The Reason Why Everyone Loves Thoughtful Architectural Details
Updated: Sep 30
A thoughtful architectural detail is one that goes beyond it's function to relate to its context, its inhabitants or its purpose in a way that is unique and improves the overall quality of the building design. From interior architectural details to exterior architectural details, from floor plans to how a building looks to the door knobs; there is a reason why everyone loves thoughtful architectural details- it's soooo satisfying! Actually, there are several reasons: quality, sense of place, sense of security, comfort, and ease of use. Thoughtful building plans and details display a higher level of quality. Building designs that are unique and carefully thought out give a sense of place; they have a soul. Design firms that create thoughtful architectural details increase the sense of security. Good details mean strength and durable shelter. Well thought out details improve the occupants comfort level. The rise and run of a stair is a common detail that with small variances can be very comfortable to climb or inexplicably awkward when the steps are too high or too low. Thoughtful architectural details also make buildings easier to use. Odd circulation patterns, vague entry/exit points lead to confusion among users. All of these things when put together are just so satisfying. Like a deep, relaxing sigh, "ahhhhh"
Below are categories of thoughtful architectural construction details and why everyone loves them. Even if you don't necessarily like the architectural style, the attention to detail will win you over.
Stylistic Cohesiveness/Perfection (everything goes together with thoughtful architectural details)
There is something so satisfying about a complete whole. Humans have an innate appreciation for order and an innate desire to make sense of things.
Beginning with the first built structures, things like Stonehenge, humans love order. And the Greeks pretty much perfected it. Everything had a specific order and arrangement. It was logical and derived from the methods of construction. But the Greeks took their detailing one step further. Temples were a big deal. They needed to be perfect. To achieve temple perfection, they corrected the optical illusion of straight lines sagging and tilting when viewed from a distance that are created by the human eye. To do this, they eliminated straight lines. Above is an illustration exaggerating what they did to make the Parthenon appear perfectly plumb and straight. This is a thoughtful architectural construction details at every last level of the building.
And here is the actual Parthenon in all its glory. Doesn't look curvy at all. Pretty amazing.
Fast forward a thousand plus years and you'll find the ultimate in stylistic cohesiveness: Art Nouveau. Stylistic cohesiveness is just a fancy way of saying everything looks like it goes together. Today, you can go into a building and see classic crown moulding, vintage Persian carpets, Shaker furniture and Marvin windows. Art Nouveau as a style was so distinct and all-encompassing that you couldn't have an Art Nouveau building with a couple Art Nouveau walls and artwork and the rest was whatever. For it to be Art Nouveau, EVERYTHING about it was stylistically detailed; all interior architectural details and all exterior architectural details. One building element swirled into the next.
The columns swirled up onto the walls and down into the floor tile pattern and railings unfurled from the sides.
And of course there is the Master in Art Nouveau architecture: Antoni Gaudi. I could do an entire blog post about all the details in just one of his buildings. They are amazing. Nothing is left untouched by the style.
That is a stone and tile facade. And look at those window frames. Every last little moment is carefully considered. The story told to us in our History of Architecture class is that all of those little tiles were placed directly per Gaudi's instructions as he stood from the street and directed the construction.
This is an entry door. The swirly, organic forms are representations of seaweed. And it's not just flat iron, as this view might imply. It's textured and expressive. It adds to the completeness of the whole. And the whole is so stylistic, it creates its own world.
And it wasn't just the exterior architectural details. The interior architectural details were just as much a part of the whole. Architects and interior designers are often separated, but Gaudi thought of his buildings as a whole thing. There was no outside or inside. Lighting, ceiling shapes, wall paint, textures, doors- everything was absorbed and transformed by the Art Nouveau style. Guadi's work reminds me of the scene in Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast when the cursed castle is transformed back into it's glorious form and you can see the doom and gloom melt away into light and beauty and it takes over the entire castle. That's what Gaudi did. And it was the architectural construction details that made it happen.
