Architecture Precedent Study and Analysis

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.

What is an Architecture Precedent Study?


In architecture, precedents are used widely and you will no doubt be asked to refer to precedents during your educational and professional career. Architects draw inspiration from various sources, and one valuable resource that can greatly inform their designs is the use of precedents.

In the field of architecture, precedents refer to existing buildings, structures, and design solutions that have demonstrated success and relevance. By studying and analysing these precedents, architects gain valuable insights into the principles, strategies, and ideas that have shaped the built environment throughout history.

Architectural precedents can take various forms. They can be iconic landmarks that have stood the test of time, representing the pinnacle of architectural achievement. They can also be vernacular buildings rooted in specific regions and cultures, showcasing the adaptation of design to local contexts and conditions. Regardless of their form, precedents serve as a foundation of knowledge that architects can draw upon to create meaningful, functional, and inspiring designs.

The use of an architecture precedent study is not about replication or imitation. Instead, it is about learning from the past, understanding what has worked, and applying those lessons in innovative ways to address contemporary challenges. By exploring precedents, you can expand your design vocabulary, refine your conceptual thinking, and develop a deeper understanding of the principles that underpin successful architectural solutions.

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.

In this blog post, we will delve into the significance of using precedents in architectural design. We will explore how you can learn from historical examples and integrate regional and cultural influences into your designs. Additionally, we will discuss the benefits of utilising precedents, such as finding inspiration, building upon existing knowledge, and establishing a distinct architectural identity.

Don’t forget you can download this post as a handy pdf, just scroll to the end to get the guide!!

The Role of Precedents in Architectural Design​

Architecture precedent study
Precedent study buildings
Precedent study in architecture

Historical Precedents

Architecture is an evolving discipline deeply influenced by historical precedents. By studying and understanding architectural styles, movements, and iconic buildings of the past, architects can gain valuable insights and inspiration for their own designs.


Exploring Architectural Styles and Movements
Architecture has witnessed a rich tapestry of styles and movements throughout history, each with its own set of design principles and characteristics. By examining these styles and movements, you can grasp the underlying philosophies and ideas that shaped architectural expression in different eras. For example, studying the clean lines and geometric forms of Modernism or the intricate ornamentation of Gothic architecture can provide you with a foundation of knowledge to inform their design choices.


Learning from Iconic Buildings and Structures
Iconic buildings and structures have become landmarks and symbols of architectural excellence. These structures often represent groundbreaking ideas, innovative construction techniques, or visionary design approaches. By analysing and dissecting their design elements, you can understand how these buildings have successfully resolved various challenges. For instance, studying the structural system of the Sydney Opera House or the sustainable design strategies of the Bullitt Center in Seattle can inspire you to push the boundaries of your own designs.

Regional and Cultural Precedents

Architecture is deeply intertwined with the cultural, social, and environmental contexts in which it exists. Regional and cultural precedents offer architects a wealth of knowledge that can inform site-specific designs and help create a sense of place.


Incorporating Local Design Elements and Traditions
Regional architectural traditions have evolved over time, adapting to local climates, available materials, and cultural practices. By studying and integrating local design elements, you can create buildings that harmonise with their surroundings and resonate with the local community. This can involve incorporating traditional building materials, vernacular construction techniques, or indigenous motifs and ornamentation.


Responding to Climate and Site-Specific Considerations
Architecture precedents can provide valuable insights into how architecture has responded to specific climatic conditions and site constraints. By examining historical buildings in similar contexts, you can learn from the strategies employed to optimise natural light, ventilation, thermal comfort, and sustainable design practices. For example, observing how ancient courtyard houses in hot climates utilised shading devices and natural ventilation can inspire you to develop innovative passive design strategies for contemporary projects.

Understanding and incorporating historical, regional, and cultural precedents into architectural design allows architects to create buildings that are rooted in the past while responding to the present needs and aspirations of the community. By drawing on this collective wisdom, you can produce designs that are not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but also respectful of the cultural heritage and environmental contexts in which they exist.

