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How to Determine Your Project’s Program

When folks are setting out on a design journey, many, but not all of them, come to us knowing exactly what they want to do with their project. If you’re someone who isn't quite sure, how do you go about figuring out your dream project’s program? And what can we do as designers to help?

June 2, 2022

You have no idea what you want to do with your property?

This is a question we are asking more these days.

Historically, clients have come to us with a specific design wish-list that we get the privilege of designing. They’ve rented a space where they would like to fit a restaurant with 50 seats, or they want to find room in their bungalow for their growing family, or they want to find ways to create outdoor spaces for bocce ball tournaments.

Wish lists help to determine what we call the program of a project – basically everything you’re hoping to get out of your new or updated space. Whatever the dream or vision, most folks have identified a problem or problems they’d like to solve, and solving those problems is what our team of architects, landscape architects, and interior designers is asked to do!

However, what we’re seeing more of now are clients coming to us with blank slates. They have a space and they want to do…something. It’s not quite a dream yet – they have a dream of having a dream.

As designers, we probably haven’t had the opportunity to create a limitless, highly theoretical, fun, and wild concept since we were in college. That’s one of the best parts of a design education if you ask me. But the truth is, the constraints that come along with most design projects help us do our jobs. It takes a minute to readjust, but if someone comes to us without a program in mind, we’re really being asked to solve a different sort of problem.

How do you design a program when there’s no problem to solve?

When we are presented with challenges like this, they’re most often with larger properties, corporate offices, or retail spaces – places that feel like blank slates.

My favorite challenge (and this is probably just of the moment, I’m sure I’ll think of a different preference in a year) is designing a program for a large property. Often these properties are treasured spaces for the people who own them. Maybe they have a significance to family history, there could be an outstanding view, or a series of really wonderful outdoor areas, but in all these cases, there’s a calling out for something to activate the various parts of the property.

Where do we begin?

Before we start, we need to look at a few factors to help us narrow down what exciting ideas are promising. At this stage in the process, we’re dreaming right alongside our clients before we’re really designing. We’re looking at inspiration images, literally sitting and thinking about the site, sketching some high-level concepts, and talking with our clients about what they’ve started imagining.

Budget Constraints

We need to be aware of that reality at the first step. A budget doesn’t necessarily limit the options at this early stage but it’s the anchor around which our options rotate. Sometimes you need to know what your budget can get you, and even what it can’t get you, to make informed decisions.

Unique Property Characteristics

Is there a stream that would warrant a bridge? A field that you could picture a group dinner in? Or maybe even a dense forest that you want to carve some trails through? The diamond-in-the-rough aspects of a property or house are always a great place to start looking for unique design solutions.

Hobbies or Interests

Do you like to play music or read? What if there was a special spot to do those things away from the main house? Do you love to swim on vacation and maybe hasn’t considered a pool for their own home? Sometimes folks forget a home doesn’t just have to be bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. Finding ways to add in private spaces for hobbies, work, or other interests can open a world of possibilities in design.

Long Term Goals

Does this person envision grandchildren coming to visit for years to come? Do they plan on staying in the home for the long term or is this a home they want to sell in a decade? People design homes they eventually move out of all the time, so knowing you’re going to leave a home isn’t necessarily a sign you shouldn’t make it work for you now. But it does help us understand what types of updates or additions are going to be the best investments for you. Someone who’s planning their forever home might be more willing to take on specialized and personalized solutions that don’t necessarily improve the resale value of their home but improve their enjoyment of it.

Privacy Needs

What are the privacy considerations from neighboring properties? And how much privacy do you want? Answering these questions can help focus our design solutions on giving you the outdoor spaces you need and want. We can sculpt a landscape to naturally block site lines, create interesting plantings to hide blank walls on neighboring sites, or strategically place outbuildings and ADUs.


This early process can take some time to create a list of possibilities that the client responds well to. We find that when we can start mixing some of this dreaming with early design work we can help find that magic spark of an idea that really resonates with the design team and the clients. There’s that moment when you see the idea really sizzle in someone’s eyes. That’s when we really love what we do.

Solving a problem as big as you have no idea what you want to do with your property? isn’t something that we see with all our clients, but when we do, it’s a fun and rewarding process.

Would you like to read more from the team?

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How to Determine Your Project’s Program

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