Even the most mundane, rarely thought of building elements were given artistic consideration. Below are exhaust vents and chimneys on a roof that is 4 or 5 stories above street level. When even the most utilitarian elements in building construction are given the highest regard, it's a thing of beauty and is so deeply satisfying. You know nothing in this building was an afterthought.
For a long, long time in architecture, the structure of a building was "hidden". Rough bricks were covered with plaster or marble, wood and steel were covered with stone or finished brick. Basically, structural elements weren't thought of as pretty enough to be exposed. At some point, due to all kinds of factors, (artistic movements, economy, efficiency,etc) structure popped out of its shell.
The use of structural iron and steel was quite the shocker when it became widely used. It was hard for people to grasp that such thin members could actually carry such huge loads. They were often bulked up as a sugar pill for the public just to put their minds at ease. Like this example of a steel truss getting some decorative infill. It also sits on a large stone corbel, something people were familiar with. I appreciate the attention to the concerns of the zeitgeist. [zeitgiest: shit that was happening within a culture at a certain time, place in history] A sense of safety and security in a building is kind of a big deal. This is a thoughtful architectural construction detail to address the concerns of the user.
The funny thing is, structure had started to become expressed long before structural steel made its appearance but people probably didn't even realize it. A major example of it is in Gothic cathedrals. They were basically a stone frame with glass infill. The taller cathedrals required flying buttresses to keep the thrust from the vaults from pushing the exterior walls over. Flying buttresses are basically a series of exterior arches and bracing that push back against the exterior wall and transfer forces to the ground. The master builders and architects all knew this but i'm sure your average Joe cask of wine, had no idea that the crazy web of exterior "decoration" was actually exposed structure. Just looked like some more random frills to honor his god.
Here's another example of an even more expressive steel truss. A huge span, with a huge load. But the strength of the material allowed that load to be transferred down to what looked like a pinpoint connection. It was pretty unsettling at the time. Like trying to support a brick on a toothpick. It's a thoughtful detail in the efficiency of the material. Yep, only need this much steel here so that's what we're going to use. Pretty darn thoughtful. There is another clever detail happening here as well but born more of necessity than thoughfulness. That joint at the truss and the ground is flexible and allows for expansion and contraction of the structure so that it can move without breaking the joint. Details of this nature are used all the time now in earthquake prone regions.
Since the early structural expressionism, there has been all sorts of it. Embracing the textures and inherent qualities of raw materials has become a desired trait, especially in amid ever growing concern over material excess. So structural expression isn't such a novelty these days. Here is a nice example of some structural expression. In a nutshell, there is a wooden frame that is exposed and enclosed as needed. It's exposed on the interior as well as on the exterior. Wood tends to be vulnerable to the elements. I like how in this house, when the wood is exposed on the exterior, it is still very well protected with large overhangs. It's very expressive and reads as a frame but extra thought was given to preservation of the material by the design firm. Love this!
Joints are quite possibly the biggest issues that builders and design firms deal with. Once humans ventured out of the caves, any type of built shelter involves joints. Any time there is a break in a material, there is a joint. It's virtually impossible to build anything without a joint. There are several possible issues to deal with when detailing a joint. The joint may need to be weathertight; water penetration is a huge issue. The materials that are joining may not be the same and different materials need different considerations when they touch. Durability needs to be considered. Possible expansion and contraction need to be considered.
I like this detail for the simple gesture of covering the top of that wood post with the steel. It looks like the wood post is offset from where the steel is bearing but the architect added a horizontal flange of steel as a cap for that wood post. They also held that cap off the wood to account for capillary action (water will seep in and along materials where there is not a watertight connection). So if water does get on top of that wood post, there is room for air circulation to allow the water to dry.
