2017-2018 Student Design Competition

Fundamental Atmospheres: Designing for Spatial and Spiritual Experiences

Note: This competition is designed to be applicable at all levels of design education, and it is our hope that it will serve as a good educational tool in both beginning and advanced studios. In a change from recent IDEC student competitions, this competition has three entry categories: beginning undergraduate, advanced undergraduate, and graduate (in graduate studios).

Inspiration is the feeling of beginning at the threshold where Silence and Light meet:  Silence, with its desire to be, and Light, the giver of all presences.
Louis Kahn, 1969

IDEC is seeking entries for the 2017-2018 Student Design Competition that provides for the empowerment of users to grow intellectually, spiritually, mentally, or metaphysically. Purposefully broad and open ended, the project program asks entrants to define the specific use of the design and to develop an atmospheric intervention. The purpose can be a religious practice (traditional or emerging), a secular space of reflection or mindfulness, and/or places for public commemoration.


The given site is conceptual. It is assumed to be within an existing building; across the corridor is a courtyard garden space. The given site is one story and the ceiling / roof may be manipulated to allow for natural light and spatial development.  Cardinal orientation is determined by the entrant in accordance with their design solution. Plans and section drawings are available here.


Research of programmatic needs is key. Successful entrants will have robust investigation of function including an examination into the specifics of any belief systems explored, intended goals for the experiential nature of the space, and objectives that reach beyond physical health, physical safety, and physical well-being. IDEC recognizes the diversity of its members, and this project encourages institutions, instructors, and/or students to explore what they see as important. Examples include (but are in no way limited to) a chapel, a prayer hall, a sweat lodge, an inter-faith meeting hall, a meditation space, or a memorial to persons, events, or civic action.

There are some specific programmatic expectations:

  • The primary function must allow for individual experiences as well as provide for congregation, circulation, or some other experience of a group of people.
  • Accessibility standards as prescribed by the ADA must be met for circulation and occupancy.
  • The program must include a space for the administration of the primary function and adequate space for storage as it relates to the program.
  • Toileting needs are assumed to be met by the existing building.


Effective research is critical to the success of any design project. Starting with Google searches and continuing on to secondary sources such as texts, case studies, investigations of the design programs, and studies of atmospheres are important, but successful research for this competition should also include primary sources. The following are primary source research areas.

Primary Source: Experiential Research

This competition requires experiential research to inform design thinking. Students are expected to spend time at an appropriate site to actively record and evaluate aspects of the experience. Sites should be selected based on the availability of sensory, visual, or spiritual experience.  Many types of sites will suffice, for example: a chapel, a memorial, a garden, a gallery, a nightclub, a library, or even Times Square.

Beginning undergraduate: The instructor should structure the experience and method of research, data collection, and analysis.

Advanced undergraduate and graduate students:  Site, research method and analysis should be determined by the student with input from faculty.

Some examples of experiential site research:

  • Hourly photographs in a stained-glass chapel, documenting the changing light and color.
  • Journaling on one’s sensory experience in a garden.
  • Observing and recording human behaviors and acoustics in a library reading room.
  • Time lapse movie of a space with analysis on patterns of light and movement.
  • Comparative analysis of several ‘entry thresholds’ and their associated experiences (spatial, acoustic, luminous)

Primary Source: Interviews

Many of the programs that may be selected for this competition will have active members and leaders of communities that can relate the important experiential aspects of their practices and beliefs to students and inform their design outcomes. Interviews with these groups and individuals are encouraged.

Primary Source: Journals and Memoirs

Like interviews, archival sources such as journals and memoirs can also provide information as well as inspiration to inform a successful design outcome.

Research methods must be crafted to adhere to each institution’s guidelines and restrictions regarding human subject research. 


In order to support this competition’s goal of being accessible to all levels of design students, entrants are asked to respond to their program through the conceptual lens of atmospheres or ambiances.  What is the prevalent feeling of the space (sensory, affective, haptic)?  How do the environmental conditions (light, color, materiality, acoustics, spatial volumes and organization) impact human mood and behaviors in the space? How does one transition from outside the space to the interior?

Creative investigation of atmospheric qualities is essential. It is highly recommended that students use the process of physical modeling and photography to explore how light and materials combine to create atmospheric vignettes. Students are strongly encouraged to start by studying the abstract qualities of light by playing with various light sources, materials, and quickly produced models and filters. As the design progresses, more detailed spatial models with representative materials can achieve realistic atmospheric effects. Other methods of exploring atmospheres can include painting, sketching, montages, and computer renderings.


