Feeling a space—it’s something we all do whether at the forefront of our minds or as part of some subconscious process occurring in the back of our minds. But what is it and how does it affect us? We learn about the feel of a space in design school, but like many things taught in school, until encountered in real life, it’s just another interesting data point. Recently I came face-to-face with the realization of the impact a feel can have, and it happened in the course of routine work.

To those who may not know the steps taken by architectural firms when designing or redesigning a space, the first is typically collecting field measurements. What are field measurements? They’re the measurements of the length of walls, heights of ceilings, distances between windows, doors, columns, and every other notable element of an existing building. We need these measurements so we can accurately recreate spaces in the digital realm and base our designs on them. As the name implies, these measurements are taken in the field, and ideally, only a single visit is needed. Occasionally, despite our best efforts, we need to revisit the site to collect more measurements. After the field measurements are collected, we start constructing a digital version of the building. 

On one project I was working on, one which I had also helped field measure, I had many hours of working with the model; I thought I knew it pretty well. I knew the walls, the spaces, their connection points, the orientation of the building, and the sizes of things. I really thought I fully understood the building. But I found it not to be the case when we revisited the site for additional measurements.

This is where I encountered the feel of the place. It’s hard for me to put into words, but in essence, it’s an emotional reaction to a space, based on a variety of factors such as light, materiality, ceiling height, room size, sound, smell, openness, contrasts, curves, textures, the experience of moving through it—all of these things—combined together. I had visited this site before but was concentrating on measuring it, and I had worked on it for countless hours on my computer, modeling it, making renderings of it, but somehow I had missed out on what the feel of the space was.

What an impact that the second visit made on me. I came to realize how although I had seen the site before, I hadn’t really experienced it. In all my future site visits, I’ll continue to focus on the task at hand, as before, but I plan on taking a step back to understand and remember the feel of the place. All of the sensory elements that make a building unique; that’s what I want to retain when I’m back in the office working on a model. This perspective will give me a better understanding of space and help me to become a better designer. 

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