This joint is a big joint. Where that floating volume comes out and appears to rest on a pile of boulders, there is actually a column hidden in the center of that pile. That pile of rocks is really just a big faux column but the thought that was put into it is so nice. That big pile of boulders seems to ground that floating volume and root it to its site. It also provides a pop of organic lines amongst the stark volumes of the building. Nice architectural construction detail!
Brick construction is probably the most joint ridden construction that there is. Every joint is a chance for water to get in. Quality mortar and installation is key. Typically when a brick wall ends at the ground, the brick stops short of the ground to allow for some kind of flashing detail to end the brick and keep the brick joints far away from the ground where they are more susceptible to water penetration. I love how this architectural construction detail cleverly just continues the brick onto the ground with a curve so that it will still shed water. I also appreciate how the gate form follows that curve as well. Very thoughtful and well executed.
I love gabled construction that has no eaves. It's just so clean and lovely. But this condition can be a complicated detail. Walls materials may not be suited to be roofing materials and roofing materials may not be suited to be wall materials. You can even see in the photo below how the wood on the roof has weathered more than the wood on the walls. However, the translation of the siding rhythm and detail being carried directly onto the roof is so simple it's glorious. There's no eave detail to consider, the roofing simply overlaps the siding. This was probably also an easy detail to construct. Once the siding was on, the roofing just followed suit. The exterior architectural detailing is thoughtful and the materials are traditional. Such a great mix of rustic and modern.
This detail is similar to the other detail above but I thought it deserved mention. I think the separation between the wood beam and the wood post is a thoughtful expression of the role of the steel connector; it bears some load, it's not just a connector. It's an extra level of articulation that I appreciate.
Ok, this one is my favorite of all the details. I love the mix of anything old and new (see my post on mullet houses for a cool gallery of old/new combinations) This one is so lovely! Besides having a gabled volume of uniform material, the way it sits within the old structure is so graceful. The new volume completely respects the rough edges of the existing rock wall. Instead of trying to sit directly on it, the new volume hovers just above it. I love how it gets so close to sitting on the rock wall, it really accentuates the thought given to that moment. This floating detail also eliminates the problem of trying to attach a new, level structure to an uneven, lumpy rock wall. This is such a beautiful architectural construction detail and is another moment of "ahhhh" because the detail is so magical.
Just look at it! It's so glorious and respectful of the existing conditions it's joining. So gorgeous!
Every construction material has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it seems like everything has been done before so it's always refreshing when a traditional material is detailed in a creative way. Brick is one of the oldest construction materials. Created based on the scale of a human hand and made from mud baked in the sun. Now they are highly engineered cement mixes depending on the purpose. They are wonderful. The Legos of the building industry. The brick detail below is so thoughtful. Typically when two types or colors of bricks are merged together there is just a weird, toothy line where the mis-matched bricks just run right into each other. This moment accentuates that moment with style. I think this exterior architectural detail is on a vertical wall but it would also be a very clever way on a horizontal surface to separate vehicular and pedestrian areas
I love river rock tile. It's one of those materials that you can't help yourself from touching. One thing it's not good at is making outside corners. This fireplace opening exploits that quality and accentuates the material properties of the river rock. Not only is the opening rounded but the opening's edges are rounded as well. That kind of attention to interior architectural detail is so satisfying.
This building elevation is detailed very nicely. A series of panels with circular dent pattens. In some areas, those dents are full on perforations. The perforations have different sizes and densities. Those perforated areas reveal windows behind them. Privacy, security, sun shading; all in one. And it's so nicely integrated into the exterior cladding system. This a well thought out architectural construction detail that has a function that is not purely decorative but does contribute to the aesthetic of the building. There are many, many examples of perforated screens and exterior cladding but this one is especially well executed.
Here is another instance of a perforated building exterior. This one has 2 levels of thoughtfulness. One: there's a grid of perforations on the concrete cladding. Instead of just adding a colored door that stands out, they applied an appropriately scaled grid of perforations to the door as well. But it's the second little detail that really makes me love this one. That upper grid of perforations deviates right above the door and adjusts to only exist right over the door. I really love these subtle little moments. It's like a sign over the door without being a sign. So perfect!
