Space Planning



  1. Function and zoning
  2. Dimensions and shape of the space
  3. Site, orientation and climate
  4. Economy
  5. Stretching space
  6. Circulation patterns (traffic flows)
  7. Storage
  8. Permanent fixtures (kitchen and bath spaces)
  9. Special needs for elderly or disabled users
  10. Emotion and psychology
  11. Application of the Principles of Design
  12. Application of the Elements of Design

Space Planning Considerations

The Programme data gathered during the Design Process lays the foundation for space planning.  The Design Programme identifies the proposed function and the preferred mood and style of the space.

Intelligent space planning involves consideration of the following factors:

1. Function and Zoning

Arguably the most important among space allocation considerations is a functional analysis of the space.  The functional use of the space can be graphically illustrated.

Typically, homes have four zones: social zones; work zones (kitchen, utility, office); private zones (bedrooms, bathrooms); and storage zones (cupboards, closets and cabinets).   There are normally functional interrelationships between zones – certain zones have an adjacency relationship to one another – a kitchen is traditionally sited close to the dining area and bedrooms are typically grouped around a shared bathroom.  Other zones may overlap – the kitchen-diner or ‘great room’ is an increasingly popular feature of modern homes.  The space-planning process recognises which areas and functions are to be interrelated; that is to say, in a well-designed space, activities should flow smoothly and effectively from one zoned area into another.

Diagramming is the process of placing a two- or three-dimensional graphical representation of the proposed space on paper (Nielson et al, p.103).  The schematics are refined in stages, from rudimentary bubble diagrams to a finished floor plan, which will form the basis of the blueprints or working drawings.

PPT Evolution of Bubble Diagram to Floor Plan

Figure 1 – During the Design Process, the schematics evolve in stages, from rudimentary bubble diagrams (1) to finished floor plans (4)

Figure 1 shows the evolution of diagramming in four stages.  In Stage 1, a crude bubble plan shows the placement of zones according to function.  In Stage 2, the bubble diagram is refined to indicate how zones are divided into rooms and the relationships between them.  Stage 3 is further refined to show the size and shape of the rooms and the circulation patterns (traffic flow) between them.  In Stage 4, a final floor plan drafted to scale defines the exact size and placement of all architectural elements such as walls, doors and windows, with standardized symbols that make the plan intelligible to the contractors.

2. Dimensions and Shape of the Space

The research phase of the Design Process involves ascertaining the adequate floor space for each activity area within the building.   Generally, around 80 per cent of the available area is allocated to living space, 10 per cent for passage and 10 per cent for storage (Nielson et al, p.104).   With the aim of creating good designs for comfortable interior living, the sizes, shapes and spatial arrangement of the interior spaces should determine the exterior shape of the building, although in reality the desired style and proportions of the exterior may constrain the interior shapes or sizes.

Another important consideration is the number of users who will occupy the space.  The average floor area per household varies between countries:  the average size of a new home in the United Kingdom in 2009 was 76m2 (the average number of residents is 2.3); in the united States it was 201m2 and in Hong Kong it was just 45m2.1  Countries in more developed regions tend to have more floor space per person than those in less developed regions.

How Big is a House?

Figure 2 – Source:

The shape of the interior space has both horizontal and vertical dimensions.  Rectangular rooms are the easiest to build and decorate, but are less architecturally interesting than spaces with curved or angled walls and ceilings, which may create the impression of greater space and so serve to visually expand the actual dimensions of the interior.

3. Site, Orientation and Climate

The size and shape of the space may be determined by constraints of the site, such as the size of the building plot, the slope of the site, the location of nearby buildings or the style of neighbouring architecture.

The orientation of the site (the direction the plot faces) will influence the fenestration and good design will take full advantage of the solar aspects (the direction of sunshine).

Planning for climate is an important consideration of design.  Homes in Finland will have different planning from those in California, for example, because houses in colder climes are designed to provide protection from winter cold and residences in hotter climes must provide respite from the heat from the sun.

