In architecture, circulation means the pathways through a floor plan. These pathways are how we experience architecture; the design of these pathways has an enormous effect on the success or failure of a plan. Circulation spaces ought to be as interesting as any other part of a building. There are always unique opportunities to make circulation interesting.
ABOVE: This residential gallery uses extra width, creative lighting, and an integral focal point to make the architectural experience interesting.
Obvious pathways include hallways (horizontal circulation) and stairs (vertical circulation). But every space we are able to occupy is part of the circulation system of a building. Halls can be expanded to become spacious areas like vestibules, foyers, galleries, arcades, and colonnades. Vertical circulation can include elevators and escalators. Less obvious pathways are the spaces between and around furniture: the spaces in rooms where people are likely to walk. All of these variations on circulation are important aspects of architecture because it is through movement that we enjoy architecture as a three-dimensional experience. Without movement, architecture is merely a stage set: entertaining to look at, perhaps, but with no direct relationship to the user.
ABOVE: This hallway uses at least five architectural "tricks" to make the long traverse interesting: skylights, level changes, art niches, generous width, and terminating the vista with a window looking out to a private garden. (Photo by Cynthia Schlaer.)
Good circulation is essential to successful architecture. Like the flow of blood in a body, circulation works best when the route is clear and unobstructed. After all, how can you appreciate beautiful spaces if you don’t know where to go or you’re constantly bumping into obstacles? When we confront people with an obstacle course, their eyes are on the obstacles, not the architecture.
ABOVE: Note how this master suite accomodates circulation and furniture without conflicts.
A floor plan with good circulation makes every square foot of space work efficiently and gracefully. Good circulation does not necessarily mean that the shortest path between two points is best. It means that the most architecturally rewarding path between two points is preferred. ABOVE: Vertical circulation handled with sweeping stairways in traditional and contemporary homes.
BELOW: A simple organic shape (like a snail shell) makes the vertical circulation seem inviting and effortless.
ABOVE: This courtyard home is entered through a small gate house (left) that leads to an enclosed path (right) bridging a swimming pool and leading to the front door. This sequence of events engages our curiosity and imagination to make the space inviting.
Traffic patterns are most effective when clear, logical, and unambiguous. However, that doesn’t mean they need be boring. Walking through a work of architecture is a sequence of events, and every event can be interesting. In a well-designed floor plan, every event reinforces the theme, variations, and development of the overriding functional requirements and esthetic purpose. Circulation spaces should be designed as meaningful parts of the whole.
Open planning is modern architecture’s gift to spatial perception. Narrow, dark hallways are a relic of the past. In many buildings, efficient space planning can make hallways all but disappear, blending the circulation spaces with functional spaces, transforming hidden square footage into open, perceived space. This borrowing between spaces adds interest and thereby increases value. When circulation must exist independent from the main spaces because of privacy or security, the architect still has many design tools available to keep things interesting. When the budget allows, foyers can be generous, halls can be designed as galleries, and stairs can be compelling focal points. Circulation need never interfere with furnishings or function. The challenge is to find interesting and lively transitions from one space to another. Space flows naturally and effortlessly when circulation is an integral part of architectural design. ABOVE: Three views of a residential hallway consisting of interlinked galleries topped by pyramid skylights and clerestory windows.
BELOW: Plan showing how the galleries are staggered to set up a dynamic path through the home.In mild climates we have additional opportunities to make circulation especially interesting. Good weather is an encouragement to integrate indoor and outdoor circulation. Connections between various parts of a structure could be a series of vine-covered, open-air trellises rather than indoor corridors. In colder or wetter climes, this might be impractical, but in Las Vegas, for example, we recently designed a home where all the hallways are outdoor trellises. Yes, there are days when heat or winds are an inconvenience, but the opportunity to enjoy the natural environment on an everyday basis far outweighs those negatives.
ABOVE: This Las Vegas home is a series of pavilions with the circulation system accommodated by outdoor trellises and broad roof overhangs.
Every part of a building should enhance the architectural experience. No less important than any other part is the space we devote to circulation: the space between the spaces. ABOVE: Narrow halls, even in the most affordable homes, can be enhanced with art niches. This display area was constructed within the constraints of a 2x6 wall.
All photos in the above article by Rob Munger unless otherwise noted. Architecture by Michael Knorr & Associates, Inc.