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by Bob Brooke


Form follows function is an old adage in architectural design. Today, this is even more true as designs of new commercial buildings--offices, shopping centers, banks, restaurants--take on a more sophisticated look. While big-city architecture still tries to reach the heavens, suburban buildings are taking on more of a look of what's around them–houses.

Architects are using more traditional forms and materials, for instance, Corinthian columns added to the exterior of a modern building. Design elements of a commercial building are directly responsive to a market image. And image is what today's market is all about. Environmental aspects and users' needs, as well as current technological advances, all contribute to the ultimate design. There is a strong effort to make employees and visitors comfortable, which makes for increased production.

Many of today’s architects believe that you must give a commercial building as much light as possible with as much flexibility as possible so that the building can be rented quickly and adapted for reuse. Clients want eye appeal with a throwback to classical images. Commercial architecture has come back to a more decorative look after the sparse designs of the 60's and 70's. Developers are choosing sites for their buildings that offer dramatic views and increased sources of natural light.

Why has suburban commercial architecture design changed so drastically? All the architects agree that the public lifestyle is changing and that includes the environment of the workplace. Everything is on a more human scale, that is, lower, smaller, and often cozier.

There is a definite trend to using natural materials says Capron. Such traditional materials as stone, brick, and wood are low on maintenance as well as more comfortable and soothing in appearance. Materials can also enhance the image the architect is trying to obtain. The pre-cast concrete and glass block elements of some buildings support an image of solidness. The brick banding on the exterior helps to give the building a more human scale and visually delineates the various levels. Also, the standing seam roof helps to give the hotel a look of a residential building with an extra added feature of low maintenance. Materials can be used to vary the scale of the building and make it complement or blend with those around it. This is very important in a corporate center like Great Valley where buildings are relatively close together.

All the architects must consider certain factors when designing their buildings. First and foremost, they must be responsive to their clients needs and desires. The function of each building must be considered, but also must the site on which it rests. Strict budgets are always a factor today. Even though natural materials, like fieldstone, are more expensive, they give the building more ultimate value. The extra added feature is low maintenance, which keeps future costs down.

Most architects agree that peaked and gabled roofs are the most friendly. n fact, the most successful projects are the ones that are the most residential looking. Another important part in new building design is the traditions and history of the area.

Existing buildings can be harder to work with. For example, an owner might chose to go with a more traditional turn-of-the-century look, changing the atmosphere by adding brick paving and new light fixtures, planters and benches, and increased landscaping.

Ultimately the game plan of the client is the most important. The client's taste and even township restrictions and codes influence the shape and look of commercial buildings today. 

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