How I Use Color (An Architect’s Guide)


Hey, Eric here with 30 by 40 Design Workshop
talking about how architects think about and use color in our work, and it’s more than
just about aesthetics. Be sure to stick around at the end for all
the tools resources and apps I’m using in my practice. Before we get too far into it I’m sort of
presuming you have a basic working knowledge of the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors,
and that you know the difference between warm and cool tones. If not, there’s a link in the cards that will
bring you up to speed. Now, building on that we have hue saturation
and value. Think of hue as the color, saturation how
intense the color is, and value as how light or dark it is. To build out a full complement of colors for
us to use from the three primary colors we add: tints, which are created by adding white
to a given hue, shades which are made by adding black, and tones by adding gray, which is
essentially differing amounts of black and white. When you’re thinking about color choices,
understand that the value – remember how light or dark it is – influences the amount of light
it will reflect back into a space. A white wall will reflect a little over 80%
of the light that hits it, while a dark wall might reflect less than 10% of the light hitting
it. Now, there’s many different combinations of
colors based on their location and relationship on the color wheel and it’s probably good
to familiarize yourself with them, in practice though, I don’t start by choosing a color
scheme. I always somehow land on either a monochromatic,
neutral, achromatic, or analogous color scheme, but it’s not an intentional practice, it’s
more organic. But, these can be excellent starting points
for any novice working with color. Using tints, tones, and shades of the same
hue, it’s pretty hard to go wrong there. Study the architecture you think is most successful
and I’ll guarantee there’s a thoughtful and obvious approach to material and color being
employed. To construct computer models of clay, or study
models of brown corrugated and white museum board – as we’re taught to do in school – simply
denies this really important layer of color meaning. Your first step though isn’t digging into
your Sherwin-Williams binder and grabbing an off-white, three grays, and a red to test
out. Step one in color design is to recall the
building concept. What’s the goal? What are you trying to do? The concept unifies everything, you’re kind
of lost without it. So, I start by asking: “What’s the story
I’m trying to tell?” Now, the story can be about the place, or
the client, or the occupants, or about the geometry, about natural light, or separation,
or circulation, about openness, or seclusion, or a journey from light to dark, anything
you choose. For me, I like to have an image to lean on
– abstract or not – to use as a reminder of this goal. Often it’s from the site or a nearby location
and I’ll use it to draw color ideas from. But, more on this later. Indigenous materials have always been the
first materials used to create our architecture. It’s no surprise we grabbed the ones we had
nearby first. Look at the city of Siena in Italy. The namesake for the color Siena was derived
from the hue of the terrain there; it was the same clay they used to make their tile
roofs and their bricks. There’s a reason behind the color of the architecture
there and it’s linked to the materials they chose to build with. As an architect, this is the kind of authenticity
I’m always seeking. By contrast, invented or applied colors, like
paint, were – at least historically – a luxury. Only those with means could afford paint. The decision to paint a house, while it was
intentional, was reserved for the wealthy and was actually used to distinguish their
architecture from those of lesser means. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t use paint,
I certainly do, and it doesn’t have the same implications today that it once did, but it’s
not where I begin thinking about color. Where I begin is by asking how the materials
I’m using can help to convey the story I’m telling more convincingly. Whenever possible I like to begin building
a color palette using natural materials as the foundation. And, the benefit of this kind of color scheme
is that rather than being monochromatic, they quite often exhibit a complex group of tones
and shades and these provide a depth to our spaces that’s difficult to achieve with
paint. One of the hacks I use to build color palettes
for a given project is to pull them from photographs of the surrounding site. Key images aren’t only useful for presenting
your ideas to clients and setting the stage, they can help portray emotion. Most clients have difficulty imagining small
sample colors or a material swatch writ large in a room for example. Now, of course rendering and VR technologies
are quickly changing that but short of those we can use imagery to imply relative balance
of color in a space or convince someone your idea has merit. I can promise you that clients rely on images,
in part, for assurance that they’re not the first ones to sign up for a seemingly quirky
