OR, IT TAKES A PERFECT PERSON TO PROPERLY PLAN TO PLAN
The impact of great architecture depends on quality construction.
Quality construction requires a detailed, deliberative design.
A deliberative design begins with a perceptive program.
What is programming? It is the preparation for a design and construction project, an documentation of your desires and expectations. Sometimes called a Brief, the Program of Requirements - at its simplest – is an outline of your needs. It may be just a list of spaces and their approximate sizes. If you represent a large client, it can be a multi-volume technical document. Both of those examples, however, miss the real juice: an opportunity to chart a path to not only success but to spiritual glory. Well, almost.
You may have heard horror stories about projects overrun by monsters that eat the joy out of designing & building, leaving a mess for you to clean up. Those monsters didn’t emerge full force midstream, but were born quietly at the start of the project in one of the areas below. Like a plane crash, it takes several small errors and oversights to fail big. Focusing real effort on the pre-design phase of a project reduces those risks and makes it more likely you will delight in the outcome forever.
Following are 9 arenas of thought I recommend you consider as you prepare for your design journey. Different people and different projects will focus on some more than others, and the depth of discovery may vary, but the wider you think and the deeper you dig, the less wandering there will be during design and the happier human you will be.
This is where most people start. And immediately stop. This is what you want (or at least what you’ve settled on) – say, a new 3-bedroom 2-bath vacation house with an open-plan kitchen/dining/social space plus garage and a swimming pool. Oh! And a skylight and a fireplace. That’s fine, we need to know this, but there is so much more. Are you open to innovative ideas that don’t fit into standard definitions? Let’s get more specific on whether those bedrooms are for bunk beds or married adult children, how many people will eat together, let’s talk about what/how we are cooking (Frozen Pizza? Julia Childs?). Elaborate on performance expectations such as the degree of abuse vs. care that is expected, your attitudes about resiliency (surviving or recovering from disasters), are there health issues such as asthma that may drive design choices?
What constraints are there? Someone on your team will know building and zoning codes. There may be property or community legal restrictions, utility issues, material availability, or existing conditions such as hazmat or soil issues. For instance, is your electric meter right in the middle of where you want to build an addition? Some may require further investigation and/or testing before launching full design efforts.
The second most likely thing (after making a list of rooms they want) that people do when getting ready to design is to collect pictures. These archetypes are a useful reference point, and even more so if you identify what you are focusing on: was it the material palette or the framing of a view? Consider including some negative archetypes that illustrate what you want to avoid, particularly if there is nuance. Look beyond what you know and identify your first impressions of the great works of architecture throughout history (including more recent famous architects).
But remember – design is not shopping: please do not use the imagery to identify the ingredients that we should just shake & bake together and hope for the best. The images and, more importantly, the things you say about them, are parables that give insight into who you are and how we can best express that in a unique building.
Aesthetics is not how something looks – it is a branch of philosophy. Without getting too philosophical, think of it as how what you see affects how you think and vice versa. Recent neurological research finds that the impulse from the eye is intermingled with memory before being processed by the brain. Which means that we literally don’t see (quite) the same thing. Which explains a lot? Point being, don’t just pick out pics of what you “like”: think about the meaning of beauty to you, and how you respond to different types of spaces and places. I for one believe beauty to be a positive expression of the essence of a thing, and when there is a disconnect between appearance and the underlying substance, we only have pretty, which is pretty confusing.
As humans strive towards enlightenment, many of us become more aware of our impact. Understanding your core values is critical to the proper design of the spaces you inhabit. This may define an overt and objective goal, such as minimizing carbon output, or may be a subjective attitude that sways design attitudes, such as independence. Design is a multi-disciplinary balance of issues ranging from cost to code, efficiency to expression. It is helpful to outline how important is it to you for the design to be, say, energy efficient, or carbon neutral, or blend into the neighborhood, preserve or create natural habitat, feel safe, be expressive, or any of a hundred other concerns. These are just examples. Think of, and for, yourself.
This is the part that most people skip. Some of us aren’t introspective, and it can be hard. To create inspiring architecture that stirs you, this is the most important part. Articulate the fundamental why of the project. Although it may seem like something to save for your therapist, let your architect know why that is your why: do you want a simple serene space because you are afraid of losing control due to childhood trauma, or because you aspire to minimalism for religious reasons?