4. Economy

Economy is a paramount consideration in space planning.  In most cases, the client will need to impose a maximum spending limit, or a financial limit may be determined indirectly by the client’s lender.   The first economic consideration will be the amount of space, which directly affects the cost of the building.  Two-storey dwellings are less costly  to construct (per square metre of living space) than single-storey living space, since a single roof and set of foundations can serve all levels, fireplaces can be stacked and plumbing and electrical systems can be centralized.   Attic and basement conversions can provide an economical expansion of living space.

The volume and shape of the building also affect construction costs.  Buildings with high ceilings cost incur the cost of additional building materials and labour.   Square or rectangular buildings cost less to build (per square metre) than L-shaped, U-shaped or angular buildings with many gables (roof points) and dormer windows in the roof.  Careful forward structural planning to accommodate possible future extension or remodelling can prove economical by avoiding major structural changes when the time comes.

It can be economical to incorporate multi-use areas which can accommodate more than one activity concurrently, or can easily be transformed for alternative uses.  Multi-use space is generally open-plan space, allowing greater flexibility to re-arrange furniture for alternative functions, and the omission of walls would represent an additional cost saving.

As modern homes often have less space, it may be desirable to create the impression of spaciousness.  ‘Stretching space’ to make areas appear larger, is effectively a space-saving technique and represents another form of economy.

5. Stretching Space

A number of structural devices can be employed to ‘expand’ the space:

  • Open-plans with few structural walls
  • Use of half-walls or transparent walls
  • Extensive use of windows and glass in doors
  • Vertical space, accomplished with vaulted ceilings, 1.5-storey ceilings or skylights

A number of decorative devices can make small spaces appear larger:

  • Light colours appear to recede, making light-coloured walls seem further away
  • Smooth textures expand space
  • Wall-to-wall floor coverings make the floor area appear larger
  • Strong vertical lines direct the eye upwards, making ceilings appear higher
  • Floor-length window treatments can make walls look taller
  • Use of horizontal holdings can give the impression of greater width
  • Small-scale furnishings make the space appear larger
  • Mirrors can be positioned (e.g. to reflect a view from a window) so as to expand space
  • Use of small-scale pattern, or no pattern at all
  • Use of glass tables and other transparent materials
  • Furnishings that show their legs, rather than upholstered skirts

Conversely, too much space can be as big a dilemma as too little space.2  Areas that are larger than human scale in height or space, can amplify and echo noise, provide little opportunity for privacy, and seem unwelcoming.

A number of decorative devices can also make large spaces appear smaller:

  • Dark colours make space seem smaller
  • Heavy textures reduce space
  • Furniture can be arranged into a number of functional or conversational groupings
  • Area rugs can divide the space into separate areas or emphasize furniture groupings
  • Use of heavy or large-scale furnishings
  • Use of large-scale pattern
  • Use of furniture that is solid to the floor, or soft furnishings with upholstered skirts

6. Circulation Patterns

Circulation patterns are also referred to as ‘traffic flow’.    Space planning entails careful evaluation of traffic flow between rooms and between areas within rooms.  Traffic patterns  may be depicted as lines and arrows on a bubble diagram.  Direct traffic flow should be hindered as little as possible.

Some pitfalls to avoid in managing traffic patterns:

  • Rooms that act as hallways, providing the only access to other rooms
  • Areas too small to accommodate furniture and circulation
  • Door locations that force circulation through conversation furniture groupings
  • Traffic where private areas or untidy work areas are open to view

Heavy traffic areas in homes such as hallways and staircases must be sufficiently wide to accommodate two-way traffic, typically 1-1.5 metres in width.   Doors should be placed towards the corner of a room to avoid dissecting the wall space and to maximize flexibility for furniture placement.

7. Storage

Possessions are hard to part with so storage fills up quickly.  Storage areas should be located at the point of first or most frequent use.  Storage zones are required in or near specific locations throughout the home:

  • The entrance hall for coats, shoes, scarves, gloves
  • The kitchen for food, cookware, crockery, appliances, cleaning products
  • The utility or laundry room for washing machine, dryer, mops, brooms, vacuum
  • Linen cupboard for towels, bed linen (often housing a hot water tank)
  • Bedroom wardrobes and cupboards for clothing
  • Bathroom cupboards for toiletries
  • Study or home office for books, paper, stationery supplies, computer equipment
  • Family room for DVDs, CDs
  • Tool shed or outside storage for garden and maintenance tools and equipment

8. Permanent Fixtures

Rooms that contain built-in fixtures require particularly careful planning.   Permanent fixtures are treated as structural components, specified by the architect or designer, and included on the floor plan.   Kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms contain permanent fixtures and other rooms may also contain built-in cabinetry.

