Humane Principles of Good Buildings: Scale and Proportion

Preservation-Society , May 11, 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.”


Scale in architecture is relative size. It refers to how we perceive the size of a building element relative to other forms, and to the human body. There are two types of scale: overall scale and human scale. Overall scale is the legibility of a building from a distance, for example the roofline. Human scale is the legibility of elements when one is very close to a building, for example storefront details. Good buildings incorporate both types of scale simultaneously. Human scale in this article is being emphasized and can be measured by our ability to reach out and touch detail and texture. It gives us the ability to judge the size of a space, an idea that provides comfort and intimacy, acknowledging the appropriateness of human proximity to the building. Examples of human scale occur when elements of detail are refined to smaller increments of an inch or less at pedestrian level allowing more detail to be revealed on close visual inspection.


Proportion refers to the relationship of two ratios,
for example, height to width. In architecture, this
can refer to the overall building mass as well as openings for windows and doors within it. The human body contains a rich system of proportions with harmonious relationships between the body and face. Much research has been done relating proportions of human form to laws of nature and mathematics. For example, the Golden Section (1:1.618), which is a significant idea among these systems of thought, is found repeatedly throughout the relationships of parts in the human body. These proportions have been used in architecture for over two thousand years to create a sense of natural order, over and above the individual style. The fundamental premise that vertical proportions in architecture relate to the upright human body underpins the idea that buildings and spaces communicating a vertical proportion relate inherently to the understanding of the living human form, and doors and windows that follow these proportions confirm this understanding. To explain further, think of architectural features that are used to organize the perceived mass of larger buildings. Columns, piers, rooflines, and brick patterns can divide and create vertical orientation on a large surface. Once these proportions have been established windows and doors should reinforce the vertical orientation of the composition.