Terms Used in Design

“The Program”

You hear that term a lot in an architect’s office. “What’s the program?” or “Do you have the program yet?”.

And no, it’s not a software program or the description of a concert, it’s what we use at the beginning of a project to understand in terms of square footage, how a space or building will lay out. It is the basis of your challenge in terms of usable space and circulation between spaces.

Of course, with this comes the consideration of views and orientation to the sun and prevailing winds but that will be in the back of your mind as you first work out what the needs will be in terms of space and proximity of one area or function to another.

Programming begins with a meeting with the client and possibly meetings with groups who will be using the space to understand their activities and needs. Will you need a copier? If so, do you need a copy room or just a stand alone copier on a counter? What teams work closely together? You also need to understand the hierarchy, the culture of the company, if it is a business, and the values of those in charge.

These factors and more are included in what will be the final program.

After asking a lot of questions and understanding how a family, restaurant or hotel functions, along with their needs and goals. Then you set about calculating square footage for each workstation, the size requirements of a kitchen based on its essential function and/or the requirements of a private office space.

As a designer, you get to know how much space is required for any use but there are also reference books available that can guide you with everything from stadium seating to the size of a dining room buffet. These reference books, by the way, are just fun to look through from time to time.

Once all your square footage is calculate, you put together your list in a spreadsheet.

Original Program

From there you begin to look at proximities, what function needs to be next to another space. For instance, is the head of the company’s office preferred right off of reception or will it be a corner office at the end of a corridor? Does everyone have access to business supplies or is it the responsibility of a few people who need to enter the room frequently?


When you have a clear understanding of adjacency needs, you can then do your bubble diagram. This should be done by hand because it’s faster than having to deal with the intermediary of a computer. Just begin to form your bubbles, some bubble sizes will be smaller than others based on square footage requirements, ad think about what needs to be next to something else.

At this time, you are also aware of views and begin to consider issues like how the building or house is oriented to the sun, shade and prevailing winds.

Once the bubble diagrams are completed and approved by the client, these meetings with the client, by the way, can be done informally and revised diagrams may be drawn during the meeting, you are on to the initial steps of space planning.

Whether it is a building, an office space or house, these steps are always done and in this order.

It is highly recommended to color code different areas of a building or a house once the bubble diagram is done. This helps you and everyone else understand adjacencies and square footage requirements…and they look cool.


program 5

BIG Architects programming for the Phoenix Observatory

From there, you will begin drawing your space plans to ensure the furniture fits, circulation works and there is a flow between spaces and functions.

During this entire process you also begin to get an idea of what the space, house or building should look like, the overall design, the character of the building or space.

That leads you into conceptual design which can only happen once you understand the requirements and goals of the client.

-Dora Taylor