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This site is offered in support of the cause of Organic Architecture.   Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff and many other architects have influenced the Principles expressed in the architecture I have designed and built.

Design Process

This Essay was revised Sunday, June 20, 2010 01:24 PM

Design Process.

By James Schildroth, Architect


This essay is a work in progress.  I hope that students of architecture will question what I have written here and I will refine this essay based on these comments.

To learn how to design the student must do design and have a mentor to review the work. 

My way of teaching design is to give the student a simple design project and leave the student alone to work out the best solution for themselves.   The teacher can show the student process and discuss principles but should do little if any design on the student's project.    It is very important for each student to find his or her own way.

The teacher can show the way by helping the student to understand principles at work in architecture.    Original design develops out of first understanding the needs and conditions and then letting the ideas leading to the design come into the mind.   Not by copying some existing form or style and forcing the needs into it.   

Organic Principles: Of Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect


Organic: The word ORGANIC denotes in architecture not merely what may hang in a butcher shop, get about on two feet or be cultivated in a field.  The word organic refers to entity, perhaps integral or intrinsic would therefore be a better word to use.   As originally used in architecture, organic means part-to-whole-as-whole-is-to-part.   So entity as integral is what is really meant by the word organic.   INTRINSIC. FLLW


Nature: Human nature, the nature of things.


“NATURE means not just the “out-of doors,” clouds, trees, storms, the terrain and animal life, but refers to their nature as to the nature of materials or the “nature” of a plan, a sentiment, or a tool.  A man or anything concerning him, from within.  Interior nature with capital N.  Inherent PRINCIPLE.” FLLW


Space:  “SPACE.   The continual becoming:  invisible fountain from which all rhythms flow to which they must pass.    Beyond time or infinity.     The new reality which organic architecture serves to employ in building.   The breath of a work of art.”  FLLW


  "Organic Space"     

 By James Schildroth, Architect January 23, 2004

To my way of thinking the most important principle that Mr. Wright gave us all in Architecture, was his understanding of the concept of "Organic Space".  


I said that Space is not area or Volume but is beyond the third dimension probably it involves the fifth dimension.   So here are the five dimensions, area is two dimensional, volume is three dimensional, time adds a fourth and for architecture to be Organic it adds a fifth dimension.    This fifth dimension involves the human mind of the person experiencing the architecture.     Space “Shelters and defines but never limits or confines”, a James Schildroth original saying.  

The forth dimension is about movement within and around the architecture either by the person experiencing the architecture or by continuous movement of the sun, moon and stars.    This forth dimension is made more interesting, mysterious and intriguing to the human being by the architects that make Organic Space or to allow the mind of the human to participate in and with the architecture.

How is this done?    By making Space not boxes with four walls with holes in them for doors and windows and a floor and a flat lid or ceiling.    Organic Space does not trap the flow of space it will always allow it to move beyond the place of enclosure.   The beyond aspect involves the mind of human beings that experience the space.     The human Mind will wonder what is around that corner or what is beyond that balcony. So at some very basic level an “L” shaped room is better than a rectangular room because it begins to create the mystery of what is beyond. 

We humans have lived on this earth for thousands of years and much of our past was living outside in nature.  This experience of living under the dome of the sky and outside where there are no limits and there is always more is what we need to feel good.  In the natural out of doors there is always more and the mind can freely wonder what is over that hill or around the next bend in the river or the road.  

This is what we must design into our architecture for the architecture to have a similar feeling of space that we get when we are outside in nature.   

Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects developed this understanding of Space and designed it into their architecture starting around 1901.  Mr. Wright wrote about it but most importantly he built it in hundreds of his buildings.   Look at his architecture and see how he did it.


As used by Frank Lloyd Wright and other organic architects, Space is far more than area or volume.

It engages the mind of the person and allows the imagination of the individual to complete the experience.   Organic Architecture always leaves space for the imagination to go.     

Organic space is always in relation to the beyond.

Organic space allows the mind to complete, in imagination that which goes beyond.

Organic Space shelters and defines but never limits or confines. JWS

Some of the so-called organic shapes to my mind do not have this aspect of Space.    They have curvilinear shapes but are still boxes, because they confine and contain the same as a rectangular box.     To be Organic a building must have this quality of Organic Space.     To be Organic the Space must allow the mind of the person to freely play with the infinite just as it does in the out-of-doors in nature.

