink kershaw granite. Bishop Guglielmone wanted to use materials from throughout South Carolina.  It turns out that pink kershaw granite is the only natural stone that is quarried in South Carolina.

This dusk rendering shows that telescoping effect I mentioned in the beginning.  

Here is an aerial view that shows the entire campus.  The building over on the right is the office building.

View of campus.  From left to right: assembly building, chapel, and office.

Construction Photos

The chapel is currently under construction with a completion date of Easter of this year.  I often get the question, "It must be great seeing one of your buildings get built?"  And my answer is, "Absolutely."  I have always enjoyed making things......drawings, paintings, sculpture and now buildings.  One of the cool things about making buildings is that they are very big objects.  It is very fulfilling to see something that you originally drew on a small piece of sketch paper being built.  We often joke and call them full size models.

Full size model of chapel.

Black is the new pink.

Ummm..What's that black stuff?

That black stuff is a fluid applied air barrier.  Basically it is a goop that they put on the building to keep moisture and air out.  You are probably more familiar with tyvek paper which performs a similar function.  The air barrier will eventually be coved by 2" of rigid insulation and then the brick and granite will be the outer skin.  

Thats my wife Danielle on the right.  It was bring your wife to work day.

The framed altar view.

The End.

I hope that this post has helped highlight the process that goes into designing a building. Each project comes along with its own unique set of challenges.  And this one was no different.  

Design...It's a battle...Don't give up!