Why should architects draw by hand?

(…when computers can draw almost anything these days!)

Our Managing Director, Alan, is a passionate proponent of sketching. In the office, he’s often found at his drawing board, and he’s even got his sketch pad out when he’s on holiday! We asked him why he thinks sketching and hand drawing is such an important skill for an architect to use.

Alan’s holiday sketch of Paxos

 What if you can’t draw?

Sketching is a skill we can all learn- we aren’t born with it, we need to develop it through training and practise. Like music. OK, some people will never become international musicians, but we can all be reasonably good. We can all be Bananarama, if not Tchaikovsky. We can all be trained to sketch and paint. Join a class if you don’t believe me and you’ll see the difference in just a few days.

Isn’t it easier to just take a photograph?

Well, when we draw by hand, we look at things differently and certainly in more detail. I can stroll through town and think I know how it works and how it’s put together. Sure, I can take photographs to record what I think I see, but it’s interesting when I refer to those photos again in the office- that lamppost is obscuring the one detail of a distant building that’s important in our scheme!! How didn’t I see that when I photographed it?!

Well, if I had started to sketch it, I would have realised my error quickly, and started the sketch from a different position. That’s because when I draw by hand, from life, I look at things more intently. I have to, or else it doesn’t come together. I can’t get that cornice to line up with that window head accurately; I can’t get the perspective working properly. So I look more closely; it all counts.

Drawing also gives you thinking time. And often, as a result of taking your time, your understanding of a place changes as you draw. You thought it was a suburban context, but actually it is a subrural one! That in turn, changes a lot- how the roads work; how they are edged; the degree of soft and hard.


One of our directors, Gavin, at his drawing board

How detailed do my sketches need to be?

To get the most benefit I need to sketch quickly. That means setting out the horizon, setting out the vanishing point(s) and dealing with the whole image at once, working down into the detail only when you know the composition is right. Drawing quickly helps enormously, as it gives you lots of time to correct yourself. Try drawing the scene in front of you but limit yourself to 120 seconds. Very tough at first, but gets easier. When you’ve started to get the hang of that, you can start to develop quick representations of existing places, then add detail, and then it takes only a short step to develop the skills to represent unbuilt places. Sketches can be highly detailed, or entirely simplistic. Which, depends on their purpose, but they are both valid and useful.

Why not just use computer?

You can cheat on computer – use the detail you used last time, copied from another project. There is a time and place for the computer of course, and though these days it begins quite early on in the process, but that doesn’t rule out the early thinking and site character drawings and it doesn’t stop us exploring new ways of joining materials together, by hand, throughout the project.

And of course, when you sketch by hand, you start to understand not just the form, but the mood of the place. We can develop buildings and places very quickly on computers, but how quickly can we capture the character of that place? And great architecture doesn’t exist without some kind of special character.

ALAN sketch
Alan’s sketch captures the character of Béziers, France

Drawing helps us think not just about the form of things, but also about light and shade, materials and textures, perspectives and viewpoints. It does this, because you can’t draw it accurately without understanding all those things and more. You have to check whether that window reveal is inset or not, whether walls are dominant or subservient.

Also, drawing helps you explain something quickly to a client or user. There wouldn’t be time in a progress meeting to set up the computer to do that, but a 2B pencil and a sheet of A3 and there you go. It appears in front of the client’s eyes and they are in it with you. And you can draw again over the top of it; how messy it is doesn’t matter, because the client will have understood the evolution of the idea. The fastest computer in the land can’t move as quickly as our brain, but a 2B pencil isn’t far behind!

And of course, it’s all very enjoyable! What would you rather be doing- sketching and working out ideas quickly, or waiting for the laptop to fire up? It’s a no-brainer, so get practicing.



Eco-Housing Part 1- SOLCER House

This is the SOLCER House; the UK’s first low cost, zero carbon, carbon positive house.

The SOLCER House

Designed by Professor Phil Jones and his team based at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, the house was built in July 2015 as a ‘smart energy’ prototype in an astonishingly successful attempt to meet the tough targets for zero carbon housing set by the UK Government (now axed by George Osborne). The house, constructed as part of the Wales Low Carbon Research Institute’s (LCRI) SOLCER project, and supported by SPECIFIC at Swansea University, is low-cost, energy smart, and is capable of producing and exporting more energy to the national electricity grid than it uses.

Some of the features, allowing the house to be really smart with its energy production, storage and usage.
Some of the features, allowing the house to be really smart with its energy production, storage and usage.

Professor Jones said of the design,

“The Welsh and UK Governments – and governments across the EU – have set targets for very low ‘nearly zero’ energy buildings by 2020, and zero carbon new housing can deliver this and more. This means that as an academic community we have to rise to that challenge and come-up with innovative new ways to build houses of the future.”

