Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Built Domain

I have written a number of essays over the years and have created a set of forecast models to predict the development capacity of land using a number of generic design scenarios, but essays can be lost and models conceal equations that represent knowledge.  

I plan to publish these essays and equations under the title, The Built Domain. The equations will be applicable to both U.S. and metric systems of measurement, which solves one of my problems. They will also relate to a vastly simplified forecasting system that focuses on gross building area as the common currency of architecture and city planning. 

In the process I have written an Introduction that represents my best effort to explain why this is relevant, in as few words as possible, and am posting it here for your review. I would appreciate any comments you may have but reserve the right to ignore them all. Designers everywhere should understand my attempt at humor.

The Built Domain 

The planet was a gift that we have subdivided until it is now in pieces. We have placed a hair net of property lines over its face and still fight for control. We have continued with consumption and pollution that should make wise men pause, since we are protected by a thin film of atmosphere on unstable land surrounded by fragile, turbulent seas; and our decisions are placing it all at risk in a universe of silent judgment.  

Subdivision continues to promote the illusion that we own the planet, but we dominate with power that pales in comparison to the forces we challenge with ignorance. All land is now claimed and we continue to subdivide, but the net is irrelevant when we stop to consider our source of life. It is simply a device to mark territory that a wolf does with ease. The struggle to survive is identical since we both live under the same conditions, but we have discovered a way to separate ourselves and conceal the consequences with political, legal, and economic abstractions. These have altered our perception of survival, but Instinct and intuition are producing an awareness of danger. Our decisions have created momentum that will challenge our ability to adapt once again; but domination will not solve the riddle of symbiotic survival on a planet that continuously evaluates our behavior.

Since we have been able to roam freely, we have assumed that the land, sea, and air have been ours to claim, inhabit, consume, and pollute; but is the case? I happen to agree with John Muir that the Natural Domain must be protected until we improve our ability to preserve it as our source of life. If you agree, the challenge is to define the Built Domain that is left for us. 

Our ability to shelter growing populations within a limited Built Domain will be a function of our land use allocation and intensity decisions; our ability to live with these decisions; and the demands these decisions place on our planet and its limited resources.  

Land Use Allocation 

Think of land use allocation within the Built Domain as fields on a farm, activity as the crops planted in each field, and intensity as the bushels per acre produced by each crop. Income is a function of field areas, crops, bushels per acre, and value per bushel.  

In city planning terms, fields are represented by land use allocation. Crops are land use activities. The square feet of shelter present, planned, or permitted per acre of activity is intensity. Intensity is a decision to limit development capacity. Income is a function of the revenue potential per square foot of activity introduced.  

A city defines fields and plants crops with a land use plan. Yield is influenced by the development capacity permitted. A city rarely correlates land use areas, activities, and capacity with its revenue, expense, and intensity implications; and it has great difficulty adjusting allocation imbalance to changing conditions and declining revenue. When annexation is not an option the problem is compounded. The revenue produced by annexation for the wrong activities and intensities, however, may have no better chance of off-setting the city’s operating, maintenance, and improvement expense over time. In these cases, annexation can delay the inevitable with new money that will not meet its future expense while consuming our source of life with sprawl. When annexation cannot meet its future expense, sprawl symbolizes a Ponzi scheme that leaves decay in its wake. The result is hardly the highest and best use of a city’s land area. In other words, a city is a farm that rarely correlates its crops and yield with the income needed to support a desirable quality of life over an extended period of time. 

Land use allocation and intensity can be correlated to produce adequate income for a desired quality of life within limits; but it requires new tools, applications, information, and awareness. If you accept that we must learn to live within geographic limits to protect our source of life, then you may also agree that we must begin to understand development capacity and intensity within these limits.  

Development Capacity 

I have mentioned that intensity is a design decision to limit development capacity. The challenge is to forecast capacity and limit intensity. The goal is to live within limits without sacrificing our quality of life. This will depend on our ability to accurately predict development capacity options with equations and values that can also be measured at existing locations to understand the intensity implied by these values. 

Intensity is the relationship of building mass and pavement to project open space on a given buildable land area. It is an increment of land development capacity and is a function of the parking system chosen and design specification values entered in the system’s design specification template.  

Building mass is volume that remains when building appearance is ignored. Gross building area within the volume can be tailored to suit any activity and is the common currency of architecture. It is also a prerequisite for survival. When you can accurately and efficiently predict the capacity of land to accommodate gross building area, you will be able to shelter population activities within limited geographic areas; but will have to learn more about the implications of intensity, revenue, and expense to our quality of life.  


Architectural intensity has been a condition without an adequate definition, but it will determine our ability to survive within sustainable geographic limits while protecting our quality of life.

Intensity is created by the relationship of four fundamental architectural components. These relationships are defined by the following equation. The logic leading up to this equation is summarized in Table I.1 and discussed in detail in my essay, “Quantifying Intuition“.  

INT = (f/S) * (TDA/BLA)  


INT= intensity
f= the number of building floors present, planned, or permitted
S= the percentage of buildable land area devoted to project open space
TDA= the sum of gross building area GBA and pavement PVT in sq. ft. or sq. meters
BLA= the buildable land area present or proposed in sq. ft. or sq. meters 


The INT result can be a rather large number when high-rise buildings are considered. Dividing the INT result by 10 or 100 is one option. The low end of the intensity spectrum under these circumstances can become a very small fraction, however. The choice is one of preference. The only condition is consistency. 

The challenge is to predict the total development capacity of land TDA, including its gross building area potential GBA; to limit capacity with project open space S and building height (f) regulations that produce levels of intensity; and to correlate intensity with activity and context to produce economic stability and a desirable quality of life within sustainable geographic limits.  



The equations to be presented can forecast development capacity for land areas of any size. Capacity is a relatively unlimited spectrum of opportunity until parking systems are chosen and design specification decisions are made. These decisions limit capacity and produce intensity. The result is gross building area GBA per acre. 

When intensity is aggregated across project areas, the result is urban form and space. Architectural design tailors urban form one project at a time with context, occupancy, engineering, and appearance decisions. 

When you consider our symbiotic imperative, the implications of these decisions become dramatic. We must shelter growing populations within sustainable geographic limits to protect our source and quality of life. It begins with the city design of urban form; but this is only part of the symbiotic puzzle. Truly “organic” shelter must be served by symbiotic systems of movement, open space, and life support. When successful, urban form will grow from symbiotic function and organic architecture will symbolize sustainable decisions based on symbiotic knowledge.
I am confident that shelter is intuitively recognized as a survival issue. It is simply a more abstract topic than medicine. After all, we only began seeing the anatomy of our patient with the advent of satellite photography -- and that awesome image from the Moon. It’s time to start treating the sprawl we have observed before the patient is consumed by disease. It’s hard for me to imagine that we cannot recognize responsibility now that we have seen the gift we have been given.