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Proportional Design Systems

Linear Systems

The usual method of describing buildings today is through linear measurements. In this regard, the scale rule is one of the quintessential tools used by the architect. As Morgan (1) suggests, the scale is a "neutral" instrument in that it merely allows for linear measurement to be stated graphically. It does not provide a basis for layout, proportion, or the setting of other dimensions.

Drawing to Scale

Clearly, it is not possible on a single sheet of paper to draw the completed building, or even the details, at full size. Consequently, one of the central features of the working drawing process is the scaling of the building form. Since the degree of accuracy of the drawings is limited by the tools incorporated in the process, i.e. the ink pen and ruler, it is necessary for dimensions to be added. This is further acknowledged in the customary statement that the drawings should not be directly measured from, to avoid litigation resulting from the literal construction of less than perfect draftsmanship. This contrasts the general mode of practice for computer drafting software whereby full scale is the presumed mode of operation and any other scale is applied and designated only when printing.

Master Masons

In direct contrast to this approach, Morgan describes the process of proportional or numberless systems used by the Medieval Master Masons. He suggests, it is likely in their method they set a single dimension, for instance the bay width between columns. It is then possible to set out all other dimensions as proportions from this base as derived from the Master Mason’s square. Once this key dimension was established by the Patron or Master Mason, the other major points to the overall building layout could be established. Within this framework, the details of the design could be delegated to Masons of lesser status, confident that a consistent overall response would be formulated.


The Computer Interface

The contrast between the drawing of lines or forms on the drawing board and the computer is worth considering at further depth. It has been noted the relative inaccuracy of the drawing board requires the use of dimensions. In contrast, the computer is able to generate dimensions from the linework automatically. In the current range of drafting software, the length of lines is established when the line is created. This occurs either through directly inputting the measurement to the user’s defined degree of accuracy, or through placement in accordance with existing features already delineated, for instance, a gridline or existing wall. Therefore, the computer does not need input in the form of dimensions. It is capable of determining dimensions from what is drawn.
The ability of computers to decipher imputed information is most capably demonstrated in the use of optical character systems which convert handwriting into text that is able to manipulated digitally by the computer. Similarly, provided guidelines are established for what is being drawn, this process could provide the basis for converting the speed of sketch drawings into proportional and conceptual frameworks for building layouts. It is also worth noting, the question of scale is the factor behind the need for the duplication of drawings at varying levels of detail. For example a general plan is drawn at 1:100, a detailed floor plan at 1:20 and details at 1:5.
In comparison, the use of a computer, since it draws all things at full scale, makes it possible to restrict the building description to a single plan. This is a definite advantage for increasing productivity since less lines need to be drawn and less time is needed to make the range of drawings of varying details consistent.


The emphasis on delegation of the process of design provides an interesting point in the switch to ‘Design Your Own’. The use of a design facilitator may be employed to establish the overall and most important features of a building design. This may include the choice and location of structural systems, placement of servicing and selection of materials. Other options, such as the kitchen layout or the placement of windows may be delegated to the client and completed within the system outlined by the facilitator.

Design Continuity

This process also provides a means to Master Planning without the need to define visual standards for future completed works. Through establishing a system of proportions that can be scaled up or down, the most appropriate methods and materials can be selected and implemented whilst ensuring a continuity and consistency with previously built structures. This is in contrast to examples whereby a set material, colour and shape is defined as the mode of construction for all buildings restricting the options of later designers.


As Morgan points out, the usefulness of proportional systems and scaled systems as the means to descriptions of building form are dependent upon the nature of the construction materials. The use of stone which is individually cut and shaped on site favors the wide range of shapes and sizes able to be generated within a proportional system. Alternatively, the standardization of components reduces the options for combination. For instance, the mass-produced brick has only 3 dimensional variants relating to its height, width and length. This favors the use of a measurement system whereby it is easier to tally whole numbers of consistent size. The development of automation technologies and the ability to customize components makes the possibility of returning to the use of a proportion based, design system a realistic option.

Proportions and Aesthetics

The intent of this process is to provide a means to create forms that are easy to manipulate and modify to allow the rapid execution of customized design solutions. This is in direct contrast to the use of proportional systems, such as regulating lines, which merely serve to proportion the elevations or plans of building to ‘please the eye’. It is worth noting at this point, the remarks of Christopher Alexander (2) on the aesthetic significance of proportion systems. Whilst he acknowledges the results of psychological tests that confirm the golden rectangle (ratio of 1 : ø) is pleasing to the eye, Alexander notes that people are unable in practice to distinguish between a golden rectangle and a similar rectangle varying in proportion by as much as 3-4%. Furthermore, the inference that it is the irrational number of ø that provides the ‘dynamic’ quality as compared to the ‘static’ quality of other numbers is nonsense. Alexander points out, irrational numbers are abstract concepts and if they are to be constructed or measured, they require some degree of rounding off.


(1) Morgan; Canonic Design in English Medieval Architecture; Pages 68-69.
(2) Alexander, Christopher; "Perception and Modular Coordination"; RIBA Journal; October 1959; Pages 425-9; as noted in March and Steadman; The Geometry of Environment; Pages 237-8.

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