Everything You Need to Know About the Rule of Thirds in Architecture

Aficionados. Connoisseurs. Authorities. Mavericks. Whatever you want to call us, we’re passionate about good design. The KGA way is design that serves our clients and not the other way around. It must authentically reflect their individual tastes, lifestyles, and priorities. Good home design makes living easy. It looks and feels good, and creates a place you’ll love pulling up to at the end of the day.

And while the end result for each client may look different, good home design has some common characteristics, one of which is the rule of thirds. This design principle has been around for a while, which you’ll see below, and guides an architect’s composition in the earliest stages of sketching a new home or remodel. If you’ve ever wondered why certain homes just feel right, the rule of thirds will help explain why. Here’s a primer on the rule of thirds in architecture and how architects apply it in their designs.

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What Is the Rule of Thirds?

In its most rudimentary form, the rule of thirds is a simple grid. It’s formed with two horizontal and two vertical lines whose intersections create rows and columns of nine proportionally sized boxes. It’s important to note that while the boxes can be equally sized, they don’t need to be, as long as they’re proportional. The rule of thirds also applies to asymmetrical designs.

This is where it gets interesting. The human eye naturally gravitates toward the intersections and along the horizontal and vertical lines. We call these areas focal points. If you’re having an aha moment right now, you’re not alone. Focal point is a common term for many visual arts, including architecture, photography, and interior design. You may have even seen this type of grid in your camera’s viewfinder or as a tool on your smartphone’s camera.

Applying the rule of thirds to architecture and design, it represents a way of establishing compositional hierarchy — architectural elements and points of interest are placed at these intersections and areas along the grid.

While this modern farmhouse elevation is asymmetrical, the composition is well balanced in a way that invokes a feeling of symmetry.

In some situations it may help to think about the rule of thirds in terms of what it’s not. Design that hasn’t used this principle as a compositional framework tends to look awkward and unbalanced. It can even evoke a sense of unease, discomfort, and tension which can induce stress and increased cortisol levels in the body.

In the design realm, this kind of architecture can serve a useful purpose. It could be an art installation where the artist intentionally fosters negative emotions or a fight or flight response. Or even a type of hostile architecture that’s intended to discourage certain activities or behaviors. While there are places where these types of negative emotions are appropriate, the home typically isn’t one of them.

The science behind the rule of thirds

“Organizational principles are hardwired into humans to seek out certain patterns and environments that look good and give a feeling of safety and pleasure when interacting with them.” – Travis Hendrix, Senior Architect, KGA Studio Architects

Research suggests that people generally move their eyes over an image or other visual composition in certain ways. Some research says we’re born this way and is part of our ancient brain — the way humans take in an image resembles the way infants process their caregivers’ facial features and patterns during the earliest stages of child development. Processing this kind of visual hierarchy and the recognition of familiar patterns elicits feelings of safety and comfort.

The Rule of Thirds Is Everywhere

If you know what to look for, you’ll see the rule of thirds used throughout architecture, photography, graphic design, fine art, and interior design. To find the earliest mention of the rule of thirds, we go back to 1797 when John Thomas Smith coined the term in his treatise on the picturesque, “Remarks on Rural Scenery.”

But evidence of builders’ and artists’ use of the rule of thirds goes back much further than that. Whether early architects, engineers, and artists knew it or not, they often used this compositional concept to create some of the world’s most notable structures and artwork. Chances are you recognize a few.

Its Benefits in Architecture

What does all this have to do with residential architecture and home design? A great home feels good to look at and live in. It’s walking in to the aroma of your favorite dinner on a cold night, waking up to the soft percolation of coffee downstairs, the familiar comfort of a loved one’s laughter. Creating spaces that foster the flow of these moments is at the cornerstone of what good residential architecture is all about.

Understanding how people visually process forms, shapes, and patterns is essential when creating beautiful homes. “The rule of thirds is the basic organization of visual perception, and it creates a strong fundamental backbone to creating pleasing and beautiful architecture,” says Hendrix.

Being in tune with how people naturally process a composition helps an architect build a balanced structure that works in harmony with the senses. “When we as architects pay attention to these principles, and stay up to date with the research and science, we have the potential to create places that are relaxing and comfortable, and that bring a sense of beauty for each client.”

How Architects Use the Rule of Thirds

It helps to see the rule of thirds in action. Let’s see the concept at play in some of our own projects.

Denver infill project

This on the boards rendering of Travis Hendrix’s Denver infill project is so textbook rule of thirds it should be taught in class. You can practically trace the grid pattern among the three gables, second-level windows, and the bottom-level garage door, entry, and living room windows.

Front elevation of a traditional english cottage style custom home by KGA Studio Architects

Traditional Cherry Hills Village custom home

This traditional French-inspired custom home has an asymmetrical design with an over-all balanced composition. The eye is naturally drawn upward from the main front patio, where a chimney and dormer stack vertically on top of oversized windows.

Modern Farmhouse Remodel by KGA

Modern farmhouse remodel

For this Cherry Hills Village home, the visual hierarchy begins at the upper left steel pyramid roof. The eyes then travel down the window column and to the right, moving over the timber covered entry then resting near the right gabled roof.

Historic Tudor cottage remodel

The composition of interior architecture benefits from a rule-of-thirds framework. In our Cherry Hills Tudor remodel, a dormer window visually anchors the expansive foyer and three large windows opening to the courtyard impart a grid-like symmetry. 

Rule of Thirds Takeaways

A home is more than shelter. It’s a keeper of memories, a nurturer of identities, and a place to belong. A home stands sentinel over our everyday lives. Like a keen observer, it bears witness to some of the most intimate and fundamental characteristics of what it means to be human.

The rule of thirds design principle is a core building block of good architecture. It’s one of the many ways an architect approaches composition when beginning to sketch a project. Most importantly, it serves to create a home that’s beautiful and feels good to live in, as an example of timeless design that never goes out of style.

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