Consensus Design


Most participatory design synthesizes ideas. But one person’s brilliant idea can be somebody else’s nightmare. Moreover, if two people have four points of dispute, ten will have a hundred. The strong and articulate easily dominate others. Democracy solves this by letting the majority override the minority – potentially adversarial and ethically questionable.

Consensus is fairer for all. But design is emotionally charged. Is consensual design possible? All place-design starts with the site. The Consensus Design Process follows the same non-adversarial process by which we get to know people. First comes their physical appearance, then how their movements reveal their character. We can’t predict how they’ll act in the future, however, until we know about their past. We don’t become friends without feeling good beside them. But we don’t really know them until we know their motivating values. Similarly, to understand places, we need to know their physical and temporal characteristics, biography, moods and spirit-of-place. The Consensus Design Process therefore starts by studying places’ four layers: physical, time-related, mood and spirit – a method developed by Margaret Colquhoun.

The progression from material to spiritual bypasses pet-idea disputes by starting with something everyone can agree on: the place’s physical characteristics. We record these in exacting detail. This sensitizes observation. As the entry journey affects first-impressions, we also study its experiential sequence – something we may subsequently modify.

Every place changes over time. How anywhere is at any moment is both result of how it was and preparation for how it will be. Tracing its history from distant past to present lets us see the present as an unfinished story, the seeds that will shape it already planted. We now extrapolate this time-stream into the future: how will the place – and its wider surroundings – be in five, ten, fifty years? History can be read forwards, as an unfolding sequence; or backwards as a causal process. Some issues, some places, are better understood forwards as this makes patterns clearer; others, when we need to focus on chains of causality, by working back from the present.

Next, we make coloured mood-maps: how do we feel in different bits? This helps us know the place well enough to align design with its innate character. Moreover, it sensitises us to crucial, but non-visible aspects. Only now are we ready to ask what the place ‘says’ to us, what it’s asking for.

Design mirrors this process. Starting with what everybody agrees - what the place should say to express the project’s spirit, we progressively incarnate this into form. Decisions don't result from individual preferences, but are servants of previous decisions. What moods-of-place (built on existing ones) would support what the project should ‘say’? How will these relate to probable changes around the site-boundary? What sequence of experiences and enclosure gestures would support these moods? And finally, what forms, materials and sensory experiences would concretize these?

This is design as a condensing process – the absolute opposite of idea-led design and signature architecture. This requires listening to the situation. Listening frees us from the blinkers pre-formed ideas always bring. It's also more about how people value places, cultural continuum and themselves than about buildings as design statements.

But doesn’t consensual design produce bland (or kitsch) compromises? Consensus doesn’t mean abdicating or compromising individuality, but rising above its narrow confines. Instead of imposing what we want, it’s about fulfilling places’ needs and users’ soul-nourishment. Both are pre-requisites for place sustainability. In my experience (over fifty projects), this process synthesizes these.


Christopher Dayis an architect, and author of Consensus Design, Architectural Press, Oxford, UK.