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We need to talk about volume

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Why do architects spend longer thinking about area than volume?

Many years ago, following a lively lunchtime conversation with the super-urbane property consultant, David Rosen, I vainly asserted that I was going to make him a household name. In the field of commercial property he already was one, but why not extend his reputation to the wider world?

This was to be done by launching ‘Rosen’s Ratio’, the ratio being the relationship of area to volume or vice versa. In describing any sort of property, but in particular homes or unusually dimensioned buildings, you could give it a Rosen’s Ratio of anything between one (extremely miserable) and 10 (Chartres Cathedral).

It is a curiosity of British life that much more dimensional and performance information is available for the cars we think of buying, rather than the homes that we may live in for decades. Housebuilders can be notoriously reluctant to supply quite basic information, though those at the better end of the scale (such as Berkeley Homes) are now happy to adopt Code for Sustainable Homes criteria. Those criteria aren’t concerned with volume, alas.

It isn’t only housing where minimal standards leave much to be desired. Regular floor-to-ceiling heights at the dumber end of the spec office market are pretty depressing, yet it is difficult to describe generous volumes in anything other than crude terms (‘double-height’). So Rosen’s Ratio is still a valid idea and I offer it freely to the RICS for discussion the next time it revises the Standard Method of Measurement, that arcane document that tells you whether to include important areas for potential commercial letting, like the lift lobby. Or indeed, if the lift itself is big enough. 

Volume is a subject you don’t hear architects talking about very often, but since the manipulation of three-dimensional space is at the heart of what architects do, you’d think it would be discussed more. In 1995, the AJ asked Cedric Price to draw up a brief for a student design competition concerning a museum of the 20th century, to be located on a site in Milton Keynes.

The brief was appropriately loose, but it did ask for a simple description of the volumes within the building. Hardly any of the students supplied this, though a number supplied details about area. It wasn’t clear why this was so, since the experience of volume is extremely important in any building where sequence is a major factor.

I thought about this at Gatwick recently, where some genius has introduced an unpleasant little funnel between boarding and baggage security. Passengers are packed in like sardines before emerging into the relatively spacious security area. I can only hope this is temporary, but the British mania for compression where it is unnecessary never ceases to amaze. The wonderful spaces at St Pancras International, for shoppers and passengers alike, suddenly revert to the British norm once you actually become a passenger by going through security. Then you get conditions you once experienced at Waterloo; cramped and faintly depressing, prompting an urgent desire to rediscover big volumes and natural light. Thank goodness for Heathrow’s Terminal 5, where generosity rules.

Interior space is about psychology as much as it is about specific dimensions, and the trade-off between public/communal space and private, individual areas is a matter for discussion rather than one-size-fits-all rules. For example, bedroom dimensions in contemporary homes could be smaller or larger – depending on whether you want them to function as a workspace or not. It may be that users would prefer generosity in the living room, or would like a lightwell, rather than marginally bigger room sizes.

I still like the idea of a common way of describing that area/volume ratio; there is nothing like a star system, whether applied to refrigerators or homes, to keep suppliers on their toes.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I woudl be interested in looking into 'Rosen’s Ratio’ further- was there a particular AJ where it was explored in more detail? If so can anyone provide me with a reference please? Much obliged.

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