Architecture Precedent Study and Analysis

Loft Conversions

What is an Architecture Precedent Study?

A precedent can be defined in the following ways:
  • Something said or done that may serve as an example or rule to authorise or justify a subsequent act of the same or an analogous kind.
  • The convention established by such a precedent or by long practice.
  • A person or thing that serves as a model.
Architectural Precedent

In architecture, precedents are used widely and you will no doubt be asked to refer to precedents during your educational and professional career.


An architecture precedent study can aid your design process from concept to final design. Note that precedents are not copied but used as an inspiration to your design. They are  an idea or guide to a method that you are wishing to employ in your scheme.


The use of a precedent in design can lend authority to your design by associating your proposal to something else. A precedent can communicate a meaning to your design, whether as a form of dialogue to your client, the public, or for the designer.


An architecture precedent study can help you solve problems in a design process that have previously been solved in other designs.


So whether it is to describe a construction method, a material choice or a design concept precedent studies are vital in our design process.

Where to start?

You need to start by establishing the brief, and therefore understanding the problem. You are seeking guidance or inspiration in a certain area, so it is important you select suitable precedents for your design. It may be that you are designing a museum, for example, so exploring museum precedents, would lead you to discover the requirements, conditions and problems that a museum design might present.


Don’t necessarily head straight to the internet for ideas – although it is a valuable resource. You can also consider magazines, journals, books – so make sure you head to the library too in order to collect your resources.


This is where keeping up to date with the latest architectural news can really help you – along with site visits and sketches.


It is also important to get out and about and experiencing some buildings for yourself. For example, you are designing a museum? Get out to your local museums and see what inspires you.


Make sure you search for precedents in both modern architecture and historical buildings.


Look for buildings you can actually visit, explore and experience rather than completely relying on the information you find on the internet or in books. To be able to visit a building, explore it, study the materials, the form etc, is quite different from reading about it in a book.


Using precedents local to your site, can help you understand the architectural language of the area and develop a design that is sympathetic to the context.


Don’t just select a building ‘because it looks nice’. There needs to be a lot more too it than that:


  • Why does it look nice?
  • What sets it apart from other similar buildings?
  • How is it constructed?
  • Would it work with your design?
  • How did the architect make the building successful?
  • Or, why is it a negative precedent?
  • Is the design good? What makes it good?
  • What materials have been used?

How to analyse and apply your precedent studies

The precedent is there to help you resolve a design problem. Be it a suitable solar shading solution, or a cladding material, you need to drill down on what that particular precedent has taught you and why you feel it is an important inspiration for your design.


Take time to research and interpret the precedent building, and figure out how it is constructed and its significant features. Analyse the form, structure, using any photographs and drawings you have in order to start to fully understand all aspects of the building or segment that you are focusing on.


What is the building or element you are studying for? What function does it fulfils. You can conduct your analysis of the building according to what you are trying to discover, understand or resolve.


Remember that different precedents will offer different solutions and experiences. For example, a building that demonstrates a good floor plan, my not necessarily be the building you want to look at for employing advanced technologies in materials and design. This is where a combination of precedents, can help you develop ideas and solutions, by cherry picking information from each and weaving the concepts into your design.


Some of the things that you should consider are:


  • Structure
  • Scale
  • Light
  • Materials and surfaces
  • Details
  • Proportions
  • Context
  • Social / cultural impact
  • Form
  • Access
  • Aesthetic
  • And many many more!


It is important not to copy. Be specific in the area which you feel applies to your design, learn lessons from the precedent and find ways that you can be creative with its integration, and solving your design problems.


These need to be communicated to your client/tutor in order for them to understand your reasoning, and give them the vision of your design.


Continue to build your architectural vocabulary and you will slowly create a precedent study library in your mind that you can refer to again and again during your design process. Immerse yourself in architecture, and this will become easier. Critically assess designs you see, ask questions, be inquisitive.

My favourite Tools and Resources

I have curated a list of some of the tools and resources I would strongly recommend for anyone studying or working in Architecture.