31 Mar 2010

Architect or Aspirin? — Common Design Headaches

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I love what I do — designing personalized homes. It’s a daunting but fulfilling challenge to help families design unique living spaces. You love what I do too and that’s why I see an increasing number of your plans during owner-architect interviews. You share hand sketches, grid paper layouts, magazine overlays, photographs and computer renditions. Admit it, being your own designer is sexy and you want to say, “I did it!”, but despite how inspiring and creative your plans are, they often lack design coherence and include expensive mistakes. Your sketches, layouts, overlays and programs are good ways to start, but they are a poor way to finish a design unless you have the insight and skills to make a design work. To all you design cavaliers who want to try their hand at home design, I appreciate your effort and ingenuity, but please avoid these common design headaches.

Ignore the Land: Are you building your house in the clouds? No, we build houses from the ground up (at least for now)? So we should design homes with the site in mind. You chose this wonderful piece of land for a reason and should seek inspiration from it, but most owner-initiated designs begin with ideas pilfered from different homes or modified stock plans. I know it’s fun to tinker with different ideas and arrange spaces, but ignoring your homesite will cost you appeal and money. As silly as this sounds, the land talks to you and will help you make solid design decisions so the house fits. Your land tells you where to build, where not to build, how to enter and exit and which way to face the home. You can fight mother nature, but you will never beat her. Ignoring the land is an expensive mistake and will make the difference between a home that fits and a home that sits. Do you want your home to look like it belongs or like a dingy soda can littering the forest?

No Main Idea: Great movies, great books and great speeches have one thing in common — a main idea! And great houses have one too! A main idea helps you refine the design so it lives well and looks complete. Most owners jamb random ideas they collected from glossy magazines in their design because they dream about this kitchen and those windows with that fireplace. No matter how hard you try to integrate random features those raw ideas make a design look complicated and unfinished. A main idea helps you simplify choices and develop ideas that enhance your design. Do you want your home to look like a thoughtful composition or a garage sale inventory?

Design Only in Plan: What’s the first thing owners develop in a home design, but the last thing you experience in a finished home? The floor plan! We walk upright not slither on our bellies and our designs must reflect 3D space. Designing in plan may organize space, but it doesn’t define space. Most owners work diligently to create a plan they like, but the ceilings don’t fit or the outside doesn’t look quite right or the roof is too complicated. Design means simultaneously thinking about the plan, interior, exterior, roof and equipment. Do you understand how plan, elevation and structure work together to make a constructible and appealing home? Architects develop plans, elevations and sections to be self-referential. That means the forms belong together and everything has a place. Do you want a home where everything fits or do you want to force-fit features?

Poor Scale or Proportion: People come in different shapes and sizes, but most of our parts are in direct proportion. Scale and proportion is what makes a space feel comfortable regardless the home style. The typical owner-design arbitrarily allocates space based on the perception you need “this” much space. The shapes you create may skew natural proportions which creates three problems – 1) your stuff won’t fit, 2) the space feels uncomfortable 3) the space ignores building modules. All of these errors compromise your home’s livability, constructibility or affordability. Architects understand golden ratio and planning modules that teach us how to right-size spaces such as a dining patio, a gallery hallway, a kitchen work center and the spare bedroom for optimum use, comfort and economy. Do you want a home that looks and feels in-synch or one that seems out-of-whack?

Over Budget: What ruins most dream homes? — champagne taste on a beer budget! There’s no doubt you have excellent taste, but budget limits every design and influences your decisions more than taste. It’s an immense challenge to differentiate what you want from what you can afford. Usually the home you design for yourself is too big and includes too many expensive features to meet your humble budget. You start with good intentions, but inevitably design a 4,000 SF castle, loaded with premium features on a $200k budget. I don’t mean to discourage you, but the $85-$100/SF home you see advertised may be achievable, but it’s not the custom home you design for yourself. Homes in that range exclude infrastructure, built-ins, premium finishes and personalized design features. If you have a restricted budget, you must design a purposeful, but smaller and simpler home. If you “must-have” certain things you have to adjust your budget accordingly. Do you want a budget breaker or a budget maker?

Constructibility Issues:  We are all different, but despite our differences we all want a home built well and built to last. Certain design decisions impact a home’s constructibility and weatherability and your imaginitive features are often the culprit. Does your design include acute corners, complex roof planes, arbitrary angles, long spans or obscure geometry? Unless you know how to wield these complicated elements, your home will be hard or impossible to build and weatherproof. That means e x p e n s i v e to build and maintain! We need air and water to live, but uncontrolled elements are a home’s worst enemy. There’s more to design than laying out walls. Design means planning spaces, systems and materials for comfort and sustainability. Do you want it watertight or a water fight?

Awkward and Dysfunctional Spaces:  Sometimes we can’t see the forest through the trees. That’s what happens when we fall in love with something that doesn’t work. Many owner-designs include awkward features like closets that turn corners, windowless spaces, irregular shaped powder rooms, narrow halls or patios, angled kitchens, odd-depth closets and baths with multiple plumbing walls because it looks nifty or fits in the leftover space. These design errors compromise usability and cost. Revising them isn’t easy because moving one wall affects another and another and another — design dominoes. Architects critically evaluate spaces for compatibility with your preferred function, aesthetics and building principals and eliminate those awkward or dysfunctional headaches. Do you want a home that works or a home with quirks?

In a Hurry:  What happens when you’re in a rush? You get lost, burned or hurt and the same is true with hurried-home design. Moving fast means making hasty decisions and costly mistakes. There is no magic number of iterations to resolve design conflicts, but time heals all wounds — even design wounds. Good design takes time to work through the conflicts and make the design gel. One of my favorite sayings is, “I do my best problem solving when staring out the window.” That means we are all capable of actively working through a solution, but sometimes our mind needs rest to do its best work. Architects take time to get to know you so they can help you work through design anomalies comfortably and completely so you make informed decisions and design a responsive and satisfying home. Remember your home is your single biggest investment so take your time. Do you want to design it right or design it twice?

There are always exceptions to these mistakes, but do you have the skill to successfully overcome them? I’m not trying to discourage you from exploring because if you truly work through a complete design you will appreciate what it takes to pull one together. I want to work with you and I want to design your home so I’m eager to review your ideas to get to know you, but I don’t want to derail design potential working through avoidable issues. If you try to design your home and realize you’ve made one or all of these mistakes, it’s time to seek professional help. Trust me on this one…you can spend the money on a well-trained, creative architect who instinctively avoids these mistakes or you can spend the money on aspirin.

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About the Author


Your Architect is Eric Faulkner -- an architect licensed in Texas & Oklahoma with 27 years experience in design, construction observation and life.