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Meeting of the minds in your design

by Steve McKee on April 11, 2004

Want to know the main ingredient that goes into designing a house or a major remodel? It’s the collaboration between client and designer. It’s what you won’t see on the reality design shows on TV. None of them show the real interaction that goes into a good design process. (“Dream House” on HGTV at least gives it a nod.) I suppose showing this wouldn’t make for television as exciting as watching some poor sap whisked away temporarily so that his/her home can be “made over,” usually in some shocking way.

It’s only natural that the best home designs are always a result of a successful “meeting of the minds” between the owner and architect. The owner knows best how they live their lives and what they value in a home design, and the architect knows best how to translate those wishes into a shape that can be built and function to support that life.

There must be a variety of ways to foster this collaboration, but the one that works for me and my clients looks like this: We meet every two or three weeks until we get the design as good as we can.

For a new house there may be six or so meetings. Remodels can take as few as two meetings, but often take more. The meetings typically last about two hours or more. Usually after three hours we’ve gone as far as we can for now and everybody is pretty much tapped out. Besides, to continue to develop things past that point it’s going to be a lot easier to wait and do it with the new drawings that will be ready by the next meeting.

The first meeting is spent developing “the program,” which is really just another way of saying that the owners tell the architect what they want and the architect writes it down. This wish-list creation process is a critical first step and should be done very thoroughly because it’s the key to help the architect understand the spaces, rooms, and flow patterns desired in the house. The way this is discussed should be relaxed, more like a conversation than some rigid list making. Homeowners can express themselves in whatever way best suits them. Some have pre-typed lists prepared as a starting point, some have magazine images cut out and cataloged, some have simple sketches they’ve drawn, and some just talk about things. It’s just fine that this meeting is mostly talk.

It’s the second meeting where things really get fun. The architect should have some rough concepts ready based on the wish list from the first meeting. In my case the drawings are very rough, really just the beginnings of different ideas, and I consider this to be a very good thing, as it allows the homeowner to get involved to help develop some of the most critical aspects about the layout of the house. The design juices really flow at this meeting, with pencils and tracing paper being the tools of choice. The energy that results in this type of creative environment is wonderful. The best words for it in English are “brainstorm” and “synergy.”

I think this process works because the architect and the owner tend to embolden each other in these interactions in just the right way. Owners are the authority on knowing what they want, and the architect is the authority on being able to give shape to it all. It’s a dynamic combination because they can correct or validate each other’s decisions as the meeting proceeds. And the phenomena of “thinking out loud,” in which participants state issues aloud and often find answers just because of the way they stated the problem, is another benefit to this sort of creative meeting. Can you tell I’m a big believer in this collaborative process?

Meanwhile, the two or three week period between meetings is used to give homeowners a chance to mull over decisions and make sure they’re fully happy with the choices made. There’s “homework” to do, such as visit the window display at Dolan’s lumber, or decide things like whether the family computer is going to work out better at the built-in desk going under the stairs, or in the guest room that may double as a home office. The break between meetings gives the homeowners a chance to notice things in friends’ homes, in magazines, in model homes or on HGTV. There’s nothing like having to help design something to open your eyes to examples of it all around you. Wait till you need to help lay out a lighting design for your house. You’ll notice subtleties and nuances about lighting like you never did before, especially in nice restaurants (where the different “layers” of lighting are usually very well done.)

What the architect should be doing between meetings is to continue to develop the design based upon input received at the last meeting. Clients love it when the designer shows up with more than one option to consider. I like to take the design only as far as I can until I’m starting to make decisions that I know the homeowner will want to get in on.

In this way the design is developed, with care and much rumination by all involved. When we’re done, there should be a feeling that we’ve found the best possible solution under all the circumstances.

With the “design phase” complete, the next half of the architect’s work begins, which is turning that design into a full blown set of “working drawings.” These are the pages of intensely noted drawings with details and cross-sections and framing plans and cabinet elevations and all the many things that builders and building inspectors need to know about. The homeowner will need to answer occasional questions while the “working drawings” phase is being completed, but this time is sort of a vacation before bids are sought and (yippee!) actual construction starts. All these phases of the process have their demands and rewards. It’s enormously comforting to know that all this effort and expense is going to support a design that has been carefully and thoroughly developed with everybody’s best ideas.

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