James Walter Schildroth, Architect


The THIRD DIMENSION:  Contrary to popular belief, the third dimension is not thickness but is depth.  The term “third dimension” is used in organic architecture to indicate the sense of depth, which issues as of the thing not on it.   The third dimension, depth, exists as intrinsic to the building.” FLLW


Mass:  This is the result of designing with an understanding of the third dimension not as thickness but as depth or the depth dimension.   See the architecture as solids or mass in space.   Not as walls with holes cut out for doors and windows.  See architecture as space with solid elements in the space that define but do not confine. JWS


Scale: The relationship of the architecture to the human or the human to the architecture. JWS

Architectural Scale

Architectural scale is about the relationship of the building to the human beings that will use the building.   In general scale is about relationship of all the parts to the whole.  James Schildroth


“PRINCIPLE ONE: KINSHIP OF BUILDING TO GROUND.  This basic inevitability in organic architecture entails an entirely new sense of proportion.   The human figure appeared to me, about 1893 or earlier, as the true human scale of architecture.  Buildings I myself then designed and built in the Midwest seemed, by means of this new scale, to belong to man and at the moment especially as he lived on rolling Western prairie.  Soon I had occasion to observe that every inch of height there on the prairie was exaggerated.   All breadths fell short.   So in breadth, length, height and weight, these buildings belonged to the prairie just as the human being himself belonged to it with his gift of speed.    The term “streamlined” as my own expression was then and there born.

As result, the new buildings were rational: low, swift and clean and were studiously adapted to machine methods.  The quiet, intuitional, horizontal line (it will always be the line of human tenure on this earth) was thus humanly interpreted and suited to modern machine-performance.  Machine-methods and these new streamlined, flat-plane effects first appeared together in our American architecture as expression of new ways to reach true objectives in building.  The main objective was gracious appropriation of the art of architecture itself to the Time, the Place, and Modern Man.

What now is organic “design”?  Design appropriate to modern tools, the machine, and this new human scale.   

A Testament Frank Lloyd Wright 1957 page 219


Unity:  The unit system.

Mr. Wright used the unit system in most of his designs after about 1920.  He used a plan unit as well as a vertical unit.  The unit was based on some practical and poetic considerations.   The material choice was often the major factor.  I use a square unit four feet on a side for much of my work here in Maine because most of it is built with wood.  Plywood comes in 4 x 8 sheets and framing of walls and floors are at 16 or 24 inches on centers.  So the four foot square unit system in plan works very well. 

One of the first things I draw is the unit system on the site plan.  I number each horizontal unit line and letter each vertical unit line.  What I have is a mapping grid.  This comes in handy later when I need to describe a location in plan, I just call out the units R-19 and there is no confusion about it.

During the design of a building there are always choices of where to locate walls and features in the plan.   The unit system provides location choices.  I center the wall on the unit line or the half unit.  If there is a good reason I go off the unit.  The unit system is not rigid but only a way to provide unity to the whole.   Just by relating things to the unit lines as I design there are a lot of happy accidents later on, things just work without even planning for them because of the relationship to the unit made before.

The vertical unit can work the same way.  It is based on material choice.  For example a concrete block structure.  The block unit is 8 inches high (7 5/8” plus 3/8” mortar joint) so the vertical unit would be something that related to this.  The unit is usually not a single block but larger, say 16 inches for the concrete block.  JWS


FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION:  This is a much abused slogan.   Naturally form does so.   But on a lower level and the term is useful only as indicating the platform upon which architectural form rests.  As the skeleton is no finality of human form any more than grammar is the “form” of poetry, just so function is to architectural form.   Rattling the bones is not architecture.   Less is only more where more is no good.

Form is predicated by function but, so far as poetic imagination can go with it without destruction, transcends it.    “Form follows function” has become spiritually insignificant:  a stock phrase.    It is now the password for sterility.   Internationally.  Only when we say or write “form and function are one” is the slogan significant.” FLLW


“Poetry of form is as necessary to great architecture as foliage is to the tree, blossoms to the plant or flesh to the body.”  FLLW



Anyone anything of an architect will never be content to design a building merely (or chiefly) for the picture it makes- any more than a man would buy a car merely by its color.  What kind of intellect must the critic have who seeing a building judges it by “the look of it,” ignorant of the nature of its construction?   Page 226 A Testament by FLLW 1957

Organic Form develops from the inside out based on need and purpose and not from the outside in. JWS


Life principles: by James Schildroth


  1. We as humans are part of nature.  The whole of the natural universe is working in relationship as parts to parts and all parts together make that Whole.  What we think, do and say has consequences.  So what we design and build as architects has great consequences.
  2. You cannot think of a creative idea.  The reasoning mind can only copy and organize the copies.  Original ideas come from beyond thinking through the subconscious mind they are attracted to consciousness by need. 


