Journey of an Architect is a blog started by Tim Ung to share his architecture and design ideas through speculative projects. His posts focus on his design process, thoughts, struggles, and successes throughout his journey.

5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

Ever since I started Journey of an Architect a year and a half ago, I’ve been simultaneously working on both architecture and design projects to reach my goal of completing 30 projects by the time I turn 30 (May 2020). Although I’ve completed 16 projects and I’m now working on 3 others, I can honestly say that I struggle just as much as every other creative person when starting a project. In fact, I spend the most time at the beginning by developing a strong concept because it helps me find clarity for the remainder of the architecture project. Here are 5 tips for starting an architecture project that has helped me on my projects.

1. Develop your own interpretation of the project brief

For any competition, there’s always a lengthy brief that goes over major details of the project, provides information on the project’s site, offers suggestions or thought provoking questions, and lists a set of requirements that every participant must meet. This way of working is how many architects are trained in architecture school and it’s a very effective tactic for gaining interest in a project. In fact, universities, state agencies, and large scale organizations or companies also provide a design brief that are distributed publicly or selectively to interested firms.

If you’re working with a smaller company, people, or person on a project like a private residence, this brief is not provided. In this case, it’s important to ask your clients the right questions and guide them to provide more information about their needs, aesthetic preferences, and so on.

On every project that I start, I carefully read through the project brief and note the key phrases, words, and paragraphs that describe the intent of the project. For the projects on this blog, I brainstorm a project brief for a project that I’m personally interested in designing. Using this list, I brainstorm several design ideas and draft a response to the project that will guide the remainder of the project. This interpretation of the project brief also serves as a reminder of the design intent throughout the project.

2. Research and understand your project’s site context

After drafting my interpretation of the project brief, I start my site research on Google by utilizing the satellite map feature and looking at the vacant land or building from above. After understanding the size of the parcel and its general form, I orbit around and look at neighboring buildings from a bird’s eye perspective. This allows me to analyze the existing building forms, materials, scale, and layout.

Then, I look into other features of the site that could influence the design of the building. What direction is the prevailing wind coming from? What does the solar path look like over the site? Are there any shadows cast on the site from adjacent buildings? What climate do we have to design around? What opportunities for passive heating and/or cooling do we have on the site?

With this understanding of the project site, I go into Google Street View, or drive to the site if it’s local, and navigate around the neighborhood and look for features in the neighborhood that could inform the design of the building. How far back are the buildings setback from the street? What is the transparency to opacity ratio of the existing building facades? What are some of the nearest local hotspots to the site?

3. Figure out your constraints

Once I have enough information about my project’s site, it’s time for me to figure out the other constraints on the project. Typically, this will come from a building code analysis of the type of architecture that I’ll be designing along with a zoning code analysis. This will define what I’m able to design on a particular parcel of land, what scale the building can be, the types of materials that could be used in the building, and so on. These constraints will ensure that the building is safe for occupancy and will start to give you direction on your design.

If I’m working on a competition or a personal project, the constraints are generally provided with the design brief, which makes it easier to understand the possibilities of the project’s design. Read through these constraints carefully and use them as a guide for designing your project. Sometimes, the constraints on a design competition allude to a particular area of the site for a particular program or design feature.

Lastly, your client will most likely provide you with a list of programs along with suggestions on where some programs should be located. The client might also provide a set of spatial relationships between specific programs. Be sure to ask them guiding questions to get a better understanding of these programmatic relationships as well as their aesthetic preferences. What kind of architecture do they admire? What kind of materials do they see in their building? Provide some examples and use this as an opportunity to narrow down the infinite design possibilities in your mind.

4. Research precedents and case studies

When the constraints have been set and I have a general idea of aesthetic, form, scale, and other possible design features, I start researching precedents and case studies related to the project. Starting with precedents, I generally use Pinterest and create a board to start collecting related projects that share similar design features to what my client and I were imagining. Without spending too much time staring at each photograph, rendering, or diagram, I pin at least 50 different projects and learn as much as I could about specific ones.

After selecting two or three precedents that I admire, I research those projects on the website of the architecture firm who designed them. Here, I’m able to read through the architect’s interpretation of the design brief for the project and get ideas for why the architect made specific design decisions. These searches can also get in depth with books, journal articles, newspaper clippings, and so on. This collection is saved in a folder for reference during the conceptual design phase.

5. Sketch, sketch and sketch!

Once I’ve gathered enough information and notes related to the project, I distill all of it down to specific design ideas for the project. Then, I put pen to paper and start sketching my ideas as quickly as they come to me without stopping or critiquing my sketches. I ignore the part of my mind that tells me I drew a line crooked or to refine the shapes that I just drew. As I continue pressing and pulling, dragging and pushing the pen around the blank sheet of paper, my mind is constantly thinking of another idea.

I think it’s important for me to point out my ignorance of the self-depreciating thoughts and negativity that I used to have with sketching because I used to feel as if my sketching abilities were awful. I used to overthink every line that I put on a piece of paper and told myself I would never be good at sketching. After gaining confidence in my design abilities and stopping myself from overthinking during a sketching charrette, I found myself capable of not only developing ideas, but also explaining them to my clients, peers, and friends. To end this ranting paragraph, just remember sketching requires the ability to ignore your hesitation and self-doubts.

This iterative way of sketching allows me to develop multiple ideas all at the same time and either combine the best parts of each one or let go of some of them. As I start to see how each idea would look within my sketch, more ideas emerge and eventually, 12 ideas become 6, 6 ideas become 4, 4 ideas become 2, and 2 ideas become 1. Once I’ve reached one idea, it’s time to move to the next part of the architecture project which is modeling it in BIM and refine it further!


Every architect will have their own process for starting a new project and we all have our own mediums for exploration. The beautiful part about being a creative professional is that we can decide what process works best for us. Whether that means taking a design brief and immediately starting your 3D model or working through physical massing models, the possibilities are endless. However, getting more experience by constantly practicing architecture will help you find your process of design. This will evolve along with your career as an architect.

So make sure your design process is exciting, fun, and full of exploration!

Architalks #35

This post is part of the ArchiTalks blog series where a topic is chosen for fellow bloggers to interpret and write about. This month's topic was "Starting a Design". Check out some of the other posts from this series by clicking on their title below!

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Slow Down. Hold Still.

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
How to Start a Design

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
On Your Mark, Get Set -- Start a Design!

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #35: Starting a Design

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Where do you start when designing a new home?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
do-re-mi- Design

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
First Thing's First

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
How it all begins...

Schematic Design of High End Residence

Schematic Design of High End Residence

Starting the Revit Model of the High End Residence

Starting the Revit Model of the High End Residence