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WORDS THAT BUILD: Creating a Site Analysis That's Out of Sight

Tip #7: Write a site analysis using words referring to senses beyond sight.

By Norman Weinstein
October 8, 2008

Editor’s note: This is the seventh of an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


A site analysis can be viewed as a set of procedures enabling you to assess the promise and peril of a particular site you’re designing. A succinct definition in Tom Porter’s Archispeak: An Illustrated Guide to Architectural Terms divides the activity into the culling of “hard data” (dimensions, boundaries, topology, existing structures, and climate) and “soft data” (sensory, cultural, and human aspects).


Writing about the sensory aspects of a construction site is a daunting process since much sensory data doesn’t easily translate into numbers. And a sensory site description often foregrounds the sense of sight to such an extent that vital data from other senses get overlooked. So enhancing your ability to write a comprehensive sensory site description might be a matter of choosing words and patterning phrases and sentences evoking the remaining senses.


Which sounds simple – but isn’t. Various university studies have noted that a typical vocabulary of a college freshman in the U.S. is 80% enmeshed with words linked to vision. Do you see what I mean? Am I overlooking anything? Does this look simplistic at first glance? English idioms are clusters of sight-oriented terms. And since so much of architecture is the look of architecture, why even try to write a sensory site analysis that is more than mainly visual?


Original American architects – and my reference era is not Jefferson’s but that of many native vernacular architects – understood site analysis as hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching a site, as well as visually scanning it with different purposes in mind. To get away from sounding mystical: every site has a soundscape, even if that soundscape initially seems limited to the sounds of your steps on its surface. How sounds of Nature seem to sound and resound on a site can contribute to the total analysis of a site because users/dwellers in your design will be living in an aural as well as visual habitation. How can one evoke a soundscape in a written site analysis?


An indispensible book for improving your writing utilizing all of your senses is Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. In her chapter “Hearing,” Ackerman writes: “In towns like Moodus, Connecticut, swarms of small earthquakes rattle the residents for months on end. . . .Ground rumblings of this kind are called ‘Moodus noises,’ but long ago when the Wangunk Indians chose the area for their powwows because it was there the earth spoke to them, they called the spot ‘Machemoodus,’ which meant ‘place of noises’.. . .”


Sites you design for can and do speak. And engage our five senses to the extent we labor to craft the descriptions doing justice to multi-sensory site impressions. One method to practice: describe sites by writing at least two sensory impressions using five different colors of pencil or pen – a different color for every sense. Begin to see your written site analysis as a rainbow of sensory data rather than simply a catalogue of sights at a site.


Hear me talking to you? Can you get a sniff of what I’m driving at? Do these ideas touch you? Can a site analysis be short and sweet? There’s always more than meets the eye, or I.



Norman Weinstein writes for Architectural Record and other publications and teaches communication skills to architects. He can be reached at


See also:


WORDS THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme
Tip #6: Master a communications tool that generates copious variations on your theme.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures
Tip #5: Recognize the key vocabulary shaping your professional practice and share those keywords with your clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction
Tip #4: See your writing as a navigational aid so your design intent clearly comes through to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication
Tip #3: Use language that playfully enhances the flow of design intentions between you and your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis
Tip #2: Use rhythmic accents to create a persuasive story to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges
Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.

(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2008