The Humane Principles of Good Buildings

Preservation-Society , February 14, 2017

By Christian Sottile

“The Art of Architecture makes our existence not only visible, but meaningful.” –Francis Ching

Architecture is the subject of passionate debate in every city worth living in. Preservationists, review commissions, planning departments, elected officials, and engaged citizens participate in a spirited dialogue, as living cities re-populate and build again in the wake of the slow abandonment and suburban flight of the last century. Everyone wants to support good design, but it is elusive to find a clear explanation of what makes architecture “good.” Why do some buildings (often, but not always older ones) seem to impart a sense of well-being and promote human flourishing, while others make us feel ill-at-ease…or worse?

This is a challenging question; and design is a discipline infused with subjectivity. Even the most effective design ordinances seem to prevent the unquestionably inappropriate but often at the expense of the sublime. There is no singular answer or easy remedy; however, an increasing body of research suggests that there may be a series of visual relationships and tactile characteristics, rooted in human psychology, that contribute in large measure to how we respond to buildings. Living, evolving cities are the perfect laboratory to investigate this premise. Cities such as Charleston are home to a wide range of architecture, created over a long period of time within close proximity. This allows the study of dramatically diverse buildings in order to determine if there are fundamental visual characteristics that transcend eras, styles, and typologies that help to explain why widely beloved buildings make human beings feel good, and how that might continue to inform design moving forward.

Human-based design principles could provide part of this answer. They cross the boundaries of time, style, and history because they are derived from human scale, form, and psychology. Understanding and using them does not limit the creativity of architects; in fact, quite the opposite. Architectural styles can continue evolving while a common link is maintained between buildings within the city. This link is based on an approach that puts the primary visual purpose of the building first: human perception.

Following are eight principles 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 by studying common characteristics of buildings that have transcended stylistic, chronological, and typological boundaries, and have contributed to the ongoing effort to “make our existence not only visible, but meaningful.”

Human-Based Design Principles:

  • Materials
  • Composition
  • Scale
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm
  • Transparency
  • Articulation
  • Expression


PRINCIPLE 1: Materials

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.


PRINCIPLE 2: Composition

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.



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.


PRINCIPLE 4: Proportion

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.



Rhythm applied to architecture refers to the regular or harmonious recurrence of lines, shapes, forms, and details. It incorporates repetition and spacing as a fundamental device to create visual organization. Studies of human perception, including Gestalt theory, show that the mind and eye actually seek some type of organization in order to relate various elements. Viewers are uncomfortable with confusion or unrelated chaos. The mind tends to group items that are close to each other, whether they are objects or the spaces between objects. Almost all buildings incorporate elements that are by their very nature repetitive. For example, windows and doors repeatedly puncture a building’s surface to allow light and access. When these elements are considered together, they have the potential to create visual rhythm. The result can enliven a surface that is too blank, measure a surface too long, and create visual unity over the façade of the structure. Architectural elements chosen to repeat on a façade, whether a massing form or detail element, can be strong components to provide rhythm and become a primary characteristic of the building’s identity.


PRINCIPLE 6: Transparency

6 Transparency

Building façades for commercial buildings should have large window areas to share the building’s interior activities with the street. Windows and doors narrate the uses inside the building to the observer and are a measure of how public or private these uses are intended to be. For example, storefront windows at street level are necessarily more expansive, suggesting common uses, while upper levels are smaller, indicating more private uses. The design of storefronts in particular can enhance pedestrian activity. Commercial and mixed-use buildings should provide a high level of transparency at the street level in order to visually connect activities within and outside of the building. Seen from the outside, it is the openings in a wall that create one of the strongest visual impacts beyond the wall itself. As design elements, windows and doors provide the opportunity to accomplish many of the other façade principles while at the same time linking the building to the human perception of its use.


PRINCIPLE 7: Articulation

7 Articulation

Façades that promote positive human responses are often organized into three major components: the base, body, and cap. These elements transcend style and relate architecture to the human body with the visual analogy of feet, torso, and head. The feet provide stability, the torso provides height and bulk, and the head provides identity.

Base: ground level, where the building makes contact with the earth.

Body: upper architecture, forming the majority of the structure.

Cap: parapet, entablature, or roofline, where the building meets the sky.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the elements of base body and cap were essential to architecture and were described through various architectural Orders, each representing in its proportions the perfect expression of harmony and visual unity. These concepts have been updated and employed in building design for over two thousand years. This suggests both timelessness and a universal relationship to visual psychology. These elements may be present today in contemporary structures with varying proportions and achieved using a wide variety of techniques, but they provide architectural identity and help us relate to the building’s overall expression as a human endeavor.


PRINCIPLE 8: Expression

The principle of structural expression can be found in façades with inherent visual logic. This can provide a human comfort level to the observer by corresponding to our intuitive understanding of gravity. Beams and columns, whether expressed (visible) or concealed (implied) on the façade, form a structural framework that defines modules of space. In the construction of architecture, structural elements must inherently span across spaces and transmit their loads through vertical supports to a building’s foundation. The size and proportion of these elements are directly related to the structural tasks they perform. Façade design should also work within the framework of chosen materials. Design and detailing of materials should result in proportions and visual load paths for an authentic appearing structure. Dimensions and spans of visible materials should be related to their own structural properties. For example, masonry elements are best when they display characteristics of load-bearing design such as arches and headers that relate directly to columns or pilasters below.


Continuing the Conversation

The series of human-based principles touched on here is offered only as a brief outline and is not nearly comprehensive. Thoughtful designers and psychologists observing and acting in the built environment are continuing the dialogue, adding layers of observation, discipline, and nuance to our understanding of the way we respond to the built environment. This work enhances how the fundamentally humane act of making cities can be undertaken with increased concern for our intuitive sense of beauty and well-being. Emerging research in neuroscience is also reinforcing many of these ideas; ideas that have been embedded in good architecture for many centuries, across diverse cultures and even civilizations. The common denominator is that these principles relate to human perception and psychology, not style and taste. In this way they speak to our search for a beauty in the built environment that is both timeless and transcendent. A number of texts are listed below for further reading on the topic. These titles range over more than a century, including different perspectives but reinforcing similar core ideas. Some of these are landmark texts and others recent titles with emerging observations. | Christian Sottile

Further Reading:

Architectural Composition: An Attempt to Order and Phrase Ideas Which Hitherto Have Been Only Felt By the Instinctive Taste of Designers. John Beverley Robinson, 1908.

The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste. Geoffrey Scott, 1914.

The Timeless Way of Building. Christopher Alexander, 1979.

The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost Its Magic (and How to Get It Back). Jonathan Hale, 1994.

The Architecture of Happiness. Alain De Botton, 2006.

Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid. Marianne Cusato, 2011.

A New Look at Humanism: In Architecture, Landscapes, and Urban Design. Robert Lamb Hart and Albrecht Pichler, 2015.



Christian Sottile is principal of Sottile & Sottile, a Savannah-based urban design firm working extensively in Nationally Registered Historic Districts. His work includes civic design and master planning, emphasizing historic research, urban analysis and community-wide engagement.

Concurrently with his professional practice, Sottile serves as the dean of the School of Building Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design. In this role, Sottile oversees the graduate and undergraduate programs in Architecture, Architectural History, Historic Preservation, Interior Design, Furniture Design and Urban Design.

Sottile’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Preservation Magazine, Architect magazine, and Architectural Digest. He has received over thirty awards, including three international Charter Awards from the Congress for the New Urbanism, awards from the American Planning Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and three National Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects.

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