Zones Instead of Walls

Imagine the boundary between inside and outside or between one room and another to be a zone rather than a wall. This will alleviate a number of problems and open up design possibilities. The zone can be articulated as a double wall, thick wall, inhabited wall or thick threshold. This thickness can be used to house storage spaces, mechanical systems, or be inhabited with window seats, built in furniture or other amenities. In some cases you may even be able to house circulation within the zone. This thickness can also be used to allow for differing sizes among adjacent rooms while avoiding an irregular overall building outline. That is, you can allow for differently sized rooms while keeping to geometrical alignments that can help maintain the clarity of your scheme – a series of rooms as a bar or a cluster or spaces reading as single larger figure. The zone gives you breathing room to negotiate internal needs with external clarity. Working only with walls (and particularly with walls of a single thickness) will create problems when you get into larger scale resolution of your design.

In practice you will find that thicknesses are required for many practical reasons – mechanical systems, plumbing, structure, wiring, and so on. It’s a good habit to develop early on.

Student Plan 1: This is a typical early plan made to test layout, scale, use and organisation. The spaces are concieved as independent cells defined by walls that have no identity other than doubled lines separating spaces from each other.

Student Plan 2: This is a series of plans testing layout, use and organisation. Again the spaces are defined by walls which are seen only as boundary defining elements. This results in an overly simplified wall/space opposition that lacks ambiguity, thresholds, in-between spaces or spaces with multiple characteristics.

Esherick House, Louis Kahn: This plan demonstrates the use of zones rather than walls to help organise and bring clarity to the plan layout. Note the exterior walls top and bottom which are treated as thick boundaries with niches on the interior side. The two living spaces are separated by a thick threshold comprising the stair and inset entry vestibules. During the design process it is likely that these zones were adjusted to resolve the interior spatial dimensions against the desire to produce a clear rectangular external volume.

Bryn Mawr Dormitories, Louis Kahn: This composite plan shows three different levels of the dormitory complex. Each level demonstrates different uses of the ‘wall as zone’ or ‘thick wall’. The band of bedrooms, in themselves, can be seen as a thick inhabited wall zone. Note that Kahn’s spaces are rarely defined by 4 straight walls, but are nearly always articulated to create thresholds or occupiable spaces.


Spence R. Kass ‘The Voluminous Wall‘ describes how the walls of St. Peters in Rome is really a thick space that is sometime occupied or used to modulate light. The article focuses on this one project but makes links to Louis Kahn and Alvar Aalto.

Related Post: Six Conditions of a Cube


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