Benefits of Using Architectural Precedents

Architecture precedents
Architects precedent study
Precedent studies for architecture students

Architects can derive numerous benefits from studying and utilising precedents in their design process. These benefits range from finding inspiration and fostering creativity to building on existing knowledge and establishing a distinct architectural identity.

Inspiration and Creativity

Sparking Innovative Ideas
Precedents serve as a wellspring of inspiration, triggering new and innovative design ideas. By studying the work of renowned architects and iconic buildings, you can expand your creative thinking and challenge conventional design approaches. Precedents can ignite fresh perspectives, encouraging you to explore new possibilities and push boundaries in your own designs.

Stimulating Design Thinking
Examining precedents stimulates critical design thinking. By analysing the successes and failures of past designs, you can develop a deeper understanding of the principles and strategies that contribute to effective design solutions. Precedents can act as catalysts for thoughtful reflection, prompting you to ask important questions about function, form, context, and user experience, leading to more refined and purposeful designs.

Building On Existing Knowledge

Leveraging Successful Design Solutions
Precedents offer a wealth of knowledge about what works in architecture. By studying successful design solutions, you can learn from the experiences of your predecessors and apply proven concepts to your own projects. This knowledge can help you avoid common pitfalls, streamline your design process, and ensure better outcomes in terms of functionality, user satisfaction, and efficiency.

Avoiding Past Mistakes and Pitfalls
Precedents also provide valuable lessons in what doesn’t work in architecture. By examining failures and shortcomings in past designs, you can identify potential pitfalls and design flaws to avoid in your own work. Learning from past mistakes can help you develop more robust and resilient designs, minimising risks and maximising the quality of your creations.

Establishing Design Language and Identity

Creating a Cohesive Architectural Vision
By studying and drawing from precedents, you can establish a cohesive architectural vision for your projects. Precedents can inspire a particular aesthetic or design language that resonates with your own style and sensibilities. This cohesive vision helps create a strong and recognizable architectural identity, setting your work apart and fostering a sense of consistency and purpose across your body of work.

Developing a Recognizable Style
Precedents provide architects with references and influences that can contribute to the development of a distinct architectural style. By analysing and understanding the design choices of past architects, you can identify recurring themes, forms, or motifs that align with your own design philosophy. This process of synthesis and reinterpretation allows you to infuse your work with a unique signature style while building upon the legacy of architectural history.

Utilising precedents in architectural design enables you to benefit from the collective knowledge and experience of those who came before you. By leveraging inspiration, building on existing knowledge, and establishing a distinctive design language, you can create spaces that are not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but also innovative, meaningful, and rooted in the rich tapestry of architectural history.

How to Use Precedents in Your Architectural Design Project

Architectural precedents
Architects precedents
How to do an architecture precedent study

You need to start by establishing the brief of your own project, and therefore understanding the design problem you are facing. You are seeking guidance or inspiration in a certain area, so it is important you select suitable precedents for your design. In simple terms, 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 experience 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.

Here we look at the steps you can take to integrate the lessons and inspiration from precedents into your own design process.

Research and Analysis

Conducting Case Studies of Relevant Precedents
You should embark on a comprehensive research journey to identify and study relevant precedents. This involves examining a wide range of examples, including historical buildings, contemporary projects, and regional or cultural influences. You can delve into books, journals, online resources, and architectural archives to gather information and imagery that provide insights into the design strategies, spatial configurations, material choices, and contextual considerations of these precedents.

Documenting Observations and Key Design Principles
As you study the precedents, it is crucial to document your observations and identify the key design principles that contributed to their success. This can be done through sketching, note-taking, or creating annotated diagrams. By distilling the essence of each precedent, you can extract valuable lessons that can inform your own design decisions.

Adaptation and Reinterpretation

Incorporating Elements from Precedents into New Designs
You can adapt and integrate specific elements, strategies, or concepts from precedents into your own designs. This can involve incorporating spatial arrangements, material palettes, lighting strategies, circulation patterns, or even formal gestures. By carefully selecting and reinterpreting these elements, you can infuse your designs with the successful and relevant aspects of the precedents you have studied.

