Color systems in architecture

Anyone who doesn’t have to do with color professionally rarely thinks about it. It is part of our lives and accompanies us from birth to the end of our lives. It is a natural phenomenon that is created by absorption, refraction and reflection of light. There is a holistic color system around us that ensures the survival of many species.

Color systems and their application

For example, the production of dyes by plants, in addition to photosynthesis, also serves as orientation for countless living beings, including insects, mammals and birds. They are specifically attracted by this, which ensures, for example, fertilization and propagation.

Basis for our endless wealth of colors: the development of synthetic dyes (license documentary: Shutterstock- Alberto Masnovo)

Basis for our endless wealth of colors: the development of synthetic dyes (license documentary: Shutterstock- Alberto Masnovo)

Insects are magically attracted to bright yellow.

People follow the intuitive insight into a system of symbols, on which our sense of beauty in natural colors is based. We transform and expand the natural color order by designing our cultural space in color. It includes villages, cities, buildings, parks and much more. In architecture, among other things, color provides the opportunity to achieve differentiation, categorization and identification.

In the course of industrialization, the practice of systematic descriptions of color tones developed in the form of standard agreements and color patterns. The chemical industry benefited from the development of synthetic dyes – it now produces over nine million tons of dyes per year. These revolutionized both the appearance of our settlement areas and consumer goods.

The aim was to meet international industry standards regarding the quality of the synthetic dyes. In order to achieve this, scientifically based color systems had to be developed. As early as 1914, the Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald, commissioned by the German Werkbund, devoted himself intensively to his research work. Its aim was to develop a color system for practical use in architecture, crafts and industry.

Insects are magically attracted to bright yellow (license documentary: Shutterstock- Bk87_)

Insects are magically attracted to bright yellow (license documentary: Shutterstock- Bk87_)

Most important color systems in architecture

There are three basic properties for color perception:

  • Colorful tone
  • brightness
  • color saturation

The systematic order follows them. All color systems are presented with a three-dimensional coordinate system structure, with the axes functioning according to the principle of polarity or opposites. Depending on the use, cones, spheres, rhombohedrons or cubes are used.

There are three scales on which the following colors face each other:

  • Brightness scale – Light and dark or white and black
  • Saturation scale – one shade of gray and one shade of color
  • Colorful tone scale – Yellow and blue as well as red and green

The latter are physiologically determined primary colors; they complement each other. The chromatic scale is often arranged in the form of a color wheel. Complementarity means two colors that have maximum contrast when juxtaposed and produce an achromatic shade of gray when mixed.

It is possible to determine any number of mixed colors on the scales. They are checked by test subjects according to the principle of equidistance and adapted to the spectrum of sensations of our visual perception system. The center of the color wheel is usually an achromatic, medium gray that darkens to black. There is a brightening to white on the other side.

The RAL design system and the Natural Color System are the two most important color systems for architecture. The same applies to building authorities, monument preservation, design, crafts and urban planning. Color readers are available for both RAL Design and NCS. They can be used to decode color names on real surfaces. Color fans are considered more practical and are a more reliable tool. The reason for this is that signs of aging and surface characteristics lead to deviations when digitizing the color tone found.

No matter which product you choose,… Online shop for color fans and color cards from the Torso publishing house you will find a large selection. The specialist retailer for trade, industry, crafts, administration, freelancers and educational institutions has existed since 1988. It offers its customers not only color cards according to RAL and NCS, but also according to Pantone, HKS, Munsell and Euroskala (DIN ISO 12647-2 ).

Burano, a lagoon island outside Venice, is known for its colorful fishermen's houses. (License documentation: Shutterstock-StevanZZ)

Burano, a lagoon island outside Venice, is known for its colorful fishermen’s houses. (License documentation: Shutterstock-StevanZZ)

NCS and RAL design systems

In the private sector, for example when designing the living room, we can concentrate primarily on our own sense of color and taste. A competent architect, on the other hand, faces a much greater challenge that affects much more than just building technology. As already briefly mentioned before, the NCS and RAL-Design systems are the most important of their kind in architecture, which is why we will take a closer look at them below.

Natural Color System

The system of the “Ostwald double cone”, which describes a body of revolution with a triangular shape, represents the basis of the Natural Color System. This cone is composed of two triangles with the same color tone, the sides of which are marked by black and white as well as a specified chromatic color. Tone can be defined. They have a composition of individual tones with different brightness and color saturation. Each NCS color has a precisely defined location in the color system and can be clearly located.

For example, the designation NCS 1050 – R50B refers to a violet with a ten percent black content and a color saturation of 50 percent (1050). This is located in the middle between red and blue (R50B). With a factor of 10, numerical gradations can be made in all directions of the NCS color space. The system has a total of 1,950 colors – it is available in stores as a color fan and atlas as well as a sample card.

RAL design system

The RAL design system consists of 1,625 equally spaced color tones, arranged according to the CIELab color space. It is a perceptual color space that is now an industry standard and easily readable by colorimeters. This enables the continuous calculation of color tones; they can be converted into other color spaces (e.g. CMYK, HASB or RGB).

Each individual color has a unique identifier from which the following factors can be determined:

  • Basic color (color circle 0 – 360°)
  • CIELAB brightness (scale 0 – 100 between black and white)
  • Saturation or chromaticity

For example, RAL 190 30 90 represents a dark blue-green with a brightness of 30 (low) and a saturation of 90 (high). The RAL design system is also available as a color fan, atlas and sample card.

Color systems encounter limitations in architectural practice

Due to practicality, numerous qualitative properties of the color are not recorded, including:

  • shine
  • Color depth
  • intensity
  • Luminosity
  • purity
  • structure
  • Dullness
  • transparency

This means that the informative value for architectural practice is limited, because

  • absorption of light,
  • signs of aging,
  • proportions,
  • neighborhood influences,
  • surface effects,
  • reflection,
  • Transmission as well
  • irregularities

cannot be recorded with this. The above statements make it possible to recognize the limitations and possible applications of color systems for architectural practice.

The most fascinating color games can be found in nature. (License documentary: Shutterstock- Yevhenii Chulovskyi)

The most fascinating color games can be found in nature. (License documentary: Shutterstock- Yevhenii Chulovskyi)

Strong influence of natural conditions on color effects

The perfect Interaction between the influence of light and material colors determine an aesthetically pleasing overall picture. This is influenced by the weather and the angle of the sun as well as the time of year and day.

Today, architects produce spreads and color prints primarily through the use of computers. You must know all the factors and be able to assess spatial effects – otherwise the informative value is lost. Therefore, only sample areas that are viewed under the actual conditions on site have color accuracy.

Even in this case, there is a planning risk: economic and practical reasons mean that only some variants can be sampled. They are determined using color systems and collections. In addition, the aesthetic effect of color in the room can only be controlled to a limited extent on large sample areas.

The fact is: there is a mutual influence between the individual colors; they change with their position in the field of vision and their extent. Likewise, the entire material aesthetic changes with the viewer’s point of view on site – it is impossible to capture this with computer simulations.

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