An approach to shaping spaces

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Construction Site Supervisor

“We shape our buildings: thereafter, they shape us.” – Winston Churchill

I have a very fulfilling job.  I create space.  I get to shape the environments that people exist in.  It all sounds very magical; a very sculptural process that can only be fine tuned by vast experience.  Architecture can be a complicated field where a multitude of complex pieces need to be simultaneously orchestrated in order to perfect the desired result.  Sometimes all of that is true.

“Dad, this is a hideout.”  If I were hired to design a “hideout” for a client, I might be thinking about ways to make it blend in with its surroundings, or maybe consider multiple points of exit to accommodate a quick getaway.  Little Guy’s hideout was a box with a blanket over it.  It was very obvious, and conspicuously placed right in the middle of the living room.  There was no “design intent” or complicated process that erected the structure.  It was a hideout because he called it a hideout and when he sat inside, it was his imagination and the events that led up to entering the structure that really made it what it is.

It’s not too different than what happens at a theme park.  Visitors are transported into various, fantasy-like places that are, more often than not, large, overscaled boxes loaded with an experience.  But, it’s also the approach to that environment that lends to the experience.  Sometimes that’s sights & sounds, or maybe a structured path-like approach.

When I first sit with a residential client, we go thru a lot of logistics.  How many bedrooms do you want?  How important is your kitchen?  How much money do you want to spend?  These are very necessary & pointed questions that must be addressed.  I need to know what we’re working with.  I start to wrap in a few more probing questions.  What do you do when you get up in the morning?  Where are you when your kids are doing homework?  Do you wear your shoes in the house?

After we establish what we are building, we need to establish how you will use your spaces.  “We want our kids to have big bedrooms.”  Why?  I can very easily make a bedroom larger, but why do you want that?  Will you complain when your children spend too much time in their rooms and not with the family?  Are you also using their bedroom for storage for all of their stuff?  Are there better ways to solve these problems?  Maybe they just need a place to sleep and we can create alternate, fantastic spaces for them to play in, or do homework in, or spend time with each other.  And this applies to ALL spaces.  Do you need a kitchen to cook in, or do you need a kitchen to exist in?  Do you have large parties where everyone ends up in the kitchen, and in that case, why not make the kitchen a place to put a lot of people, not a place to put appliances?

Do you really want to enter your house thru your garage every day because it’s faster when you get out of your car? (usually “yes”).  Is there a better way to enter your own house so that you’re not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a daily experience where you enter your home thru a room with a laundry machine in it?  What if there was a way for you to have a separate “utility” entrance, but still have a great welcome into your own home? (there is).  All of this is “design”, but it’s not just the design of physical spaces, it’s the design of movement, of experience, and in some ways, it’s design of life.

“Spacious, wide open, rustic / modern, clean lines, comfortable”.  These are some of the words used most often by  my last few clients (according to my notes).  It’s a good start.  I have some clients who come to me with a list indicating that they want 150 square foot bedrooms.  It’s very useful information, but it only gets us halfway there.   What’s your work schedule?  How often do you get to spend time with your spouse in the morning?  Is there a way that your morning routine can be enriched and influenced so that you aren’t preparing for your day in isolation, but rather in concert with your family?  What did you love about the last place that you vacationed at?  What will make your night better?  All of this is more telling and should be more influential than the literal sizes of your rooms.

In a lot of ways, it all goes back to the cardboard box & blanket hideout.  Why is that so cool?  It’s because there’s some dynamic, flashlight produced uplighting.  It’s because it’s “cozy” and doesn’t really belong in the living room. . . but it is.  It’s private.  It’s compressive.  It’s a space within a space.  With that criteria, you can easily create a more permanent space to exist in, and if that’s what you want, why shouldn’t you have it?

It’s what we’ve started doing when we go into new places.  I ask my son, “What makes this place fun?”, or “How could this be better?”  His answers don’t usually have anything to do with spatial dimensions (actually, he usually comes up with something related to super heroes).  When he gets into it, it’s usually about experience or mood.  We should approach all of our spaces the same way, and we’ll get so much more out of them.


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