architectural color agenda. Key images can help you minimize or emphasize
a building’s impact by matching or contrasting the tones of the surrounding context. Context color will change your perception
too. Placing a light color near a dark one forces
us to perceive each as being more of what they already are: darker or lighter. This is known as simultaneous contrast. Color is a tool we can use, just like form,
and we can emphasize certain intents, to expand the sense of space using lighter colors, or
to diminish it using darker ones. And, importantly, we can use it to distinguish
between building systems: structure, doors and windows, circulation, service versus served,
horizontal surfaces, or ones that we touch often. Dividing the architecture into systems is
an easy way to sort out all the decisions you’ll need to make. I like to start with the floors and the walls
because they have a lot of visual weight in our spaces and our natural light will be reflected
off these surfaces, but you can start almost anywhere. Architects have very different concerns when
it comes to color than artists or graphic designers do. Because quite often our colors come from the
materials we choose to build with their texture and their reflectance causes us to perceive
their color as different depending on the light that’s illuminating them. Light is married to our perception of color. To understand this without getting too far
into the weeds about visible wavelengths and electromagnetic radiation, you need to know
that all light has a color temperature and it’s expressed in degrees Kelvin. If you’ve been shopping for light bulbs you
might have noticed that they’re classed as warm white, cool white, or daylight balanced. They also all have a degree Kelvin number
on the packaging too. The color temperature of visible light ranges
from what we perceive as very warm – say candlelight – which is around 1500 Kelvin or a 40-watt
incandescent bulb at 2700 Kelvin, all the way up to a cloudless sky at 15,000 Kelvin. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the higher the
number in Kelvin the cooler the light as we perceive it. So, sunrise and sunset are actually quite
warm at 3200 Kelvin, as we get to noon, the whiter light of the Sun is around 5500 K,
that’s usually the temperature of a daylight balanced bulb, and then there’s the even more
diffuse and cooler feeling of an overcast sky at 6500 Kelvin. So, what does all this mean to you the designer? Well, first the colors you select will be
changed by the kind of light illuminating it – whether that’s natural or artificial
– and equally by the exposure of the interior rooms, which direction they receive their
natural light from. In the northern hemisphere, north-facing rooms
receive a whiter, more even light, as they’re illuminated by light reflected from the sky
dome which has a higher temperature in Kelvin. And, that’s whiter light than say a west-facing
room where the setting sun is warmer. Rooms that receive a lot of daylight will
change throughout the day and it all changes again in the evening when we use only artificial
light. If you were to paint two rooms with different
exposures the same color white they would each look different. We talked about hue and lightness earlier
and that comes into play here. A surface’s lightness determines how much
of the light hitting it is reflected back into the space. If you’re designing for a high latitude, for
example, you’ll probably want to use lighter colors to compensate for the lower sun angles
and diminished intensity. Because lighter colors reflect more light
they’ll also impart more of their hue on the reflected light in our space. As a general rule, painting a room one color
will increase how saturated you perceive that color to be because the reflected light is
colored by the surface amplifying it. Reflection can be used in other ways too. A recent renovation project of mine was for
a classic structure here in Maine designed by George Howe. The living space is cantilevered out over
the ocean and he did this really clever thing, he painted all the ceilings inside this very
light shade of blue in a really glossy finish and the effect was to amplify the reflected
light off the water creating a blue colored light reaching the entire interior of the
house. Now, absorption of darker materials can equally
be used to balance and control contrast. Here in the studio, the darker floor and tall
wainscoting helps tame the midday sun entering the skylights and the six months of the year
where snow is covering the ground outside. Had the floor or walls been lighter in tone
the reflections would have made working in here more difficult. Light and color impacts how we feel in a space,
how large or small it feels, how we find our way, and can even modify our behavior affecting
mental acuity, focus, and alertness. Now, there are only a few very universal emotional
color associations. For example, red for stop or green for go. And, there are a great many more cultural
ones: blue for boys, pink for girls. And, nearly infinite personal ones. My childhood bedroom was completely blue:
blue furniture, blue carpeting, blue walls, ceiling, bedding, and drapery, and I don’t
