Reading a Floor Plan – What Attributes do You Attend to?

Are you, like me, one of those people who think of floor plans as very important for comprehension of space? When I stumble upon a great house tour or newly built dwelling in a regular check up of my favourite design and architecture sites, floor plans provide very crucial information for me. Like any design lover, I want to be able to visualize that beautiful space better in order to appreciate it and enjoy more. Photographs are great (and indispensable), but there’s something about floor plans that gets my imagination going.

Vintage magazine scan containing a floor plan; photo by SportSuburban

Since floor plans can be considered a spatial representation and communication tool – between architects, constructors, house sellers and house buyers, there’s a lot to be investigated from psychological perspectives on how people think about them, that is, on the cognitive processes underlying the conceptualization of floor plans.

Beautiful homes for sale – I really need to see a floor plan; photo by Polygon Homes

Ishikawa et al. (2011) just started that, potentially wide, field of research. They examined how people read and comprehend house floor plans. Participants were given a stack of 48 cards of house floor plans and asked to classify them into as many groups as they thought appropriate, without any feedback being provided. The floor plans they used varied along five dimensions: the number of bedrooms, the overall shape of a plan (rectangular or irregular), the area of a balcony, access to bedrooms (through living room of hallway), and the number of four major directions that the unit has for natural lighting.

Irregular shape, 2 bedrooms, hallway access to one bedroom, a balcony, one major direction; photo by Maggie Valley Club

Research yielded two main findings. First, there is a systematic pattern in people’s reading and comprehension of house floor plans. Participants, on average, classified the plans by attending to the number of bedrooms and the overall shape of a plan. Second, there are group differences among people in the attributes of plans that they attend to in classification. Based on features that are most important to them, participants can be classified into three groups:

  • the bedroom group (n = 51) classified the plans into two groups by the number of bedrooms ( two bedrooms vs. three bedrooms);
  • the shape group (n = 27) classified the plans into three groups by the overall shape of a plan (square plans vs. rectangular or irregular plans); and
  • the access group (n = 16) classified the plans by access to bedrooms  (all bedrooms accessed through a living room vs. at least one bedroom is accessible from a hallway).

Rectangular shape; photo by wader

Authors purposed that  how people spend their time in the house (or lifestyle at home) might be a factor which influences the way they think of floor plans. This was supported by the fact that the percentage of housewives or part-time workers, all of whom were female, was comparatively small for the shape group and large for the access group, which means that bedroom access is a salient feature of a floor plan for them. There was no significant difference among the three groups in the other attributes, age, income, household size, or current housing.

Access to bedrooms through living room; photo by blogjunkie

It would be interesting to see if these findings are robust cross-culturally (this study was conducted in Japan) – since there are some cultures and some geographic regions in which I’d expect, for example, balcony to get more attention (e.g. in Mediterranean). Also, there could be some differences in how people who are considered experts read floor plans (architects, constructors, house sellers), compared to lay people who participated in this study. Research in cognitive psychology often find differences in thinking processes between expert and novice.

How we spend time in homes is related to what we consider to be important in a floor plan – I’m sure that outdoor space is important when choosing a vacation home; photo by SportSuburban

A doctoral dissertation of one of the researchers from Ishikawa’s team (Nakata, 2007, unpublished, according to Ishikawa et al., 2011) deals with the related issue of floor plan evaluation. She found two groups of participants, a group that ordered the plans by the overall shape of a plan, and a group that ordered the plans by the number of bedrooms (or conversely the spaciousness of bedrooms). The latter group took access to bedrooms into consideration as well.

Another vintage magazine scan – you can easily imagine you’re there; photo by SportSuburban

Thus, the three variables— the shape, the number of bedrooms, and access to bedrooms—affect both classification and evaluation of floor plans. This is easy to understand – when we sort apartments into categories, we usually attach preferences to those categories – some are more desirable than others. For example, I can understand why people sorted plans into square and all others (rectangular and irregular merging into one cluster). For me, a plain square floor plan with all windows on the same wall is the least desirable option. Contrary to what the name of this blog might suggest, I don’t like the impression of living in a box. I like irregular plans because they’re the most interesting to me, preferably with windows facing at least two major directions. I suppose that the balcony would be nice, too, and can’t imagine that the access to bedroom would make any difference to me. How about you?

Ishikawa,T., Nakata, S., Asami, Y. (2011) Perception and Conceptualization of House Floor Plans: An Experimental Analysis. Environment and Behavior, 43(2), 233–251.


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