With the open-ended nature of this competition, it is important to understand the process of evaluation.  Successful submissions will:

  • Show a depth of understanding and have a robust explanation of program including any specific religious, cultural, social, or ethnic considerations. Program statements should be written for a general audience unfamiliar with the specific context of your program.
  • Define the specific goals and objectives that the designer is attempting to achieve for occupants intellectually, spiritually, mentally, and/or metaphysically.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of atmospheric conditions through primary source research.
  • Demonstrate exploration of atmospheric conditions through abstract models, sketches, collages, or other means.
  • Communicate a design that successfully accomplishes the goals and objectives through the manipulations of atmospheres (i.e. light, color, texture, volume, and sound)
    • For beginning students these can be strictly conceptual, other entrants should address the competition problem conceptually and technically.
  • Attention given to ingress and egress sequence (often referred to conceptually as “the threshold”).
  • Attention given to universal design.
  • More technical considerations, such as material selections, FF&E, and construction detailing, and lighting plans are evaluated by the jury for advanced and graduate students only. While these are important design concerns, this competition places great value on abstract or conceptual design responses for all level of entrants. There are no specific requirements for technical considerations; we recommend that this level of investigation focus on supporting the conceptual design proposal. For example, the development of a lighting detail or the selection of materials based on sensory criteria.

Note: It is appropriate for an institution or instructor to set a program type based on their understanding of their student body and individual contexts.


For Advanced Undergraduate and Graduate Projects:

  • Projects shall be analyzed using and comply with IBC 2015 for:
    • Occupancy classification
    • Total occupancy load calculation
    • Minimum exit width
    • Maximum distance to exit
  • Projects with occupancies over 50 shall include a second exit.
  • Project shall comply with the following barrier free requirements:
    • Circulation shall be barrier free, with a minimum width of 3‘-8” and provide turnaround clearance for a wheelchair of 5’-0”
    • A clear space of 2’-0” shall be provided on the latch side of any door.
    • Ramps shall not exceed a rise to run ration of more than 1/12 and shall have 5’-0” clear landings at any end.


Birch, Robert and Brian Sinclair (2013). Spirituality in place: Building connections between architecture, design, and spiritual experience. In ARCC Conference Repository. Retrieved from http://www.arcc-journal.org/index.php/repository/article/view/116/88.

Barrie, T. (1997). Spiritual path, sacred place: Myth, ritual, and meaning in architecture. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55 (4):430-431.

Bermudez, J., Tabb, P. J., & Barrie, T. (Eds.). (2015). Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

Brown, N. C. (2004). Aesthetic composition and the language of light, a subject of academic inquiry. Journal of Interior Design, 30(3), 8-22.

Havik, K., & Tielens, G. (2013). Atmosphere, compassion and embodied experience. A conversation about atmosphere with Juhani Pallasmaa. Sfeerbouwen. Building Atmosphere, 33-52. 

Holl, S., Pallasma J., & Perez-Gomez A. (2006). Question of perception phenomenology of architecture. T.Nakamura (Ed.). Tokyo: Nobuyuki Yoshida.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Malnar, J. M. (2004). Sensory design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Odom C. (Ed.). (2016). IDEC Exchange. Retrieved from https://www.idec.org/files/public/IDECExchange_Fall2016.pdf.

Pallasmaa, J. (2012). The eyes of the skin: Architecture and the senses. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Pallister, J.s (2015). Sacred spaces: Contemporary religious architecture. London: Phaidon Press.

Plummer, H. (2013). Cosmos of Light: The Sacred Architecture of Le Corbusier. Indiana University Press.

Rasmussen, S. E. (1964). Experiencing architecture (Vol. 2). Boston: MIT Press.

Tanizaki, J. (2001). In praise of shadows. New York: Random House.

Traverso, G. (Ed.). (2015). Modeling daylight: A manual for natural lighting experimentation. Gütersloh Germany: VIA-Verlag.

Tuan, Y. F. (1977). Space and place: The perspective of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

World Trade Center site memorial competition. (2004). Retrieved from http://www.wtcsitememorial.org/finalists.html.

Zumthor, P. (2006). Atmospheres. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser.


