What You Didn't Know About Spatial and Functional Relationships

  • 12 October, 2022

An essential task of the architect is to create functional, logical, and compelling spaces based on the particular programmatic requirements and preferences of a client, in addition to the imperatives of building system and code requirements. This aspect of design is covered on the Programming and Analysis division of the ARE. Effective spatial planning and analysis of the functional relationships between different spaces is essential for a successful project, particularly during the schematic design phase.

What You Didn't Know About Spatial and Functional Relationships

1. Understanding the Client's Requirements

Before the task of developing preliminary spatial concepts can begin, the requirements and preferences of the client must be well understood. A helpful first step is to list each space in the building with its function and required area while also noting adjacency requirements. It may be useful to create a matrix so that each space is considered in relation to each other space in the building and the adjacency need or preference is noted for each. For example, a kitchen space could be noted as not required to be near a restroom but necessary to be located close to a dining space and preferred to be located somewhat close to a janitor's closet. Such an analysis will aid the designer in developing design concepts for the layout of a space. We can understand spatial adjacencies as the positioning of programmed spaces such that the overall usage of the building is ordered in a logical way.

2. Positioning Spaces within a Floor Plan

The reasons why certain spaces may need to be adjacent are many and often depend on the specifics of the project. For example, two spaces may have a need for adjacency based on a functional need, as in the example above where a kitchen should be close to a dining space. It may also be based on an acoustical need, such as when quieter spaces in a building are located close together and at a distance from noisier space. There may also be reasons based on building systems, such as utility rooms needing to be located near each other or when restrooms are located adjacent to each other so that the pipes can be located in the common wall between them. Building security considerations may also influence the positioning of spaces within a floor plan.

3. Vertical Distribution of Spaces

It should also be noted that vertical distribution of spaces is another aspect of space planning. Utility spaces may be best located in a basement, while other spaces are best suited to ground level for ease of pedestrian access, such as retail spaces. Building access and consideration of circulation patterns within the building are essential in space planning. Circulation routes can both connect and divide other spaces. They can also be integrated with other functions, as when a circulation space doubles as a lounge or breakout space. Consideration of spatial arrangements and their impact on circulation patterns of building users is especially important for large and complex projects, such as hospitals, where circulation and spatial organization are essential for creating a positive experience for building users. Stairs and elevators connect different spaces vertically, and their positioning within a layout will have a great impact on the building's ease of use. Shafts and chases for mechanical ducts, electrical conduit, or plumbing lines also must be considered in space planning so that their locations are logically coordinated with the layout of other spaces. Typically, multifamily residential buildings and hotel buildings will be designed such that the units stack so that they efficiently run these building system elements vertically with minimal jogging necessary. Often, elevators, utility rooms (such as janitor's rooms and electrical closets), and restrooms are located close together forming what is sometimes referred to as a building core. These elements do not generally require windows, so they are typically located within the floor plate, leaving areas towards the exterior of a building for other programmed spaces. Egress stairs are typically located at or near a building's perimeter because they are often required by code to have continuous rated wall assemblies which provide a continuously separated egress path to the exterior of the building.

4. The Bubble Diagram

A key tool in planning for spatial adjacencies and conceptual level layouts is the bubble diagram (sometimes also referred to as an adjacency diagram). A bubble diagram is a graphic representation of spatial juxtapositions for programmatic elements which are to be included in the design. There are different variations on the bubble diagramming exercise, but the essential idea is to study the proximity and connections between different spaces. The bubbles, which can be circles or other shapes, are drawn to graphically indicate each space and may be drawn to an approximate scale so that the designer can have a sense of the relative sizes of each of the spaces. It may also be useful to cut out a shape for each of the spaces so that they can be manually rearranged to study different possibilities for their overall arrangement. Sometimes lines are used to connect the different shapes to indicate a direct connection, such as a circulation path or opening between different spaces. Different programmatic uses that partially share a space can be represented by overlapping shapes. Bubbles can also be shaded or colored differently to represent different types of spaces or requirement.

5. One Problem: Many Solutions

It is rare that there is only one possible concept which satisfies the adjacency requirements of a project, and multiple concepts may need to be explored to determine the most fitting design response to the project's particular needs. The intent is ultimately to utilize the bubble diagram to develop a schematic level floor plan of the building. In addition to aiding in the arrangement of spaces, it may even influence building shape, form, and fenestration. It can also be used to help clarify and communicate design intent prior to determining specific architectural elements or determining specific details.

6. Exploring Vertical Relationships

It should also be noted that bubble diagrams can be utilized in section, or elevation, to aid in exploring vertical relationships as well. This can be especially effective when a particular project contains atria or mezzanines. When exploring vertical arrangements of spaces, stairs and elevators should be indicated in order to understand the circulation paths that building users are required to take to get to these spaces.

7. Site Positioning and Environmental Concerns

In addition to studying spatial adjacencies for differently programmed spaces, the bubble diagram can be used to aid in exploring possibilities related to other requirements, such as site positioning and environmental concerns. For example, the location of "back of house" spaces should be arranged such that there is ease of access for maintenance staff, deliveries, etc.; the location of utility connections may suggest the locations of utility rooms; and requirements for views or access to daylighting may dictate the positioning of certain spaces within the building plan. It should be mentioned that the bubble diagram is far from being the only type of diagram that can be employed by an architect during the conceptual design stages of a project. The most successful architects have developed unique and project specific ways of analyzing, organizing, and communicating design requirements and intent through creative diagrams and graphics. The persistence of the bubble diagram, however, is an indication of its usefulness, and it can be adapted to a variety of project types and design tasks.


As can be gathered from this brief discussion on spatial planning, designing for the myriad of concerns and requirements for a particular building can be quite complex. The careful consideration and organization of programmatic requirements and the use of such tools as bubble diagrams can aid the designer in exploring design opportunities and determining a solution which best meets the project's goals.

Are you attempting to position yourself in an architectural career? Become a registered architect with EduMind-we will help you pass your ARE® 5.0 exams!

About the Author: Adam Castelli

Adam Castelli is a licensed architect and engineer currently practicing in the Pittsburgh area. He holds a master's degree in architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Villanova University.

Blogs you might also like