Architectural Navigation Clues

In rural and urban areas, buildings can help us to find our way.

Senate Building, University of Northampton

Take a look at the picture above of a building at the University of Northampton.

Which way are we looking? North? South? East? West? Somewhere between? Keep reading to find out.

Animals have to build their nests, webs or burrows with care. Homebuilding is a tiring and resource-expensive business.

It is no different for us human animals. If we erect a building in the path of nature’s forces when there were other, better options, it is likely to be a mistake we make only once.

But even when we build in sensible locations, we still have to consider the elements if we want the structure to function well and be comfortable.

This means architects must give consideration to light, water and wind. And as we know, these are some the best friends of a natural navigator.

Take a closer look at the sides of the building in the photo above and then at the roof. Remember, one of the keys to natural navigation is spotting asymmetries. If two sides of anything are different, there is often a navigation clue to be found.

If we zoom in on the building, we will spot the two features that give a clue to light direction and therefore compass direction.

There are screens outside the windows, but only on one side of the building. In the northern hemisphere, this will usually be the southern side. (If you’re not sure why we get more light from the southern side, see this page about navigating using the sun.)

A saw tooth roof.

Did you notice that the roof was ‘uneven’. This pattern is known as a ‘saw-tooth’ roof. The steeper sides are the only ones to contain glass and usually point away from the equator – towards the north in the northern hemisphere.

Saw-tooth roofs are one of many methods architects use to allow indirect natural light into the top of a building, without risking the ‘greenhouse’ effect of having glass on a south-facing aspect.

Putting these two clues together, I’m sure you worked out that in the original photo at the top, we are looking a little north of east.

If you have spotted your own examples, please get in touch.

You might also enjoy:

Churches Face East Don’t They?

How to Navigate in the City

How to Use TV Aerials as a Compass

The Saw-Tooth Roof (Wikipedia)

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