Humane Principles of Good Buildings: Materials and Composition

Preservation-Society , May 6, 2020

For Preservation Month, the PSC is sharing two principles of good buildings weekly that can be observed and measured within the built environment. They are intended to provide touch-points for the conversation about architecture and the human response that it provokes. This study shows us how common characteristics of buildings have transcended stylistic, chronological, and typological boundaries, and contributed to the ongoing effort to “make our existence not only visible, but meaningful.”


High quality materials are the building blocks of good buildings and great places. The message of quality and durability inherent in long-lasting materials promotes the human perception of timelessness and continuity of place. High quality materials provide an expression of concern
for the quality of the pedestrian experience. For instance, masonry elements provide a particularly strong connection between human scale and the built environment. The size of a brick is directly related to the ability of a mason to lay it comfortably by hand. Therefore, we perceive buildings that have been assembled with human-scaled materials as the result of tangible human activities rather than as abstract or synthetic.

Materials also contribute to the perception of a building’s overall scale and texture. Individual elements of a known size, such as a brick, allow the observer to understand the total size and scale of the structure. The texture of the surface, together with its color, will affect its visual weight, scale, and light-reflective qualities.


Visual balance is a timeless principle in achieving success in an overall building composition. A fundamental tool for achieving balance is the use of symmetry. The human perception of beauty is found
to be influenced by the measure of symmetry within an individual composition. Psychologists ascribe this to the awareness that the body is basically symmetrical, so intuitively this principle is extended to other artistic efforts. Applied to buildings, this principle creates order within elements of a composition. In looking for symmetry, groups of architectural elements can most easily be read visually by the rooflines of a structure. Under each roofline, a composition is formed which is visually enhanced when symmetry is achieved. Minor variations to a symmetrical condition, for example a door that is balanced by a window of the same proportion on the other side, can occur while an overall sense of balance is maintained.

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