As a young student of architecture entering the workforce, you probably didn’t spend time thinking about what a functional program is or where it comes from. As a matter of fact, you may have thought it wasn’t any of your business, because it isn’t part of the basic services that an architect provides to a client.

Many of us were taught that the development of a functional program is the responsibility of the owner/client and that our job as architects is to translate that document into a building, department, spaces, or places, based on the program’s information.

But as we begin to take on the responsibility of translating these words and numbers into the built environment, it soon becomes obvious how incredibly important the functional program is. You come to understand that the translation of this document can either positively or negatively affect all who experience these spaces.

If every aspect of the experience that you’re setting out to achieve through the design isn’t included in the functional program, the likelihood of achieving it is significantly reduced. As the basis for design, this document shouldn’t only include the quantity, type, and size of spaces to be developed, but also identify the type and character of the experiences that patients, families, and staff should have in them.

Further, the functional program should be seen as an opportunity for innovation—an opportunity to document why services might be delivered in a different manner to be more efficient and effective, or how that modification might impact the scope of the project or the experiences people have in the finished space. With these hypothesized outcomes and evaluation of the effects a design will have on them, a preliminary justification for innovation emerges.

The functional program can also be used as a basis to identify preliminary project costs. It directly impacts the soft cost (administrative, clinical, staffing, consulting, financing, systems, etc.) and hard costs (new construction and the quantity, type, and size of spaces).

The consequences of decisions made in this early stage of project development will have the greatest impact on a project’s outcome. That’s why the ideal approach to developing a functional program should involve an interdisciplinary design team. This team should be composed of representatives from all groups that will be affected by a project, and members should have the skill set to continuously evaluate and align the mission and vision of the project within the proposed budget and schedule.

This continuous evaluation will streamline the implementation of the project and eliminate the potential need for additions or value engineering.

The functional program has a direct impact on every aspect of the proposed project, so the process of developing it should be carefully considered in order to produce a holistic document that addresses all of those aspects.

Alberto Salvatore, AIA, NCARB, EDAC, is principal of Salvatore Architecture. He can be reached at alberto@salvatorearchitecture.com. For more information about Salvatore Architecture, visit www.salvatorearchitecture.com.

Read Alberto Salvatore's second blog in this two-part series: "Assembling The Right Team To Create A Functional Program."