Here is another example of thoughtful detailing on an exterior. Simply put, the exterior is simply thin, vertical boards. There is an overall volume that exists from the width of the site. So to delineate the traditional shape of a house, there is a section of the exterior where the vertical boards are more spaced out. Same materials, same construction system, different rhythm. It's very effective and very thoughtful. And you probably know by now that I love that traditional, pretty much kid-like, gable shape of a house.
I am not at all a religious person but churches are extremely interesting in architectural terms. There have been so many unique details found within them throughout history. There's something about churches that spurs that extra thought and consideration.
This one might seem kind of silly but I actually think it's rather thoughtful. From early Christian days, church floor plans were shaped like crosses. People don't experience floor plans like you see them. A churchgoer doesn't realize that their church is shaped like a cross. Floor plans weren't posted so that you knew about it. It was purely a symbolic gesture. And really it wasn't even very functional
Of course there was typically tons of religious iconography all over the churches and cathedrals. It was in the stained glass and carved in the stone. So if no one noticed the cross floor plan it was no big deal and churches started adjusting their floor plans to be more functional. Then there was the glorious time when churches bucked the typology of form to focus more on the actual religion. But the purity of the cross as a symbol was still used. This detail below is so thoughtful. It's truly outstanding. God/Jesus have always had an association with light. The cross as a void is so genius. The cross literally becomes light. And in this example, there is another level of thought given to the cross where the arms of the cross translate into lines that run back into the church space as if the arms are embracing the congregation. That is a damn thoughtful detail.
I can't help it, the cross as a void is just too good not to show another one. This space is so pure. The embodiment of "less is more". There's just something so archaic about the heavy stone walls juxtiposed with the delicate slices of light from the cross. Like Moses might get some more commandments if he was here.
And here we have the opposite, the cross as a solid. Again, this works so well because the actual building form is so sparse that the cross is really the focus. The cross also digs down into the cliff farther than the building so that the cross, the symbol, the meaning is larger than the church itself. Very thoughtful and powerful.
Allusion to Function (building indicates what happens inside)
I mentioned before that humans have an innate need to make sense of things. So there is something so extra satisfying about a building that indicates what it's function is through form. No neon sign, no graphics or logos but the actual building itself.
Buildings that were direct translations of their function was Claude Ledoux's thing. And for the 19th century, his designs were leaps and bounds ahead of his time. I'm not sure if any of his designs were ever built. That could be why he's that obscure guy you only find in an architectural history textbook but I am a huge fan of his work. His forms are complicated, probably not very functional but there is something so logical about taking the function of a building and translating that into a form.
This was his design for a cooper's workshop. Barrel making and repair (coopering) was a large occupation for a long, long time. So of course a cooper's workshop is round and has rings. Just like a barrel.
And there is this one. The water inspector's office. This was almost 100 years before Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. And Fallingwater had no real functional reason for putting a house over a waterfall. It's beautiful the way it integrates with the site but it was actually quite problematic. This design has the water to be inspected running right through the building in a way that is very indicative that there is a reason that water is running through that building. It's like building as water meter. There's just something about the pure translation of function to form that is such a "yes!" moment.
Cut to modern times and this data processing facility. I love this detail. The bricks on the exterior protrude in a pattern that resembles the lines of coded data moving across a computer screen. It's so thoughtful. It doesn't take over the entire exterior, there's just enough of it to get the message across. Love it!
And here is another example. This is a photography studio with a facade pattern based on camera apertures. It's not hit you over the head obvious but it's a thoughtful detail that adds interest to an otherwise rather bland exterior. There is definitely something so satisfying when function equals form.