When the UK government’s eventual dismissal of these targets was announced, it attracted widespread criticism not only from environmentalists, but also from house builders, planners and universities. It would have ensured that all houses were carbon positive and making significant energy contributions to the grid by 2016.

GFA at the SOLCER House

GFA at the SOLCER House

On Friday 16th November 2015, a few members of staff from GFA decided to make a trip to see it. I asked around the office to see what we learned:

The loft space

The loft space, which can currently not be lived in due to its lack of insulation.

Architectural Technologist, Miranda, said:

 “The most interesting part of the building from a design standpoint was the loft area, which is roofed in glass with PV panels attached, creating a striking, light-filled space. Unfortunately, without insulation, the space is not actually habitable. But the basic idea could be taken forward with some form of transparent insulation to create a very interesting architecture, which directly makes the eco-credentials of the building visible.”

Transpired Solar Collector (TSC) Panels. They’re essentially sheets of metal that have a few tiny holes in and an air gap behind. When the sun hits the surface of the metal, the air behind it heats up. The system then moves this heated air around the house using the natural ventilation.

Transpired Solar Collector (TSC) Panels.
They’re essentially sheets of metal that have a few tiny holes in and an air gap behind. When the sun hits the surface of the metal, the air behind it heats up. The system then moves this heated air around the house.

Director and architect, Gavin, said:

“The external metal wall panels, TSC solar air collectors, were an interesting concept. It’s good to see more sustainable projects being built in Wales and congratulations to the WSA Architectural Science group on funding, designing and building an energy positive house. GFA have our low carbon batteries re-charged after the visit. The attic space was interesting in that the PV cells were mounted directly onto glazing; seems a shame that it wasn’t a habitable room but is a great concept for further development.”

The house, although being an incredible positive carbon model, is not the most aesthetically attractive home, making it unattractive to developers and housebuilders, despite all it's benefits.

The house, although being an incredible positive carbon model, is perhaps not the most aesthetically attractive home; will that make it unattractive to developers and housebuilders, despite all its benefits?

Architectural Assistant, Sam, said:

“It was quite inspiring to see a physical manifestation of what can actually be done with off the shelf materials to make a house environmentally friendly. It’s a shame that it hasn’t turned out to be the most attractive building. I think the next step for architects though is to use some of the techniques and systems cleverly to create an attractive (and potentially cheaper) architecture that developers will be more willing to get on board with.”

For a non-architect who doesn’t really know anything about the environmental aspects of designing a building, it’s really refreshing and encouraging to see that environmental concern and energy efficiency is at the forefront of research and practice in universities and in architectural studios. It’s continuing to be pioneered, despite there no longer being an immediate target, which is just as well really, as we need to be reaching an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from homes by 2050 under the Climate Change Act.

What Sam said was particularly interesting, because in 2007, Gaunt Francis entered and won the 2007 Home for the Future competition with their design for the Green House. It won with over 22,000 votes not just because it was zero carbon rated, but precisely because of its elegant and homely design which was missing from so many other attempts at creating eco-housing. The 2015 SOLCER House was successful as a technological experiment to see if a carbon positive dwelling was a possibility, but the Green House was the first zero carbon, Code Level 6 dwelling to be built by a volume house builder, Barratt, at the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Really, the Gaunt Francis design was the first realistic eco-house ever built in the UK, because of its attractiveness to ordinary people who want somewhere cosy to come home to at the end of the day (which makes it an attractive design for developers, too).

We’ll take a closer look at GFA’s Green House design and building, in next month’s blog posts. Perhaps the technology of the SOLCER House and the Green House design together, are an insight into the sustainable buildings of the very near future.

Welcome to Gaunt Francis in Cardiff!

In the Welsh capital, Gaunt Francis Architects’ Cardiff office is still buzzing with the same life, creativity and inspiration as our main London practice. Cardiff is an absolutely stunning city. Multicultural and vibrant, yet still with a strong sense of its Welsh identity it’s an inspirational city to work in and at the GFA Cardiff office, we pretty much have the best views for miles around.

I joined the Cardiff office in May of this year as an administrative assistant and therefore, because I’m not an architect, I often have a lot of questions. These are often questions such as “what on earth is a balustrade?!”, or “how much milk do we have left?”, but working in this new and exciting industry has also inspired me to get thinking about concepts, ideas and theories I had never encountered before.

Rather than keep my head in the clouds all day, this blog exists to document the novel and interesting things I discover as I work, to voice my musings and wonderings about architecture, and to give a brief peep into the working life of the GFA Cardiff office.