The kitchen is often the hub of the family home; the centre for food storage, preparation, service and dining.  Kitchens have also become an important centre for entertaining – a setting for hosts to cook and converse with guests.   A kitchen costs more to outfit in cabinetry, appliances and plumbing fixtures, than any other room in the home.

Kitchen and bathroom design are specialized fields of interior design.  Certified kitchen designers consider all aspects of lifestyle when designing a kitchen for clients, including family traffic patterns, how many family members prepare the meals, their physical proportions and any special needs.  When two or more family members commonly cook together, concepts such as the standard working triangle are less applicable.

Planning an efficient kitchen layout involves assigning work zones to the different activities involved in food preparation.  The three main activity zones, and the traffic flow between them, are commonly sited to form a so-called ‘working triangle’:

  • Refrigerator zone
  • Cooking zone
  • Sink/cleanup zone

An important part of kitchen planning is to decide where the refrigerator, sink and cooker will be sited in relation to one another.  Walking distance among these three areas should be at least 2 metres, to avoid activities becoming too crowded, and not more than 7 metres to avoid exhaustion.


Figure 3 – The Working Triangle in some typical kitchen layouts  (Source:

9. Special Needs for Elderly or Disabled users

The ageing population, and the growing number of people aged over 65 who maintain a longer period of independent living, require adaptations in traditional kitchen design.  Safety considerations are paramount, as well as comfort and convenience for users who may have impaired movement.  The kitchen must be planned for accessibility, with no excessively high or low shelving to avoid bending and work surfaces at a comfortable height.

Interiors for people with disabilities may require particular modifications to facilitate independent living.  Wheelchair users, for example, require modified spaces and dimensions.  Under anti-discrimination legislation (the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, in England and Wales, and the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990), landlords  have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to make rental properties suitable for people with disabilities.

The law requires that public spaces be designed to facilitate universal access.  The principle of universal design means that new facilities should meet the needs of all users instead of providing separate means of entry for wheelchair users and those with ‘ambulant’ impairments requiring the use of walking aids, which draw attention to those disabilities.  Universal design is an ideal which it may not be possible to realise fully.  In older buildings, for example, it may not be practical or desirable to tear down staircases and replace them with means of entry which are accessible to all, so installing separate ramps or ramps may remain a necessary compromise.

Space-planning considerations for those with impaired motion include minimum clearance of 1 metre for wheelchair access, and 1 square metre of clear turning space for wheelchairs.  All kitchen areas should be accessible to a frontal approach (with space under the counter) as well as a parallel approach by a wheelchair user, which requires a minimum distance of 1.8 metres between opposing cabinets.  Sink and hob controls should be front-sited for easy reach.

10. Emotion and Psychology

Interior designs that are intended to be psychologically or emotionally appealing, or to evoke a certain mood, can be accomplished by the shape, size and scale of the interior, as well by the use of certain materials, colours and textures.

Dividing interior space into different sizes addresses different human needs.  Small spaces provide a sense of security, comfort and intimacy, as well as an opportunity for users to feel a sense of ownership and belonging.  Conversely, large spaces fulfil the need to feel free of confinement and tall spaces can cause us to feel exhilarated by their immensity.

11. Application of the Principles of Design

Effective space planning necessitates careful consideration of the principles of design – harmony, emphasis, rhythm, balance and scale – in order to create effective and aesthetically pleasing interiors.  The scale and proportion of interiors should always be related to the scale and proportions of the human frame.

12. Skillful use of the Elements of Design

The objective of achieving a balance between functionality and aesthetics in space planning is accomplished by manipulating the elements of design – shape, mass, light, line, pattern, colour and texture.


  1. Average house sizes around the world (
  2. Nielsen et al, p.109


Nielson, Karla and David Taylor, Interiors: an introduction, 2nd edition.