For economy and efficiency, many buildings are constructed with uniform exteriors. Large buildings are much more cost efficient when a minimal number of details can be repeated throughout. This can result in a large mass with no sense of entry point. So I particularly appreciate when entries are given that extra bit of thought and differentiation.
I love this facade but you can see what I mean about the entry getting lost in the shuffle. The entry point has it's own spacing within the rhythm of the exterior panels and the exterior changes material and color. Not to mention the chevron wood pattern creates a nice little downward arrow to point the way. It works really well.
This one isn't a massive building but it still has a rather confusing point of entry. The path gets you up there but I love how the foot level window really draws you in and once on the deck, you can get in.
Here is another example of a uniform exterior with a very easy to find entry point. The entry is bumped out and painted a very bright, noticeable yellow which contrasts well with the white exterior. The simplicity of the entry bump out doesn't compete with the rest o the design but works within it to thoughtfully draw in visitors.
Last but not least are the utilitarian details. Those elements that every building has that most people overlook. Roof drains, floor drains, exhaust vents, etc. These are all items that don't tend to get much design thought, if any at all other than location within the building. But it's the "little" things that demonstrate an overall passion and care about the design as a whole that is so meaningful.
Stairs. Stairs are everywhere. The detailing of these stairs is really well done. Stairs typically don't integrate with the walls but this stair & wall creates it's own construction system. The spacing of the stair risers gives rhythm and depth to the wall. So good!
These moments that are rarely thought out really make me go "squeeeee!" Look at this trench drain. It's not just a metal grate, it's craftsmanship and artistry. But it's not showy either. It's just hanging out collecting run-off but with thought and intention of beautifying the space as well.
Lighting is a pretty utilitarian thing. Public spaces and buildings tend to have pretty fixed budgets and one way to cut costs is lighting. It's not that simple or inexpensive light fixtures are bad. It's that lighting is one of those building elements that can be a complete after thought. But I really appreciate this lighting detail. It's very simple lighting but it brings the very large scale space back down to the scale of a person. It creates its own little space within the space and the arch shape echoes the arch in the wall beyond.
Here's Gaudi again! I know it's a repeat but it's worth it. Look at all the thought, craftsmanship & care that went into these exhaust vents. Even if you don't like the style, how great to have an architect that thinks through EVERYTHING. You can definitely feel confident when someone like that is on your team because you know nothing is going to get by them.
Keeping water off of and out of a building is key to a building's longevity. Downspouts and gutters are the norm. They're just tacked on afterward. So there's all these aluminum tubes clumsily hanging off of buildings. Meanwhile, look at this recessed downspout and scupper detail. It practically disappears on the face of the building. It's sleek and unobtrusive and was clearly given a higher level of thought and detailing.
Another example of graceful watershed. No transition to another material and flashing detail. The building cladding simply flares out with enough distance to keep water draining off the building.
Ah, lighting again. A subway platform. Usually they're dark, dingy, and highly saturated with advertisements. This one looks more like an elegant hallway. Granted, a big part of the appeal of this one is how clean and white the station is and the simplicity of the train cars. But the detail I love the most is the lights. There's nothing special about the floor or walls. They're there to get the job done. But the lights have character, elegance, and style. It just shows such a wonderful level of concern for well being in a space where people only go to because they have to. They go from point A to point B and that's it. But this lighting detail elevates that experience in a very thoughtful way.
And another watershed detail. So, yeah. Per my rant above, aluminum gutter and downspout are for the birds. This detail is technically a metal gutter but it's so simple. It's basically an extension of the roofing. Catch the water and take it away. Look nice while doing it. Done.
Yes, details matter. And thoughtful details really take it to another level. They make a complete whole and it's so satisfying to see the unity. I know there is a cost component to the extra thought that goes into these details. I'm a little biased of course, but it's worth it. Even if you have an unlimited budget, no one wants to needlessly throw money out the window. To help keep you on track (for any project), you can download my checklist to stay on budget. Cheers!
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