Two tactics: Ask why you are undertaking this project, and dig into “why that” 5 levels deep - then back up and ask different why questions at each level. If you aren’t up for that, then make a list of adjectives that you hope will describe the finished project, and those that won’t. Pick the top and bottom three and explain why.
The where of your project can define everything. Engage your architect early – even before you have selected a specific site: we all know Fallingwater, but the client had a different spot on their property in mind until their architect saw the potential. Okay, maybe your site options are less dramatic, but as part of the project planning stage, do a site analysis of environmental and other factors, do due diligence on property restrictions, and refine your views about the relationship between the building, it’s site, and it’s context. Will zoning variances be required, or are there historic or HOA boards who have input on what you do?
Maybe I should have listed this sooner, since it is the other most-likely-to-be-done part of everybody’s program: their budget. Construction is too expensive, and costs notoriously rise as you go along. Your budget should include design fees, permitting fees (sometimes there are several layers to this), construction costs, and also the cost of paying the interest on your loan until the project is complete. Think about furniture and curtains too! Maintain a contingency fund even after you sign a construction contract; define a bigger cushion to early estimates and budgets. Self-control is hard for most people because there are so many really good reasons to spend just a little more. Plan on some of that, or your experience will be too ascetic.
Define and communicate where the money is coming from and when. Meet with your lender now to get a handle on what you can afford – it’s never enough, but let’s at least point the team in the right direction. There is the occasional client for whom the budget is all you want to spend; for most it’s all they CAN spend – be clear with your architect what your circumstances are.
Understand your personal risk / reward behaviors. Define how you are going to get this built. The most common construction delivery methods are:
Design-Bid-Build, the old standby. You choose your architect, design it, you competitively bid it, then you hire your preferred contractor to build it (with your architect typically serving as your representative).
Negotiated Bid: You choose both architect and contractor, design it with price-checks along the way, the contractor bids to their subcontractors only and you negotiate the price, then continue into construction. More and more projects are going this way.
Design/Build: You hire one entity for entire process. Usually, the contractor then hires an architect (or plays architect themselves – that’s worse); sometimes the architect is actually also the contractor (that’s better!). Don’t be fooled by the false security this approach gives you – it still costs what it costs, and I have seen several clients disappointed in the reduced checks & balances (and sometimes reduced design quality) this brings.
Multiple Prime: Owner hires all subcontractors directly, without a general contractor. Not for the faint of heart. You may save money, but if you are skipping work to play contractor, you may lose because you can’t include your time in your tax-deductible mortgage.
The pros and cons are too much to discuss here, but evaluate your options, review them with your team and plan a path best-suited for you.
The design process itself can take several tacks. Do you expect just basic services for a “builder’s set” of a rudimentary design with only enough detail to get a permit – leaving you to select all the products and materials? Or will you avail yourself of the full skill set of your architect to develop alternative designs, refine them with care, communicate and confirm them with renderings in virtual reality (not as expensive as you think), provide energy modelling, pursue a green rating program, develop custom detailing for specialized systems or features, design or select the furniture and finishes?
Create a timeline for design, permitting, bidding, and construction. Depending on the project scope, design could be anywhere from a few weeks to a year, particularly if there is an Entitlement Process. Permit review timeframes vary from same-day to a year; don’t just ask your local permit office because their answers may be misleading. Ask locally-experienced professionals how long it takes. Construction bids take 2-6 weeks, and there are usually a few weeks of contract negotiation prior to construction Notice To Proceed. You can define the construction schedule based on your constraints (which may affect the cost), or ask bidders to present their own schedules. In either case, pencil in some delays, particularly until the construction is out of the ground.
As always, the most important thing! Who will do what as the “Owner” - will one spouse make design decisions and the other make cost/scope/schedule decisions? Who will answer the architect’s call, or the contractor’s? If you have children, find ways to engage them in the process – it’s a great learning opportunity.
What professionals will you engage? An architect (who may hire structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and/or civil engineers) and a contractor, maybe also a land surveyor, landscape architect, interior designer, permit expediter, or others for specialized projects. I recommend any professional providing design of any type be hired through your architect, who coordinates the overall design for consistency, rather than setting up competing designers. When selecting your team, you will consider experience, skill, and cost, but I suggest you focus on relationship: having a team that you love to work with makes all the difference.
ONE MORE THING: Don’t worry too much, have faith; move forward in the face of uncertainty. No one has ever done it all right – and most projects work out fine, despite hurdles. Don’t let programming become an obstacle to progress. When it comes to pre-project planning, more is more, but less can be enough.