Part One:  The first steps used when I design:


  1. First understand the problem.    Understand the needs and the conditions of the client and site. From this understanding begin to make some choices based on the need and conditions. 
  2. Check the budget by SF area and $/SF.    To see if the total finished area times the cost per SF is within the budget.   If the cost is too great, the SF area must be reduced or the cost per SF must be reduced.    This begins to set the scope and direction of what is to be designed.
  3. Bring needs and cost together.  Cost and budget must be brought into balance.   Budget affects many choices for the design like the geometry to be used , the material choices and the design complexity. 
  4. Put the program of needed areas into physical size by parts.   I use simple rectangular area.  I don't want to influence the design by the shape of the particular area of need.    I could use any area;   square, triangle, circle or free form but this begins to suggest form and shape.   I just want to see the relative size of the parts in relationship to each other and to the features of the site.
  5. Get a topographical survey showing true north. Put a solar chart on the site plan, showing the movements of the sun and longest and shortest days.
  6. See the parts in relation to each other and the actual site at the same scale.  See the relationship of the individual parts of the program to the Whole.  Visualize at scale and on the site plan.  In relationship, to the features of the site.  The concept will come to your mind out of this as a kind of growth process. 
  7. Area PARTS: Cut out or draw the individual areas at the same scale as the topographical site plan and place them all on the site plan in no particular order.  This will give your mind the information it needs to begin to conceive the design idea and your mind will work at the correct scale. 
  8. Organize the parts on the site plan and in relationship to each other.   This is not a floor plan yet, it is just organization at scale to better understand the scope of the needs and the relationship of the parts.  I consider each part of the program by asking if it was the only need where would it be?  What kind of natural solar light would it want? What kind of view would it have?   Put that part on the site in the ideal location.   Then do this with all the rest of the parts or area needs.    

All of this must be put into the mind in the beginning.  All the needs and conditions are important to let the mind of the creative architect work the problem. The design will form in the mind around your understanding of all the needs, conditions and material choices made before the design drawing is started.


Don't draw yet.  To draw too soon freezes the creative possibilities.   Keep any ideas that are starting to come in your imagination for now.

 Make material choices.    You can change them later but the materials you choose will guide your choice of shape and form as you develop your design. 

I do many things before I begin to allow my mind to work on a design.  One of the first things I do is decide on a construction method.   This choice is based on budget, the available work force and skill of the men that will build the design.   If I have a very high budget I can consider importing the craftsmen to do what I want.  I might consider curves and concrete.  If the budget is small I must keep the design simple, as it is a waste of time to design something that has no chance of being built.

For me the method of construction is part of the inspiration for the design that will later spring from the needs and conditions of the client.   The nature of the materials will begin to inspire and direct the form of the design that will come.   A brick as special properties that are natural to it and concrete has different properties.  The material choice will affect the design detail and the way the design can be made. 

Part one is all reason and logic.    Get to know and understand the real needs of your client and the reality of the site, the codes, and the budget.  This information must be internalized before the design is allowed to form.  The code must be read not left until after the design is done or mistakes will be made.  The restrictions of the building code can be the inspiration that leads to creative solutions.   First understand the problem completely.    The solution to every problem is contained within the problem itself. 


Part two cannot start or be real until the things in part one are clear in the mind of the architect.      Part two is where the designer must give up reason and logic and turn everything over to the unconscious mind.     You cannot think of an original design idea directly.


  The mind cannot think of an original idea. Original ideas are attracted to real needs and real conditions.  The solution to any problem is contained with-in the problem.


Creativity comes into your mind when you are thinking about something else.   I like to say ideas are attracted by all the needs and conditions that are understood in part one.  If I don’t understand the needs of the client clearly, the ideas that come to mind will be for the wrong needs and the wrong conditions.

The Site

  1. Go and stand on the site.  Stand in the future living spaces and feel the experience around you.   There is no design yet but there is the view, the sun, the moon and the stars.  There are positive and negative features.   All this will begin to design the building.  