  • (2) 20x30 posters (in PDF format) that might include the following:
    • Evidence and analysis of primary source research
    • Process work, annotated by the student  (photos of models, sketches, etc.)
    • Schematic design proposal, (the requirements for which are open ended but likely will include:
      • a floor plan
      • interior section(s)
      • material concepts and or selections
      • rendered perspectives and/or model photographs
      • technical information or details in support of conceptual proposal (for advanced and graduate)
    • Designer’s statement or creative writing (100 words or less), describing the “atmosphere” of the design proposal.
    • Text and descriptions as deemed necessary by the designer to relate programing, goals, and atmospheric design solutions.
  • Letter sized (in PDF Format) written statements (total of no more than 5 pages) should include:
    • Designer’s statement or creative writing (100 words or less), describing the “atmosphere” of the design proposal (also included on the posters)
    • 500-750 word description and discussion of research
    • Program with specific goals and objectives
    • Analysis of ingress and egress (threshold) and universal access (include code analysis if appropriate).
    • Specification summaries if appropriate


  • 2017
    • June: Student completion is announced at the IDEC International Annual Conference and published on the IDEC website.
    • June - December 10th: Faculty sponsors may choose any three week period during this time to facilitate the competition. Normally the first week is scheduled for research and discussion and the next two weeks are designated for designing. After the students complete the competition requirements, faculty sponsors should arrange for an unbiased, local jury to select the top three projects. Faculty sponsors MUST determine the three weeks within the semester to execute the project. 
    • December 15th -Deadline for each program to submit up to 3 projects
  • 2018
    • January – Projects are juried at the Regional Level.
    • February – Finalists and their respective faculty are notified.  Finalists are juried at the North American level. Winners and their respective faculty will be notified prior to 2018 IDEC Annual Conference and invited to attend awards ceremony.
    • March 7th-10th – Winners are displayed at the 2018 IDEC Annual Conference in Boston and recognized, along with the respective faculty, at the President's Dinner.
    • March – Awards distributed and posted to the IDEC web site.


Beginning Undergraduate Studio:

  • First Place: $700; Second Place: $500; Third Place: $200

Advanced Undergraduate Studio:

  • First Place: $700; Second Place: $500; Third Place: $200

Graduate Studio:

  • First Place: $700; Second Place: $500

Honorable Mentions are awarded at the discretion of the jurors

In the case of a tie or limited entries in any categories, the final jury reserves the right to adjust awards accordingly.

Winners will be displayed at the 2018 IDEC Annual Conference, March 7-10, 2018 in Boston and will be recognized at the 2018 President's Dinner on March 10, 2018.


  • Students will work individually.
  • Students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate interior design programs that have at least one faculty that is a member of IDEC are eligible to enter.  It is strongly encouraged that the supervising faculty be a member of IDEC to facilitate access to competition materials and updates via the IDEC website.
  • Projects must be supervised by a faculty member and completed in three consecutive weeks (21 days) including all changes, edits and revisions.
  • Submission of the project indicates the supervising faculty member and the IDEC member of the program comply with the competition rules.
  • Beginning Design Studios are defined as those that are completed in the first half of a four year interior design curriculum (typically freshman and sophomore years). Advanced design studios are defined as those in the second half of a four year program (typically, junior and senior years). For programs that are not four years or have alternative curricular paths, please contact contact competition organizers for clarifications on which level of competition is appropriate to enter.
  • Projects must be submitted with no student and/or program identification on the boards and in the required PDF file format.
  • Six  projects from each undergraduate (three beginning and three advanced)  and three additional projects from each graduate interior design program are eligible to be entered for regional jurying.  The top two beginning undergraduate projects and top two advanced undergraduate projects from each region are finalists and will be juried for the final North American awards.  The top five graduate student entries (one from each region) will be juried for the final North American graduate award.
  • Project information will be available on the IDEC website through December 15, 2017 and can only be accessed by member of IDEC.  A Q & A section will be available online with the competition information and will be updated through December 10, 2017.  Please visit the Q & A postings frequently to stay updated on the competition project.
  • The IDEC member faculty sponsor will upload entries to the online submission portal.
  • Entries that show an identification of school or student within the design layout or entries that do not comply with all competition requirements will be disqualified.
  • Faculty should use this design challenge to aid in fulfilling their school’s learning objectives as well as those outlined in this competition.
  • Use the plan that has been provided.


Frequently Asked Questions will be regularly updated and can be viewed here.