What distinguishes architecture from ordinary buildings? Architecture seeks to either solve problems or to add value to a project beyond just the client’s brief. Some architects simply design as a response to context, and by-laws. They adapt their approach from project to project. Most others have either a style or a concern their practice is focused on. These may be a particular aesthetic, a design philosophy, an ideology, a material, climate-related design, a socially charged design, and so on. These architects use their style to develop and synthesize each project. Sometimes, context and brief require architects to adapt their approach to solving a particular problem, too. 

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Architectural Design Derivation Process_©httpsdraftingcafe.com20200605introducing-drafting-cafe-architects-design-packages

The process of deciding what parameters should shape a design and designing the structure is called design derivation. This process involves numerous steps: a background study, an understanding of the project requirements, and constraints, imagining a design, putting it on paper, and revising it until the client, architect, and other concerned parties arrive at a consensus. 

No matter the approach for a project, it is the inspiration and thought that comes from undergoing the experience of undergoing the design derivation process – one that involves considering numerous factors- that sets architecture apart from any other building.

Background study

All projects begin with a significant background study of the client’s needs, site, constraints, and aspirations. These form the basic parameters for design derivation.  

Understanding brief, type of project

The primary requirements of a project are laid before an architect in the form of a client’s requirements. These determine what type of project the client needs and what the architect ought to work to deliver. Based on these, the architect synthesizes a design brief- a list of space requirements the project needs to have.


In privately owned and developed projects like residential ones, the client’s needs are dominant drivers of the design. However, since these are often owned by a single family, they also present the architect an opportunity to convince the client to push design derivation boundaries and make a masterpiece of their home. The architect also builds a reputation that allows clients to approach them for their style/ expertise, further allowing the architect to experiment. Eg- in Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the falling waters- the architect makes legendary design advances through massing and the use of natural relief.  

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Frank Lloyd Wright, Falling Water_©httpswww.smithsonianmag.comtravelfrank-lloyd-wrights-most-beautiful-work-12103484


Commercial buildings are designed with strategies to maximize footfalls in certain areas with pricing and public engagement as paramount parameters for design derivation. 

Socially Charged

Projects that are government owned/ aided by grants may also request that the architect focusses on engaging different strata of society/ use design to uplift a community or be an agent of equitable living. Certain projects like social housing can change and affect society when designed appropriately. For example, Alejandro Aravena’s Villa Verde, and Quinta Monroy Housing in Chile significantly contribute to its occupant’s way of life.

Climatically Charged

In addition to spatial requirements, a client may request a green building accreditation- that a building adheres to certain guidelines in terms of its energy/ water consumption and/or climate friendliness. The architect, then, needs to consider these requirements as well. Certain architectural practices specialize in climatic design areas.

Understanding context

Besides understanding the needs of the client, the architect studies the site, its relief, its context, and its climate. This helps design derivation processes significantly. They help identify ground realities the project has to be built and thrive in. Further, it helps identify accesses and mark out views, potential SWAT, and so on.

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Understanding constraints

Additionally, the architect must identify constraints within the design derivation should work within. The major ones are the client’s budget and by-laws.

Evolving a design

Working within constraints

Architects usually start the design derivation process by setting out constraints and working within them. Marking out setback lines, computing F.A.R, and trying out massing combinations with different heights, setbacks, and F.A.R restrictions are one approach to design derivation. An example of turning a setback into a dominant design derivation parameter is BIG’s Vancouver Twisted Tower. The plot is adjacent to a motorway flyover. This requires a 30m setback to be maintained from the flyover (Frearson, 2015). BIG has proposed that the building begins after the 30m setback not only in the plan but also in the section. Thus, the tower will twist outward after a 30m radius from the flyover is maintained.

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Vancouver Twisted Tower_©httpswww.dezeen.com20151106big-vancouver-house-skyscraper-tower-future-project-of-the-year-2015-world-architecture-festival

Architects’ style/ practice

At times, clients approach the architect for their design style. In such cases, the design derivation process centers around the architect’s style. clients that approach Frank Gehry do so aspiring for a certain type of architecture. Those that approached Corbusier did so for his style.


Some design practices are known to create exuberant forms. Frank Gehry creates crazy forms. He derives his forms from ideas of movement, crumpling paper, and so on. Zaha Hadid’s practice is known for its kind of form and language- a curvilinear type. Clients who approach these architects do so pursuant to such buildings. Thus, the design derivation process in such cases is based on the architects’ design language.