  2. Draw the Site Plan.   The site is very important.   Not some general site but the specific location on the face of the earth.   Get a good topographical survey and then go on the site and add specific feathers in the area of the proposed design.   I actually measure between trees and add them to the site plan.     

  3. Draw on the site plan a solar chart showing the movements of the sun. 

  4. Wind directions.

  5. View directions.

  6. Negative features and views.

  7. Relationship to the existing features near and far.

  8.  Look into the future and see what may change and what may not.

  9. I find that if I move a design even a few feet it affects the design I am making.

  10.   Select a unit system that best goes with the materials and idea that is beginning to form in your mind and draw it over the site plan at the same scale.

Unity and Order:  I design on a unit system.  It is like the musical scale.   With the twelve tone musical scale a composer can make any kind of music.  I see the unit system the same way and can make any kind of design using the unit system.   The unit system helps make choices as the design is developing.   I have much more to say about this.  See Organic Unit System.

Conceive the idea in Space from within the space.  Put yourself in the space on the site and feel the architecture around you in your mind.  Build it in your mind around you first before you try and draw it.   Go do something else and let the ideas come to your mind.

 "The needs are the seeds"  JWS

Journal 9/13/1999 page 2

Avoid and let go of all preconceived solutions.  Continue to review the things you know; the problem and needs, the site and the light, the materials and the construction methods.  The condition of the human beings must be uppermost in your mind.  What do we, as human beings really like?

The quality of Space is both freedom and security, sheltered yet not confining.    Where are some of the best experiences of Space?  They are in Nature.   We all come from nature and it is often the place we think to go when we want to be refreshed.   So can we get the qualities of nature into our designs?   The same feeling in our design work as we get out in nature?   Some of the same experiences inside that we most enjoy outside where humans have not changed nature.  

I look to the real needs and conditions for direction.   I continue to study the nature of all things in life.  I guess this is not much help to the beginner.  I remember looking for some formula that could be learned that would result in a design but there was always the “x” factor, the unknown.   That must come from some place that did not seem to be available to me.   Design is not a mathematical problem.  An original idea must come from beyond the thinking process because if it can be reasoned it has been plagiarized.  JWS


Journal January 27, 2000

I believe that the source of creativity comes through the use of the individual human mind.  A student can develop design ability by first understanding the clients needs and the conditions of the site and then let the human mind provide the direction.   Let us call it “Mind Work” which relies on using the right side of the brain, which for many is undeveloped because we predominantly use the left side.   The left side is the information side and what it does best is learn and remember.  The creative act is more indirect, a sort of forming in the mind, and then turning the information over to the left side to remember.  The process of creativity is different than the process of thinking or intellectual recall.  I speak here from my own experience and not as a student of the brain or as a mind expert, I have studied how my own mind works and how I bring my creative ideas into complete design.

My way and the process was developed as a student but patterned on my understanding of the process described in the writings of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Learning to use the creative or right side of your brain is difficult for most people because the left or, conscious, can always over power the right or unconscious.   So the creative side, the original idea side, does not get a chance to develop.    It is easier and quicker to just copy or do something sculptural and force the function to fit than it is to allow the ideas to form and grow out of an understanding of the needs and conditions of the client needs.  Using the right side of the brain is a less direct process yet I find it is very useful in working because much of the creative work goes on in the mind while the active left-brain is thinking about something else.   So as I learn this process I am able to give my mind many problems to solve at any one time and the ideas leading to the complete solution just pop up while I am doing something else.  It is my way of working and has been since 1960 when I first began to understand how to use my creative mind.  JWS

See essay "The Creative Mind"



First principle, Organic Space:  It is always my first intention to make organic space no mater what form or shape.

Of a thing not applied.    Integral not applied.  An organic building is designed into the site not stuck on the site. 

Nature shows us infinite variation on a theme.  Nature designs all serve a purpose they are never just for show or effect.  

Organic design always engages the imagination of the person that is experiencing the architecture.   Organic architecture never shows you the whole interior space.

My rules:

I will rarely change anything on an outside corner.   Nature never does this. 

Don't trap space.    The typical room is a box with holes in it.   The feeling is very trapped.  Organic Space shelters and defines but never limits or confines. JWS

Avoid the drop header over windows and doors.  Let the plane of the ceiling continue out to become the soffit.  The header traps the space.  

Let materials express their real nature.   Don't make concrete look like a brick.   Don't make plastic look like wood.  


Principles, Process, Practice


To be continued

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