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ALBION DISTRICT LIBRARY BY PERKINS + WILL IS A 2018 COTE TOP TEN RECIPIENT. IMAGE: DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY

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The Committee on the Environment (COTE®) is an AIA Knowledge Community working for architects, allied professionals, and the public to achieve climate action and climate justice through design. We believe that design excellence is the foundation of a healthy, sustainable, and equitable future. Our work promotes design strategies that empower all AIA members to realize the best social and environmental outcomes with the clients and the communities they serve.

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Experiential Design Schemas by Mark DeKay and Gail Brager

  • 1.  Experiential Design Schemas by Mark DeKay and Gail Brager

    Posted 12-13-2023 01:28 PM

    COTE book REVIEW:

    Experiential Design Schemas

    By Bob Harris, FAIA

    When was the last time you really felt something emotive about a place that you didn't understand and couldn't explain? More than something simply visual, or a feeling that was too hot or too cold but, something deeply felt and experienced. Maybe it was something that triggered multiple senses, perhaps there were no words or conscious understanding.

    As a child I was fortunate that my elementary school, designed in the late fifties, took daylight and climate into account. Each classroom had a wall of operable windows under a deep overhang. The classrooms faced south and looked over what to me was a vast green.

    On the first day of fifth grade, I found that the teacher had covered every surface with colorful posters extolling the virtues of math, science, literature, and health. I sat at my desk with a very bad feeling without understanding why. I was upset enough that the teachers switched me to the neighboring classroom where I happily spent that year. It wasn't until decades later that I realized what made me react so strongly. It was the wall of windows that had been covered with posters. No changing light, no passing clouds, no green! I still remember the feeling of that room. Without realizing it, I was having a dramatic and emotional reaction to my environment.

    We experience these body space reactions every day of our lives yet, how many times do we stop to consider contributing factors? How many graduates enter the profession with a mentality of architecture as primarily a static visual and formal art where buildings are thought of simply as objects rather than richly engaging environments? My old modern-era school has been demolished and replaced. The new school was designed to look old aesthetically but has far fewer windows and diminished user control. Are we really doing better than that old light-filled classroom?

    Our profession and society need a deeper knowledge, better tools, and greater focus on experiential design.

    Through Experiential Design Schemas (ORO Editions, 2023) authors Mark DeKay and Gail Brager seek to bring new attention to the subject of spatial experience and the promise of a better built environment. The book begins with establishing a deeper understanding of the art and science of engaging all the human senses and carries through the establishment of a set of new schemas for design. This ambitious work is intended as an aid to designers who seek, as Joshua Aidlin aptly puts it in his insightful foreword, to "create soulful works of Architecture."

    Dedicated to "the student in all of us," this comprehensive book seeks to both educate and inspire. Set in the context of conventional practice, the information and ideas presented remain both academically rigorous and "laser-focused on bringing the person back to the center of design intentions." To this end, DeKay and Brager lean hard into a growing body of research seeking to further build the language of design. In doing so, their work thoughtfully acknowledges and expands the design and experiential explorations begun by previous authors including Jay Appleton, Grant Hildebrand, Christopher Alexander, Stephen Kellert, E.O. Wilson, and many others.

    DeKay and Brager have carefully organized their case, beginning with the daunting task of sharing a broad yet nuanced overview of the elements of Comfort, Experience, Science and the Human Condition. Each section is brimming with intriguing evidence backed by extensive source material. The numerous source citations at the end of these sections serve as an extraordinary primer and useful resource for those looking to dig more deeply into the richly complex and intriguing subject matter.

    Building upon this foundation, DeKay and Brager created 45 individual schemas with descriptive headings, organized into six distribution types forming knowledge modules to serve the design process. I recognize elements of "Thermic Hues," "Engagement and Retreat," and "Circadian Space," among other schemas within my memories of a fifth-grade classroom. I can also see that this is touching only a small fraction of what can be learned from further exploration into the ideas and schemas presented and those that may yet be discovered.

    This book is not about providing set answers or solutions but rather opening a "field of possibilities." The reader is encouraged to draw their own interpretations. For DeKay and Brager, the aim is to highlight "human experiences set in a context of both natural forces and spatial order." The schemas are meant to introduce the reader to an array of possibilities for enriching design. By providing provocative subjects, inspirational precedents, convincing background evidence, along with many ideas and strategies for consideration, this work enriches our understanding of what it means to be engaged more deeply with design and the human experience.



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    Robert Harris FAIA
    Lake | Flato Architects
    San Antonio TX
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