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Zaha Hadid Architects’ Organic Forms_©httpswww.archdaily.com983992zaha-hadid-architects-selected-to-design-the-jinghe-new-city-culture-and-art-centre-in-china

Concept/ Philosophy based

Certain architects believe in design philosophy. They use this philosophy as a guiding light for design derivation. Peter Zumthor’s practice is centered around the sensory and experiential aspects of architecture. Tadao Ando’s around simplicity and Zen.

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Bruder Klaus Field Chapel by Peter Zumthor known for his Design Philosophy of Architecture and the Senses_©httpswww.archdaily.com798340peter-zumthors-bruder-klaus-field-chapel-through-the-lens-of-aldo-amoretti581389d2e58ece967800

Set An Objective/ Multiple Objectives the Design Should Achieve

After understanding the client, brief, context, and other requirements, the architect himself/ herself or in consultation with the client sets out a few objectives the project should achieve. This is about the aesthetic, concept, and style of the project, as well as whether it should achieve any context, social, or climatically sensitive relevance. This then forms the central theme of many background ideas that bolster the design derivation process.

Putting the Pen to Paper

After developing a central theme/ concept/ aesthetic or idea for the project, the architect then begins to allocate spaces, develop a plan, map movement patterns, etc. Sections, plans, and design drawings are worked out and the design is derived keeping in mind all considerations mentioned above. There are several back and forths, trial and error between the architect, client, and various consultants. Numerous design iterations and modifications are made, too. After all the drawings, tables and estimates are complete, the design derivation process, too, ends.

Adding a layer that makes a difference/ selling point

Besides allocating spaces, architects sometimes add other layers to their design derivation process to help make a difference and give the +1 to architecture versus just any other building. Sometimes, the architecture may revolve around these as central ideas as well.


RDA’s Moksha project in Goa is a crematorium and burial ground project for different religions and communities. The designer’s approach is to use universal building material- that of the earth- to signify that despite our religious divisions, there is universality and humanity in death- everybody goes back to the earth. This embodies secularism through built language.

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RDA’s Moksha Crematorium and Burial Ground_©httpsarchello.comptstory115315attachmentsphotos-videos1


Yasmeen Lari, a Pakistani architect, works with communities displaced by Pakistan’s flooding. She helps develop new building techniques that are easy to implement and replicable by the community. Her core design derivation principles include ease of construction, replicability, and material availability.

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Yasmeen Lari’s Humanitarian Work_©httpscurrystonefoundation.orgpracticeheritage-foundation-of-pakistan

 Urban- Snohetta auditorium

Snohetta’s Oslo Opera House uses concepts of urban engagement to make the city become part of the project and enable citizen interaction with exclusive forms of art.

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Urban Engagement-Snohetta’s Oslo Opera House_©httpswww.archdaily.com440oslo-opera-house-snohetta500ebce428ba0d0cc7000108-oslo-opera-house-snohetta-photonext_project=no


The Berlin Jewish Museum’s design derivation is centered around evoking feelings of chaos. Studio Libeskind, the architect, uses architecture, movement patterns, “sharp forms, angular walls, and unusual openings create disconcerting spaces informed by the “erasure and void” of Jewish life in Berlin after the Holocaust” (Astbury, 2022).

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Jewish Museum Berlin_©httpswww.archdaily.com91273ad-classics-jewish-museum-berlin-daniel-libeskind5afa560af197cc59f7000012-ad-classics-jewish-museum-berlin-daniel-libeskind-photonext_project=no


Sameep Padora + Associates’ Jetavan in Sakharvadi, India, uses a new material and numerous upcycled materials. Rammed earth walls with waste fly ash from nearby local factories and other repurposed material from old ships and homes in the neighborhood helped establish a material palette that lent the project a responsible and rooted character.

Jetavan Material Palette_©httpswww.archdaily.com790646jetavan-sameep-padora-and-associates5776eaf1e58ece2f880000ea-jetavan-sameep-padora-and-associates-diagram

 Conclusion :

The design derivation process starts with background research, understanding constraints, and developing options and continues in these realms till inspiration strikes. Undergoing this process and the thoughtful approach it wrought sets architecture apart from any other construction. 


Astbury, J. (2022) ‘Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is a “foreboding experience”’, dezeen, 20 May. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2022/05/20/daniel-libeskind-jewish-museum-deconstructivist-architecture/ (Accessed: 6 November 2022).

Frearson, A. (2015) ‘BIG’s twisted tower named Future Project of the Year 2015’, Dezeen, 6 November. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2015/11/06/big-vancouver-house-skyscraper-tower-future-project-of-the-year-2015-world-architecture-festival/  (Accessed: 5 November 2022).


Raveena is passionate about design, architectural theory and the climate crisis alike. She aspires to understand and translate designed space- and its experiential qualities- into buildings that make a difference and respect the earth.