What is a Case Study?
You might be at the stage in your design where you have come up with a first iteration of your building and there’s just not enough depth to it, or it looks empty, has no real meaning behind it. This is common when you’re starting out so don’t panic. At this point, your tutors might suggest looking for a case study to further enhance your project. That might sound good, but how do you even start? What even is a case study you might ask?
This small but integral part of any design project is seemingly overlooked. There aren’t many helpful guides or set of instructions out there. (Trust me, we looked.) First you need to define for yourself what a case study is. For some projects, a case study can be the starting point of a project, for others it can be a link or reference that is relatable and can be explained easily.
For example, whenever Sana is explaining her project – a Vietnamese modular community that includes housing, commercial space and a community centre, she often describes the exterior skin of the building – which is made up of building services – as a smaller scale Pompidou Centre. Most architects will be able to understand immediately, and the Pompidou Centre is so well-documented, that it made for a great case study in her project. Breaking down the components of the building skin and the way in which it is organised helped adapt the idea for a domestic project. It also makes sense for the purpose of extracting out the services and putting them on the exterior of the building.
In the same way, the case studies you choose must have some kind of purpose or addition to your project. Your building doesn’t need to be a true representation of the building, that’s not what a case study is for. By researching and understand concepts other architects have used, you can apply the same rules and ideas to your own project and take it from there.
It’s perfectly fine to be fixed on a certain project that inspires your own from the get-go, but we think having a few case studies after your first iteration of drawings allows you to shape your building when you already have a set of building blocks. When analysing case studies, you’re essentially looking for interesting parts of the project that may or may not apply to your design. By understanding what someone else has done in the past, and how it’s worked, you can aim to design better whilst you’re adding to your own creative juices.
How do I pick a Case Study?
Obviously, there are a ton of amazing projects out there and you may already have a lot of knowledge about a few, but you really have to stop and think whether this particular building is going to help you. If you get lucky, your tutor might even suggest you look at a building in more detail, which makes your life much easier. On the other hand, if you have no idea where to start, think about these next steps.
First, you need to figure out which kind of building you’re designing. For example, you need to think whether it is residential based, a public building, a private mixed-use project – basically the category your project may come under. This way, you can narrow your search and find projects with the same outline as yours. This doesn’t mean a completely unrelated building won’t come in handy. Parts of a building might be more important than it’s purpose. For example, looking at the use of glass blocks in Maison de Verre by Chareau helped inspire a project about viewing and optical elements and combining public and private spaces.
Then, you need to make sure there are parallel factors between the case study and your own project. This can be the environment or climate, something that is similar which you can relate back to. If there aren’t any, you can always choose to implement some in your project. Make sure you’re discussing this with your tutor before you do a whole case study on a project they don’t think will relate well enough. Remember, they are there to guide you and may often have better knowledge about a range of buildings. Better yet, if your brief includes buildings of interest, you can always start with these.
What to look for
Once you’ve found your case study, you need to start by doing a literature or desktop study, which in simple terms means, Google it. Look at various websites to get a full idea of the project. Usually websites like Arch Daily will have a lot of these projects outlined as fact-filled pages. We’ll leave some more useful links at the end of the article so keep reading!
Usually, your building site will be somewhere in your city. Projects you choose for a case study might not be in the same city or country even. If you have a strong connection with other parts of the building, the environment and climate might not be that essential. It can be good to see the ways in which the building has been designed to accommodate for these features. If it hasn’t, you can still explain this and propose a solution regarding your building. Think about the average type of weather, the kind of soil type and where the site is.
You may find that a part of the building appeal to you much more than any other details. If the function of the space isn’t relevant, but there is an amazing structural quality that you think you can use, focus on that. For example, the use of a type of beam or steel structure, or even the materials that they have used for the structure can be vital to turning your building into something much more interesting.
Surroundings / Access Points
As well as internal parts of the case study, you also need to evaluate how the building interacts with its surrounding. Look at transport around the building, the kinds of neighbouring buildings (if any) and in relation, the entry and exit points of the building. Eventually you can also do this for your own project, in a simpler model to understand the relationship with the area.
Research further into the use of the building and all of the spaces inside. You can go into as much detail as you want, that depends on your project or brief and what exactly you want to get out of the case study. If it is possible to make a physical visit, try it and document the process as much as you can. Think carefully about the spaces inside and their purposes.
Other requirements may change as time goes by. If it is an old building, you can look at the history of the case study and if the building has changed any way, how it has changed or why. If the case study is of a broader type of project, it might also change depending on the time of day. Be sure to research into all kinds of aspects of the project and the perspective from different people and the requirements they may have.
Form + Function
Here, you need to analyse both the form and function of the building. This includes outer and interior appearances. If anything pops out at you, make sure to find different photos of it or even sketches to understand the way in which it has been designed. Then the function, which is similar to the building requirements but can perhaps be better explained coming from the architects themselves if possible.
Some buildings may have extreme aesthetical features that can be harder to achieve and design. Figure out the ways in which these forms have been created through smaller test models of your own and adapt them to your own building. Remember, the point of a case study is to enhance your own project. There’s no point doing all this research without making use of it.
If needed, you can focus of the technical aspects of the case study. When looking into residential spaces, the HVAC systems or other hidden systems could be of interest if your project is aimed in that direction.
Lastly, make sure to have a lot of key images of the case study. Don’t opt for standard front elevations, look deeper and focus on details if possible.
Preparing your portfolio
After you have done a ton of research and compiled this all together, you need to find a way to fit it into your portfolio. We advise you to place these pages in the early part of your portfolio, when the design is being developed. We’ve put together a brief list of the kinds of pages you might present this information in. It’s not all compulsory, do the ones which fit your project best.
Don’t overload the page no matter how large your page size is. Pick 4-5 key images that you can explain further later on. Make sure they’re of good quality when printed. Text should be needed if necessary.
A site analysis might be the best way to present your findings. This kind of page can be a simple diagram of the building with annotations explaining the interesting features you found and why they are important. For more information, you can read our article ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Site Analysis’
Models and Tests
If you end up doing any tests with physical or digital models, put these in. It shows you have connected with the project and taken the initiative to figure out aspects of your own building. These can be extremely helpful when coming up with later iterations of drawings.
Opportunities and Constraints
An opportunities and constraints diagram is usually for the site analysis but can be prepared for case studies too. You don’t need to go into too much detail but if you feel it is needed you can most definitely create one.
All the facts and figures you have gathered, as well as any historical information, you can include with images or diagrams. Try not to overload the page with too much text, you just want to get across the key points.
So, that’s our beginner’s guide for case study analysis. Hope we didn’t miss anything, but if you feel like we did, leave a comment below. Let’s also start something new: Publish your portfolio online (your own website is great, we also love Issuu) and leave a link down below, this way we can have a look at each other’s portfolios!
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