Every design project has a research component. Some amount of research is ongoing, and will carry through all phases of the project. But the biggest research effort will be at the outset.

There are many things that are important to know before starting to draw the building. Your architect will be researching local building codes and requirements, site specific climate conditions, (sun angles, prevailing winds, temperature degree days, etc.) Perhaps most importantly, they will do Precedent Research and put together a Precedent Study.

What is Precedent Research?

Precedent research in architecture is a foundational process where architects analyze historical and contemporary buildings or designs to inform their projects.
This research is geared towards finding inspiration and wisdom in existing designs.
Expect to dive into an analysis of design principles, materials, construction techniques, and the sociocultural context that shaped these structures. Such a study broadens your architectural vocabulary and your ability to understand, and look at architecture with a critical eye. This allows you to draw connections between various design philosophies, understand how and why styles and techniques developed, and apply these learnings to create beautiful, contextually relevant designs.

As the client, you have an opportunity to plug in and play a big role in this process. You might already have a vision board, or a Pinterest file where you have started to collect images of designs that you love. This is incredibly useful as a starting point in communicating your vision, your hopes and dreams with your designer.

As the architect, we consider design to be a process of lifelong learning. We are constantly looking at architecture, new and old, near and far, studying methods, details, proportions, materials, styles, innovations; looking for nuggets that can trigger new ideas, and analyzing what has been successful and what hasn’t.
The Precedent Study is a journey into the greater world of architecture, a search for inspiration, and a communication tool, helping architect and client to come together on a clear vision.

What is Precedent Research?

What’s Your Role in Precedent Research?

As we touched on earlier, when it comes to precedent research in architecture, your role is important. As the client, it’s your project, your dream, after all.
Your involvement will generally start with finding images of relevant precedents that align with your goals, fit the look, have a detail you like, or anything that catches your eye. It’s ok to start with a big collection. Your architect can help hone it down, and great designs often bring together eclectic concepts.

Whether you are looking at entire buildings as precedents, or finding single snippet that stands out in a design, it is all useful.

Analyzing this collection of precedents is the next step, looking for insights and drawing out connections that can inform design decisions. This includes dissecting the architectural elements, understanding the cultural and historical context, and evaluating the building methods and specific design strategies of each precedent.

Precedent research empowers you to bridge the gap between historical wisdom and contemporary innovation, ensuring that your design is both rooted in tradition and performs the way you want it to.


Historical Precedents

Exploring historical precedents is important in understanding the evolution of architectural design. By studying historical buildings, you gain insight into the techniques, materials, and design philosophies of the past. This exploration is not just about admiration but about extracting valuable lessons that can be applied to modern designs.

Let’s face it, buildings used to last longer.
While some of this can be attributed to the fact that people tend to take better care of things they like more (which is a lesson in and of itself,) beauty alone doesn’t explain this phenomenon. Why are many buildings built 500 or more years ago are still standing, while modern buildings don’t have near this longevity?

Our research digs into questions like this, trying to figure out what they were going better, what we have lost in our quest to build faster and cheaper. Whether or not we can or want to copy exact details from historic architecture, there is always something to be learned from studying how our lasting buildings have held up to the elements, time, and the wear-and-tear of use.

Historical Precedents

Regional and Cultural Precedents

Engaging with regional and cultural precedents requires a sensitive approach to understanding the connection between architecture, its locality, and the cultural context it embodies. As part of your research, you delve into how buildings and spaces reflect the traditions, climate, and social practices of their regions. Your task is to uncover the subtle nuances that make each precedent unique and relevant, thereby enriching your design with not only a sense of place and cultural depth, but also a level of performance that might not be attainable with conventional modern methods.

The attitude that Gropius and the early modern architects was that of forgetting the past and starting fresh; new technology was here to replace old methods and that you wanted to create buildings that were ‘free of untruths or ornamentation.’

As a result, much historic or cultural wisdom has been written off as being decorative, superficial or stylistic. Closer study reveals that this is far from the case, and the precedent study should be approached with the attitude that it can reveal invaluable information that contributes to a more successful, timeless design.

Regional and Cultural Precedents

Benefits of Using Architectural Precedents

Studying architectural precedents guides the creative process towards the production of informed, innovative, and contextually relevant designs. The analysis helps with:

  • Inspiration and Innovation: Precedents provide a wealth of design ideas, encouraging architects to think outside the box and innovate within their projects. This is especially true if you look outside the box of contemporary architecture and modern design publications. The practice of only looking at your contemporaries can very much keep you inside the box. A wider range of influences is always preferable.
  • Historical and Cultural Context: Offering insights into the architectural responses to different cultural and historical contexts can enhance the depth and relevance of new designs.
  • Location Specific Performance: How precedent buildings kept out the elements, whether modern or historical will help guide your decisions so you can choose effective roof shapes, wall assemblies, insulation, window details, and so on. A specific roof type, for example, may have been written off by the modernists as being vernacular rather than the result of hundreds of years of trial and error. It’s important to understand this distinction and be open to learning from all nature of precedents.
  • Enhanced Client Communication: Using precedents helps discuss and align design concepts and expectations with clients more effectively. It is a tool to communicate more clearly, especially in the early phases before the architect has prepared any visuals.
  • Informed Design Decisions: Ultimately, the study of precedents leads to more thoughtful and informed design decisions, grounding the new work in a rich tradition of architectural innovation and wisdom.

This approach not only strengthens the design process but also bridges the past and the future, allowing for the creation of spaces that resonate with users and stand the test of time.
Architecture should always be considered a ‘Living Tradition’, incorporating new techniques and materials while building on its rich history.

Benefits of Using Architectural Precedents

How to analyze and apply your precedent studies?

Analyzing and applying your precedent studies involves a strategic approach to ensure that the insights gained effectively inform your design process. Along with your designer, you can follow this process:

  1. Selection: Carefully choose precedents that align with your project’s goals, context, and challenges.
  2. Analysis: Break down each precedent into key components, such as design principles, materials, spatial organization, and environmental strategies.
  3. Critical Thinking: Evaluate the successes and limitations of each precedent in its own context.
  4. Synthesis: Draw connections between the findings from your analysis and your project’s needs.
  5. Application: Apply the insights gained to your design, ensuring they enhance functionality, aesthetics, holistic wellness and performance. Note that this is not necessarily a literal process. The creative journey is always free to take twists and turns.

How to analyze and apply your precedent studies


What Are Your Next Steps?

After collecting and analyzing your architectural precedents, your architect will have greater clarity on your vision, and you will ideally have learned about their process, and how they will move forward with the design process.

Keep in mind that new precedents might come up at any point. You might see something on your travels that makes you think about something in a whole new way. Your architect might include precedent images in a presentation that you love or don’t like at all. Depending how far along the project is, you probably won’t be starting from scratch, but refining details happens throughout the process. Remember that precedent research is a tool for learning and also communication. It should be a fun, free, and educational part of your project.