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Building Articulation


Building articulation refers to the many street frontage design elements, both horizontal and vertical, that help create a streetscape of interest. The appropriate scale for articulation is often a function of the size of the building and the adjacent public spaces including sidewalks, planting zones, and roadways. Ground-floor building articulation is critical in creating a great street that welcomes and supports pedestrian activity by providing visual interest and a sense of security and community identity.

The importance of articulation on the upper stories of a building varies with the height of the building. Although skyscrapers usually include important design elements on the top stories, this type of articulation does not contribute to the streetscape or the pedestrian experience. Articulation on the upper stories of low and mid-rise buildings can help frame the street and create visual interest.

Building materials, special ground-floor design treatments, facade modulation, corner treatments, building setbacks for upper stories, and facade elements such as transparency, building entries, and other architectural details help define the public realm as a welcoming place. 

The impact of building articulation is best illustrated through images. In the image below, at left, the complete lack of articulation results in an environment that is perceived as unfriendly and possibly unsafe, and discourages pedestrian activity. In the image below, at right, the pedestrian-scale design of the building frontage supports and encourages pedestrian activity. There is visual interest, and the engagement of pedestrians through the use of storefront windows keeps eyes on the street and supports a safer, friendlier pedestrian environment.

Bad Bldg Artic
Credit: Charlier Associates
Entry Definition
Credit: Ryan Snyder Associates

In conjunction with massing, building articulation helps to direct pedestrians, create spaces and frame views of the corridor. The greatest streets are ones that support the movement of pedestrians by extending a street wall with visual interest.

Santa Barbara Sidewalk
Credit: Ryan Snyder Associates

The same design principles that create these elements of design also create identity for a community.

Creating a highly visible public realm through the use of storefront windows and public spaces for gathering also enhances safety and security for pedestrians.

Building articulation directives may exist as part of urban design standards and guidelines, or may be applied as part of an architectural review process.

Building Articulation in Small Town Downtowns

Define entries. Providing visual cues, such as articulated entries, support navigability and mobility for pedestrians. Way-finding and clearly-defined uses along the ground floor are essential components of pedestrian activity. The use of awnings, canopies and overhangs provides visual interest, entry definition and protection from inclement weather.

Santa Barbara Bldg
Credit: Ryan Snyder Associates

Use a variety of quality materials. The use of quality materials, particularly on the ground floor, translates to a sense of quality in the public realm. Quality materials also tend to last longer and wear better, preserving the pedestrian realm with less maintenance. Natural materials, local whenever possible, can help create timeless and weather-resistant designs. Variation in materials, particularly in partnership with facade modulation (the horizontal relief of the street wall), can be an effective way to create a streetscape of interest.

Keep the ground floor transparent. Transparency contributes to a great street in several ways. Windows create visual interest (for those of either side of the window), make the street highly visible and thus safer, and engage the pedestrian in various activities along the street.

Use patterns to maintain interest. Using pattern and repetition to create and maintain visual interest are proven architectural tenets. Windows, entries, facade modulation, and design treatments occurring in patterns help create great streets by providing visual appeal. Patterns and materials that refer to the local context can help create a pleasant, cohesive environment that is easy to navigate.