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Secret weapons of design

Things no design session should be without
by Steve McKee on January 15, 2015

Over the years I’ve found there are certain tools used in designing a house that are so useful and so powerful that they deserve to be in some sort of Hall of Fame. Barring that, I will at least list them here.

I’m talking about the type of design where clients get to be a part of all the important decisions involving their house. Perhaps there is another type of design; if so, I’m unaware of how to make a living doing it. The method that I’ve been using for the last twenty years relies on owner and architect bringing their unique input to the process – the owners know how they want to live, the architect knows how to shape and combine the spaces to achieve a cohesive and buildable whole. Only through this sort of teamwork can the most satisfying results be achieved. And there are three particularly powerful tools used for this that are critical to achieving the best possible house or remodel.


Collaboration – the only way to truly fly


Plenty of design work happens when I’m working alone in my office, but mostly it’s me exploring various possibilities that I then take and share with the owners who then get to completely influence which direction things go.

There is something potent about the act of “talking it out” in which we state aspects of a design problem out loud and then have to follow tangents and finish sentences. It leads to places that would never have been found without that process. This is especially valuable when we are “stuck” with some sort of dilemma in our design. Moments of brilliant breakthrough can occur this way, but mostly it is simply confirming and validating ideas with each other as the design progresses. We embolden each other. Synergy happens; it really does.


Tracing paper – the best design tool ever


I love my computer and my Autocad program for the massive help they provide in generating all the drawings needed to build a house. But in the early design phases there is nothing that matches the magic power of pencil and tracing paper. At least not in the hands of old-school guys who know how to use them.

Hand sketching is so effective because it allows us to quickly sketch ideas and add nuance to these sketches at the same speed that our brain is generating the ideas. This is huge. Combine that with the back-and-forth exchange of ideas mentioned above and we have the definitive way to reach the best possible design together.

Through the milky tracing paper the existing rooms can be faintly seen. Then we begin. After several iterations and variations explored over two or so meetings we will arrive at a design that we are sure is about as good as can be. And we will be sure of this because we examined all these variations. We’ll return to computer drafting soon after the design has been established, but for now we owe our good progress to tracing paper and our imaginations. Hip hip huzzah!


Meeting at the owner’s house – far too valuable to pass up


A huge advantage to meeting at people’s homes for every meeting (instead of at an office) is our ability to easily jump up from our drawing and go look at some aspect of the house and be immersed in all the aspects of what we are deciding. We make much better decision as a result of this. It’s valuable to be able to check the exact best view angle from somewhere, or how crowded or not is the old linen closet, or where exactly is the gas line that will be used to fuel the new tankless water heater, or how dim or not is the hallway, or how privacy is affected by a sightline from a neighbor’s window, etcetera.

So many sensible solutions will be missed if meetings are held away from the project location. When that happens, it’s such a damn shame that forever-after the house will be not-as-good as it could have been. And it will be compromised just so the lazy architect could save himself a few minutes of driving on three or four occasions. Frankly, I wouldn’t hire a designer that doesn’t meet you in your home throughout the design process.


When we combine all these tools we have a potent combo. Here’s an example from the other day: The homeowner and I were working to reconcile a design in which the new master bedroom would be sort of okay but really shorter than we all agreed it ought to be. Meanwhile a full three rooms away, the kids’ bathroom was much bigger than it needed to be. The owner was already starting to settle for the less-than-ideal solution, but that sort of talk just fires me up to find a solution where we meet our original goals.

Long story short: An idea hit so I checked to see if the owners liked the idea of making the kids’ bathroom a “Jack and Jill” (in which the bathroom is accessed only from the two bedrooms) which would then allow us to shift various rooms around and open up more space in the master bedroom. While we were at it we were able to add an alcove space in the master which would let the owner move her computer out of the kitchen into a dedicated space around the corner from the bed where the sleeper wouldn’t be disturbed and paperwork piles would be largely unseen. The owners were delighted to see their design enriched this way.

In other words, all my favorite tactics were used to figure out this design: being on site allowed a visit to the kitchen which inspired a conversation about how nice it would be to get the computer into a dedicated and customized location . . . . which then inspired us with our tracing paper sketches to easily move spaces around almost like a puzzle . . . . all of which was inspired by our brainstorming about the problem.

Anyway, that’s how I like to do it.


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