Reimagining and Updating Traditional Concepts
Precedents can also serve as inspiration for reimagining and updating traditional architectural concepts. You can take traditional design principles or typologies and give them a contemporary twist, incorporating modern technologies, sustainable practices, or evolving user needs. This approach allows you to bridge the gap between tradition and innovation, creating designs that honour the past while embracing the future.

Contextual Integration

Responding to Site-Specific Conditions and Surroundings
Precedents provide valuable insights into how architecture can respond to site-specific conditions. You can carefully analyse the contextual factors of your own project, such as climate, topography, views, and cultural context. By understanding how precedents addressed similar challenges, you can develop design strategies that harmonise with the unique qualities of the site and create a sense of belonging within the surrounding context.

Balancing Respect for Tradition with Contemporary Needs
When utilising precedents, you must try to strike a balance between respecting tradition and addressing contemporary needs. The adaptation of precedents should consider the functional requirements, technological advancements, and evolving user expectations of the present time. You should seek to create designs that seamlessly integrate the wisdom of the past with the demands and aspirations of the present, resulting in timeless and relevant architectural solutions.

Some questions you can ask yourself as you embark on your precedent studies.

  • Why does the precedent stand out to you?
  • 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?

By following a thoughtful process of research, analysis, adaptation, and contextual integration, you can effectively utilise precedents in your design practice. This approach allows you to draw from the wealth of knowledge and inspiration available in architectural history while creating designs that are relevant, innovative, and responsive to the specific context and challenges of each project.

How to analyse and apply your precedent studies

Architecture precedent study and analysis
Architectural precedent study analysis
Precedent study and analysis
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 fulfil? 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, may 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 and volume
  • Light
  • Shadow
  • 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.



The utilisation of precedents in architectural design offers architects a wealth of benefits and opportunities. By studying historical examples, understanding regional and cultural influences, and adapting successful design solutions, architects can create spaces that are innovative, contextually responsive, and rooted in architectural history.

Precedents serve as a source of inspiration and creativity, sparking new ideas and pushing the boundaries of design thinking. They provide architects with a foundation of knowledge, allowing them to build upon existing successful design strategies and avoid past mistakes. By drawing from  architectural history, you can establish a cohesive architectural vision and develop a recognisable design language that sets your work apart.

Precedents enable architects to respond to site-specific conditions and cultural contexts. By integrating local design elements, considering climatic factors, and respecting the traditions of a place, architects can create designs that harmonise with their surroundings and resonate with the community. This contextual integration ensures that architecture becomes not just a functional structure but a meaningful and relevant contribution to the built environment.

In conclusion, the use of architecture precedent studies is a valuable approach that allows architects to learn from the past, adapt to the present, and shape the future. By embracing the lessons and inspiration offered by precedents, architects can create spaces that are functional, aesthetically pleasing, and deeply rooted in the diverse cultural, historical, and environmental contexts in which they exist.

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  1. Thanks emma its really a helpful site for students thank you… your doing great jop… hats off for your team

    • Thank you – appreciate your comments 🙂

  2. thank you! 🙂 great help!

  3. Thank you very much . it was quite informative. Because of this artical i came to know some different ways to slove design problems.

  4. You just saved my life! Thank you thank you thank you!

    • You’re welcome 🙂

  5. very helpful…

  6. Really helpful..

  7. EMMA!



  8. Ive subscribed already. I want to know that will i be getting notified by email about the new stuff coming up ? Or i have to do anything else to be updated about the stuff that you will be posting in the future?

    Thank you for youre precious time

    • Hi Muhammad, if you have subscribed you will receive my monthly newsletter with updates, and links to all the posts I have published in the last month. 🙂

  9. Thank You so much Emma, a great job indeed.
    It really helped me a lot.

  10. i have been designing without a clue of what the brief wants also with the precedents how will they help to go along with been a great up-lift inspiration on this site, thank you

    • Thank you! Glad the site has helped you out! Emma 🙂

  11. I am 2rd year student and i m confused wid what preference i should give while designing a hostel for backpackers….i am not able to think properly …. i need hints to start with the concept

    • Hi – I have sent you an email.

  12. Thanks alot, really idealogical, and informative

  13. Easily understandable and readable. Helped a lot. Thank you

  14. U are great Emma. Thanks so much. I like your post about architecture. Keep it up

    • Thank you Nazri.

