Account for Functional Needs  

the WBDG Functional / Operational Committee


Programming should begin with a clear definition of the activities to be performed and the people who will use the space and surroundings. Accounting for functional and psychological needs is a primary purpose of the planning process that defines an owner's functional and physical requirements for each spatial element in a building or facility. This process seeks to:

  • state the problem;
  • establish goals;
  • collect and analyze facts;
  • establish functional relationships;
  • uncover and test concepts;
  • define space requirements for all spaces;
  • and finally state the problem to direct a course of action.
Spatial diagrams of the Wieden + Kennedy Ad Agency building showing three levelsof the structure.

Primary Systems diagram of the Wieden + Kennedy Ad Agency building—Portland, OR
Photo Credit: Allied Works Architecture

Adequate programming performed in the project planning phase will clearly delineate in-use requirements and relationships of occupant activities and spaces required for all supporting building systems and equipment. Effective programming will include all pertinent stakeholders to identify that all "Whole Building" functions and needs have been identified. Conducting programming and design charrettes with these stakeholders is an effective means of enhancing integrated functionality and mutual agreement on a design approach.

See WBDG Architectural Programming for a more detailed explanation of how architectural programming helps the project team achieve a well-functioning high-performance building.

A truly functional building will require a thorough analysis of the parts of the design problem and the application of creative synthesis in a solution that integrates the parts in a coherent and optimal operating manner. 'Whole Building' design is characterized by a design solution that functions well from an occupant activity and building systems point of view.

There are several key steps in the development of project requirements that fully describe the design problem. They are:

  • Understand how the work processes support the mission and purpose of a facility;
  • Define spatial requirements for occupant activities and equipment in a Space Program;
  • Understand functional relationships among the programmed spaces;
  • Anticipate installation, Operations & Maintenance (O&M) practices, spatial change, and replacement of building equipment;
  • Accommodate information technology (IT), communication, and other building systems equipment; and
  • Consider serviceability (clearance) requirements.


Understand How the Functional Needs Support the Mission and Purpose of a Facility

  • Set owner's design objectives in the early planning stage.
  • Determine facility use, occupancy, and activities to be housed.
  • Consider the functional needs in the context of all the other design objectives to ensure a balanced and integrated design.
  • Balance the owner's and users' needs and goals for space, quality, budget, and time.
  • Reference building type guidelines. See also WBDG Building Types.
  • Look beyond the facility to understand the role the site plays in meeting the functional needs in support of the mission and purpose of a facility.
West-facing façade of Federal Center South Building 1202

West-facing façade of Federal Center South Building 1202, headquarters of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The "oxbow" design solution provides an ideal workplace environment for the USACE, emblematic of their mission of "Building Strong." The building's form-reflecting the natural oxbows past and present in the adjacent Duwamish Waterway-is functional and infinitely flexible to accommodate the USACE's constantly changing team-based work.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider

Define Spatial Requirements for Occupant Activities and Equipment

  • Consult all pertinent stakeholders for their requirements.
  • Consult planning guides and specialists on programmed activities equipment.
  • Document all regulatory requirements, such as building codes, accessibility laws, anti-terrorism/force protection (ATFP), etc.
  • Explore the possible necessity of making spaces flexible to accommodate changes in business practices, work activities, and technologies.
  • Consider building operations and maintenance activities in the defining of space requirements.
  • Look beyond the building to understand the role the site/landscape plays in defining spatial requirements for occupant activities and equipment.

Understand Functional Relationships Between Program Spaces

  • Engage user groups in discussions to brainstorm functional relationship solutions.
  • Examine patterns of activity in facility programs and consider how those patterns create spatial relationships.
  • Account for physical security requirements in the layout of space planning.
  • Consider impacts of building systems and engineering needs on spatial relationships in indoor and outdoor occupied and unoccupied spaces.
  • Leverage opportunities to consider quality environmental elements such as: natural light, spatial volume, views, connection to the landscape and nature, texture, and materials. See also WBDG Aesthetic Opportunities and Aesthetic Challenges.
  • Again, look beyond the facility to understand the role the site/landscape plays in the functional relationship between spaces and even the larger community.
Photo of the Vontz Center for Molecular Studies

Vontz Center for Molecular Studies—Cincinnati, Ohio. This 150,000 gsf., $35 million interdisciplinary research center is designed to accommodate neuroscience and cancer research. It includes core science research labs, offices, support areas, and seminar rooms with fully accessible mechanical, electrical, and support spaces between the main laboratory floors. Adequate programming is necessary to the design of such a complex building.
Photo Credit: BHDP Architecture

During Schematic Design Anticipate Installation, Operation, Spatial Change, Reuse, and Replacement of Building and Equipment

  • Incorporate infrastructure system needs (structural, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems) as integral parts of early design concepts.
  • Account for structural loads (dead and live) of building systems and equipment.
  • Ensure that all building system equipment and furniture, fixtures, and building equipment (FF&E) can actually be installed, operated, and replaced.
  • Consult facility O&M personnel in the programming and early design stage.
  • Plan infrastructure for flexible spatial modifications or "churn" and repurposing of the building in the future.

Accommodate Information Technology (IT), Communication, and Other Building Systems Equipment

Consider Serviceability (Clearance) Requirements

  • Design for vehicular clearances in the site design (e.g., drives, gates, ramps, parking).
  • Design for vehicular clearances in building design (e.g., doors, docks, obstructions).
  • Design for proper equipment access for maintenance and removal and replacement of equipment and/or major components, such as filters, boiler tubes or piping.
  • Design for equipment and system life cycle.
  • Design for maintainability (including housing of maintenance equipment).
  • Consult facility O&M personnel in the design process.

Related Issues

  • Computer-based space programming applications
  • Appropriate accommodation for the changing nature of work (flexibility and productivity)
  • Virtual workplaces and increased use of "Hoteling" for work space
  • Building Information Modeling (BIM) (defining object functionality for facility life cycle)
  • Adaptability for possible change of building needs and function over time.
  • With today's emphasis on sustainability and green building design, maintain a balanced perspective with the other key design objectives.

Relevant Codes and Standards

Additional Resources


Design Objectives

Accessible, Cost-Effective, Productive, Secure / Safe, Sustainable