know if that’s to blame, but as an adult I really can’t stand the color blue. You’re probably aware of, or have read about
associations like: red is passionate or energetic, yellow is cheerful, or green and blue are
tranquil. But, these are subject to an enormous variation
depending on your client or end-user’s personal or cultural associations. White has very different meanings in Western
culture than it does in Eastern cultures for example. Although much of this research is subject
to personal interpretation there is a body of color research out there that proves some
of the more common ideas you’re probably familiar with, things like lighter colors expand space
and darker ones contract it. NASA, the US Space Agency, has done extensive
research with respect to colors’ impact on space environments so, if you want to take
a really deep dive on this check out the video linked in the cards, it’s actually really
interesting. Boring, right? That’s the point. Neutrals are naturally harmonious and don’t
demand attention like brighter hues might. We tend to tire of bold, highly saturated
hues over time while neutrals, because they’re not dominant, tend to have longer staying
power. Neutral color schemes allow interior objects
to assume a more dominant role. Think about a museum’s interior palette, most
often they’re rendered in a neutral scheme, especially in the galleries, to let the artwork
take prominence. A neutral color palette allows me to highlight
forms and structure, shadows are read easily on lighter tones, while darker tones will
tend to recede. So, they allow me to highlight objects and
personal effects in residential architecture over, a brightly colored wall, let’s say. They interact with daylight and candlelight
in very predictable ways, and they’re always subtly changing, with the objects inside,
with the changing light of the seasons; they rarely look the same. So, for me, neutral palettes allow the architecture
to function as a container for the context, its occupants, objects, and just life. Okay, now for some of the key tools I use
when I’m building color palettes. For my key images I’m often just using the
camera on my phone and editing the images in Lightroom or Snapseed. The apps I like for choosing color palettes
are: the Pinterest app, where I can curate different boards of key images, sample materials,
color schemes, fabrics, paint color chips, and I can share these with my clients or a
remote project team. I also like the Pantone app and Adobe Capture
CC, for building color palettes from photos especially ones I want to bring into Photoshop. The augmented reality in the Sunseeker app
will help you determine how natural light will impact your color selections. Also, I really like this little bi-colored
LED light panel for testing color perception at 5500 K and 3200 K lighting scenarios. It’s portable, and it’s actually great for
model photography too. The Sherwin-Williams app, Color Snap or the
comparable Ben Moore Color Capture allows you to build a palette of their colors right
from a photo or even a Pinterest pin. Also included are paint calculators, the ability
to save a palette, and scan color numbers and see them in rooms. Having paint chips and physical samples on
hand are always helpful. In addition to my rolling cart sample library,
I’m a fan of Sherwin-Williams Architect’s Sample Kit which has more color swatches with
tricky names than you ever knew existed. You might also grab a fan deck from Behr and
Benjamin Moore too if you prefer those brands. And then there’s the beautifully neutral color
schemes from Farrow & Ball. Now, if they won’t send you this stuff for
free – and they should – head to a hardware store and help yourself. The coated samples are really great for model
making by the way. Remodelista has a number of architecture paint
palette posts for you to browse online, or you might consider their book. Ilse Crawford is a fantastically gifted, interior
designer, she has a book called A Frame for Life, and if you haven’t read my perennial
favorite, Thinking Architecture by Peter Zumthor, it’s basically required reading. Then there’s the classic, In Praise of Shadows;
also check out graphic design and typography books they have just beautiful color schemes. There’s Pantone sourcebooks, and I also like
to look outside of our profession – there’s Alinea by Grant Achatz, I use maps for inspiration,
magazines like Dwell and Wallpaper and even catalogs from CB2 or online ones from Huckberry. Now, these are style guides, I know, but they
often have all these coordinating accessories of life that can inspire your color palette. I’ll include a few videos in a playlist and
link those up in the description too. Now, if I’ve helped you at all with this video
do me a favor and smash that like button below. Also, I’m planning to do a quick-fire Q&A
soon so, if you post your questions in the comments or up-vote your favorites, I’ll try
to answer them in a future video. All of you who stick around to the end here,
you get yours answered first. Thanks as always for coming back here each
week to watch the video, appreciate you guys! I’ll see you again next week, cheers!

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