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Designing for Place // Lucas Downes


Written by Lucas Downes

"Designing for Place"

There are a few different expressions regarding place; Sense of Place, Place Identity, and Attachment to Place are a few. All these expressions describe the way in which we perceive the world around us. Place Identity consists of significant meanings a person fixes to their environment. An Attachment to Place is the connection a specific person fosters with a specific place, or the way in which that person’s daily life is constructed by their own surroundings. However, Sense of Place is the prevailing verbiage in the study of place. In Jennifer Adams words, “sense of place describes our relationship with places, expressed in different dimensions of human life”. Christian Norberg-Schulz describes place as another term for environment, further adding “character” and “space” as synonyms for the structure of place. Countless factors influence a person’s sense of place; culture, built environment, natural environment, beliefs, and values all contribute to the way a person identifies with a place. Place is not simply a destination or end point, place is an area one lives in, makes memories in, loves in. Place can occur at multiple scales of observation, ranging from a small room to the city one lives in. Everyone has a place, and that place holds a certain importance to them.

The impact of place can be seen, felt, and tracked. Najafi and Kamal Bin Mohd Shariff state that sense of place can be divided into two elements, physical and perceptual factors. On the physical, or technical, side of design, place allows the building to function smoothly. Place allows circulation to flow as intended, solar shades to provide adequate protection from the sun, and keeps building settlement to a minimum. The list is endless, but place proves its importance when assembling a building. Place also leads to emotional connection, or perceptual factors, between a design and its users. It is likely we have all experienced a structure, landscape, or space that lack empathy or feels lifeless, resulting in discomfort and disconnected. Edward Relph describes these as nonplaces, or “culturally unidentifiable environments that are similar anywhere”.  On the other hand, places that embrace their surroundings, history, and culture result in wonderful projects that draw us in. These designs welcome us and distract us from the world around us, and often they become a part of our regular lives. A person can easily observe the presence of place purely through looking at its aesthetics and understanding ones feelings when in a space.

There are countless architectural examples of place oriented designs, many of which were created by the architects we study in school. Mies Van Der Rohe respected the surroundings of the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Wrapping the home with glazing allowed its residence to become part of the nature in which it borrows space from. While designing the Therme Vals in Switzerland, Peter Zumthor took inspiration from the very quarry that he took the building materials from. The Museo dell’ Ara Pacis in Rome includes a wall and water feature, tools that Richard Meyer utilized to protect the adjacent plaza from traffic. All these architects realize the upmost importance of place when designing these projects, from materials to location. These considerations can be quantified by the success of the designs, how they function and the way one feels when occupying the space. However, one does not need to study world renowned architects to understand the importance of place. All it takes is a visit to one’s favorite coffee bar, childhood park, or even bedroom. These places are special because you feel safe and comfortable in them. Furthermore, as one spends more time in these places, they become more attached to them. Regardless of what the place may be, they fill almost every aspect of our lives. It’s this omnipresence that makes place such an important consideration when designing.

Source ; Photo by Mitchell Funk

The Farnsworth House, Plano, IL


Source ; Photo by Peter Guthrie

We’re taught the importance of place through our seminars and studio; however, it is difficult to truly see its significance until one sees it in practice. Being part of the 2017-2018 Design+Make studio has been a valuable lesson on designing for place. The Kansas town of Volland may be small, but that does not diminish the history and culture that exists there. Admittedly, our studio was apprehensive about the historic town at first glance. But as small towns do, Volland began to grow on us and its impact as a place quickly struck us. Beginning with the Volland Store, the town already proves to be an anomaly in the surrounding landscape. While traditional building materials in the Kansas Prairie are taken from the abundance of limestone in the ground, the Store makes a statement by using such and unusual and contrasting material. The vibrant red brick inspired our studio to explore how we could use the material to tie our project into its context. Fearing that the use of the same brick would be too bold, our research brought us to a new type of brick, glass brick. This material would bring a new vocabulary to the already peculiar building language. Another element of this place, the railroad, has shaped the town since its original inception. Though the town no longer survives off the railroad, the echoes of the trains that run by can be heard throughout the day. The sound serves as a reminder to the Volland community, a reminder that the town owes its existence to the trains that now drive past it. The site itself is an important characteristic when designing in such a sensitive place. Currently the houses sit in a linear progression, finishing with the Volland Store. This strong rhythm begs the question of whether to move the house or maintain the existing pattern, both possessing their own merits. Arguably the most important consideration of place, use, is the primary design intention. The community that surrounds Volland is well established and continues to grow, and our project will only strengthen it. Tourists come from around the country to see the small towns in Kansas. Facilities such as the Volland Store provide a place to stay after a long travel, while simultaneously being an attraction in itself.  Our goal is to create yet another place for travelers to stay, a place that means something to the people who experience it.

Source ; Photo by Otto Kratzer

Over the past semester the importance of designing for place has enamored our studio, and in a much bigger way than we ever expected. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that it has been a special privilege to be a part of the place that is Volland. It has made us realize that every town, no matter how small, holds special importance in more ways than one could imagine. The benefits of contributing to this place will undoubtedly echo throughout our careers, influencing decades of work to come from our studio.

Source ; Photo by Dipen Patel

Adams, Jennifer. “Sense of Place – The Nature of Cities.” The Nature of Cities, 5 July 2016,

Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Architecture: meaning and place: selected essays. Electra Rozzoli, 1988.

Najafi, M & Shariff, M.K.B.M.. (2011). The concept of place and sense of place in architectural studies.

World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology. 80. 1100-1106.

Relph, E. (1976). Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.

The Volland Store in Volland, KS

Source ; Photo by Karl Ndieli

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