  15. Hey, I’m a first year student and I need to prepare precedent studies and I don’t really understand how it should looks like, what it should provides. I was making research and I’ve got some inspirations but how it should looks on the paper sheet. Could you help me with it ? Your article is the best, but still don’t know how to make the final sheet :c

    • Hi Victoria,
      You need to read through the assignment brief and see what is being asked of you. What information are you expected to produce for the presentation sheet? Go through the information you have collected and organise by importance, giving it a journey or story. Sketch out how you think the information should look on the page, use pinterest for some inspiration. Hope this helps. 🙂

  16. Thanks Emma, doing a great job, this is really helping us, me in particular!…

    • Thank you Peter, much appreciated 🙂

  17. Thanks Emma. Your articles and site have been a great source of inspirations to me. Hope to procure some of the recommended books someday.

  18. thank u so much Emma 🙂

  19. Amazing resource for me. Thank you so much.

  20. Great resources, very helpful. much appreciated!

  21. This very helpful , very informative, Thanks

  22. Thank you Emma, your effort seems helpful and interesting ,
    I want to add some note on the concept and precedent studies,that is not always necessary to use architecture building as a case to study, but designer may use out side domain -if the project case need- from the nature for example, such as biology domain of knowledge to learn lessons (formal, relation ,accommodation with nature est). And after that to approach design through concept of transformation from other domain to architecture domain through reduction or metaphor.

    • Hello Salameh, I completely agree – I failed to mention that you can draw from nature and other influences to use as part of your precedent studies. Thank you for your comments – much appreciated 🙂

  23. In fact the source has really helped me to understand certain things I don’t know. I am a 1st student and I been given an assignment to come out with a precedent study of a place for prayer ,can you please help me out

  24. Hi Emma. I’m a second year architecture student. We were asked to come up with precedents for a kayak/bike rental place, and I’ve been struggling to write about it. Do I need to talk about what I thought the architect was trying to accomplish, in my own words, or do i explain its features and why it would help with my design

    • Hi Chris, I would say a bit of both. Basically take what you have learned from the precedent. So, what the architect accomplished, what you think they may have missed, what is great, what is not so great. Then perhaps point out specifics and explain how you might use those to inform your own design… Having a varied study of other buildings is good, so being able to look at the precedent study from different angles (ie positive/negative etc) will help you when you come to your own design. Hope this helps- best of luck with your assignment 🙂

  25. Hi Emma, I’m so Happy that I found your website. Your website makes me easy to understand what architecture is. Especially, It’s very great for architecture students. I’m a 3rd year architecture student. I still have a lot more to learn . I’ll come back to your website to learn more. Thank you so much.

    • Hi Nik, thank you so much for your kind words, I really appreciate it. I am very happy to hear the website has provided some help to you and hope that it continues to do so! All the best. Emma

  26. hi..I’m an instructor of architecture, and I find your site very useful and relevant. It provides me valuable insights that I can echo to students and make them learn architecture better and in a natural way.
    Thank you and all the best!

    • Thank you Noel 🙂

  27. Thank You so much. You are a blessing from God!

  28. thank you so much, this information is so helpful. Now I have an idea of where to begin.

    • You are very welcome 🙂

  29. Hi Emma:

    you’re so great and blessed by our almighty through your priceless generosity. Amid this pandemic situation you are my Savior in devising our online module here in Zamboanga, Philippines for the College of Architecture. The Commission on Higher Education compelled us to do such modules for students to pick-up on a designated area the hard copy. For those students who are unfortunate to WiFi connections they are encouraged to do so.

    thanks a lot Emma; God Bless You

    • Hi Nolie, really happy to hear the website is helpful to you 🙂
      Thank you for your feedback.

  30. Excellent! I’m really happy for the guidance given. Now I know where to begin in designing. May God Bless you with more Wisdom. Thanks.

  31. Thank you miss emma!

    • You are welcome 🙂

  32. Emma! this is incred
    really helped me out thanks babes

  33. Pls.. thank you ..good job. But pls I want to know the difference between case study and precedent study


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