Planning new facilities, expanding existing ones, or renovating requires specialized guidance and resources.

Architectural Programming

What is it?

Architectural programming is part of the pre-development phase of a building project. It is the research and decision-making process that brings together your list of building wants and needs, ultimately identifying the scope of work to be designed.

The amount of space needed and the relationships required among the spaces are two primary factors in determining building size and configuration. Programming also incorporates additional factors such as site analysis, aesthetic considerations, quality of building, circulation, exterior envelope, outdoor space needs, codes, budgeting demands, scheduling limitations, and other factors unique to your situation.

Who does it?

Through discussions and an iterative process, the organization provides the designer (and/or builder) with initial information about goals, current space usage, and needs. The design professional will then assist in establishing optimal size and organizing relationships between different space functions relative to the type of service provided.

For specific building types with unique functions, such as theaters, museums, laboratories, senior facilities, or health care, additional consultants with special expertise in programming for that specific type of facility are often engaged.

Why is programming important?

Research shows a direct relationship between the level of pre-development planning and project success. Additionally, the most cost-effective time to make changes is during pre-development.

Since stakeholders are involved in defining the scope of work prior to design, architectural programming helps to:

  • Improve the chance of meeting organizational goals and community needs
  • Avoid unnecessary risk
  • Improve the likelihood that the design is based on sound decisions established early in the process
  • Increase the long-term viability of the facility
  • Prevent staff and board burn-out from excessive timelines
  • Reduce total project costs with early clarification of design by avoiding costly redesign during later phases of the architectural design process

Control vs Cost

What is the process?

Engagement involves establishing a building committee composed of the major decision makers (from the organization’s board and staff) and representatives from the stakeholder groups affected by the building design. For example, a library building committee may include the library director, librarian, and representatives from the board, maintenance staff, and/or library users. This is separate from a capital campaign fundraising cabinet.

Their tasks are to establish goals and objectives, gather pertinent information, and identify strategies.

Establish Goals and Objectives

Through earlier pre-development tasks, the committee has broadly defined the goal of the project, ensured it is consistent with strategic planning, engaged board support, identified scope of service and the target population, and documented the need for the project, including how it fits within the community and community plans.

The goals can be further developed by answering questions in the following categories:

  • Organizational Goals – How does the project match with the program mission?
  • Relationship Goals – How does the project interface with and benefit the community?
  • Function Goals – What features support ideal service delivery?
  • Economic Goals – Can we afford to build, operate, and maintain it?
  • Form & Image Goals – What will it look and feel like?
  • Time Goals – What is the best time to build it? When do we want to move in? What community and program changes are expected over the next 5, 10, 15, and 20 years?

Importantly, to answer these questions well, the ultimate goal is to focus on how the facility will increase or improve mission because it is NOT about the building itself.

Gather Information

At this point, you will likely be working with a design professional to develop the list of building wants and needs (aka building program). It will be important to explore how your current building is used in order to clarify what elements support delivery of program mission and what elements are barriers. You can improve your understanding by completing the Worksheet: Gathering Detailed Information on Usage. This will include information about who uses the facility, when and how, and start to identify any special program space usage needs such as conference rooms, kitchens, or classrooms. A thorough exploration will provide critical understanding of the interrelationships between your program function and the eventual form and layout of the building.

Identify Strategies

Strategies that may be used to gather information include:

  • Observing patterns in how your existing building is used
  • Interviewing key stakeholders
  • Distributing questionnaires to staff and clients
  • Investigating other buildings with similar programs or function


Working with your design professional, details about your space needs will be entered into a graph and look something like this:

Museum X Expansion: Space Program Example

Your process will continue until you have refined the space program with your design consultant to a point that includes all the necessary rooms and appropriate relationships between the rooms. See the considerations below:

Space and Volume Needs

Exploration of space and volume needs can include details such as whether the spaces interact well, are safe, have adequate public and private spaces, are physically comfortable, are adequately accessible, connect to outside views, have adequate storage, etc.

Space and Adjacency Relationships

For an organization to function most efficiently, some spaces require proximity and others can be farther apart. For example, the bookkeeper may need to be in an office adjacent to the executive director. For confidentiality, a counseling office typically needs to be separated from the general waiting area. For security, the office administrator needs to have clear view of the waiting room and entry vestibule.

General Space and Area Guidelines

If additional or specific types of spaces are desired for your program, a design professional can help you determine minimum space requirements. They will utilize knowledge of building sciences, space standards, and reference city building codes to ensure both function and safety.

Total Building Area

A building will include both assignable and non-assignable spaces. Assignable spaces include functionally identified rooms like offices, kitchens, or reception areas. The sum of these areas of identified usage equals the net assignable area of a facility.

Unassigned spaces consist of the circulation spaces between rooms, mechanical rooms and shafts, electrical rooms, stairways, structure and wall thicknesses, restrooms, storage, and other spaces not directly housing the primary activity of the building. The net space, plus unassigned areas equal the gross building area.


Net to gross ratio is often referred to as the efficiency of a building. The goal is to maximize your usable space, those areas in the building where your mission and program services are provided.

Efficiency of a building design depends on the type of occupancy, the percentage of interior walls versus open spaces, and efficiency of design. Some building types have typical efficiency rations. For example, a hotel has many small rooms with large corridors, lobbies, and mechanical spaces. It has a lower efficiency ratio than a museum, where the majority of space is devoted to open display areas. Your design professional will help establish the best efficiency for your program needs and building type.

Synthesize Information

At this point, the committee should re-visit whether or not the proposed building size and program will meet the organization’s goals and objectives through the following lenses:

  • Is it the right size?
  • Is it affordable and financially viable?
  • Can we afford to live here at least 10 years?
  • What functions are improved with the new building?
  • Are there more cost-effective options to building a new facility such as efficient space planning in a smaller building, or within your existing facility, alternative lease options, or options to collaborate on shared space and cost with others?

Programming References

  • Problem Seeking: An Architectural Programing Primer by William Pena and Steve Parshall, 2012
  • Architectural Programming by Edith Cherry, WBDG – National Institute of Building Science
  • Programming by Paul D. Mankins, The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 2014
  • Standards for Interior Design and Space Planning by J. de Chiara, J. Panero, & M. Zelnik, 200