Tools for the job

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“I don’t know if we’re doing screws or wrenches.”

This past weekend, Little Man and I took half a day to get some things done around the house together.  The first was the leaky / broken shower faucet.  I never installed a shower faucet before, but thanks to the plethora of knowledge on youtube, we were educated in 10 minutes.  My 4 year old was extremely interested that there are more pieces to a faucet than just the handle that you turn to make the water come out (he was interested, I was . . . surprised, at the complexity).  By the way, a 10 minute youtube video translates to about 150 minutes when you drop pieces of the faucet into the wall. . . . ).

When I attended the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, & Planning, we eventually learned to break “design” down into parts and pieces, to the extent of the study of patterns, repetition, hierarchy, context . . . and on and on.  As a novice “designer” at the time, my first inclination was to just try and make it look good (an ultimate result, for sure).  Over time, we learned to understand what makes a design work.  We were taught what tools to use; a design language could be established (and then, of course, that you were allowed to break all of the rules. . . if you wanted to).  Without the proper tools, were we really designing anything, or were we just resolving a portion of the problem with our partial solutions?

When we took apart the faucet, WHO KNEW that there were so many pieces?  I mean, really. . . you turn a handle, it opens a valve, and water comes out, right?  Except that there were turning limiters, pressure clips, temperature controls, and volume regulators to deal with as well (I’m pretty sure I made a lot of those terms up, but I’m not a plumber).  So, we watched the video again to make sure we were making the right decisions.  In the end (and 2 trips to the store later), we had solved the problem and had a fully functional faucet again.  I would not have attempted this fairly easy fix if it hadn’t been for the descriptive video I found online.  Once we understood the parts and pieces, it was much easier to get to our end goal.

In essence, that’s what design is.  Just like you can be a great faucet fixer (like, maybe by maintaining all of your parts instead of sending them into the wall cavity), you can be a great designer. . . if you understand the components correctly.  Some will argue that design is subjective, and to an extent, I agree.  However, there are bad design decisions that can be made during the course of resolving a problem – and you might not even know that these are poor choices without understanding the parts and pieces.  Some people inherently “get it”, and that is what makes a good designer.

In our quest for the right tools for the job, Little Man literally got to try out all of the tools, even if it was just touching them to the general area of the faucet.  I believe we really only needed 3 tools, but we used about 10 or 12, relying on trial and error & explaining to each other what we thought the tool would be best for in the future (“please, please put the hammer down.  I promise you that it will not make our job easier if you slam the faucet with a hammer.).  In so many ways, we were building our toolbox for the future. . . for the next problem that we get to fix together.

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Is that designed?

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A local, semi-abandoned shopping center/strip mall has recently been slated to become a “professional plaza”, and the look and feel of the existing buildings needs some work.  Studio m Architecture + Design has been lucky enough to have been chosen to liven up the place a bit.

Some may say that “it is what it is” and just assume that a strip mall is a strip mall. . . no matter how you dress it up.  I look at a building like this, which has good “bones” (solid structure, block walls), and see it as a fantastic opportunity to really start to look at the materials and colors in an effort to make the place more desirable to tenants, but without spending a ton of my client’s budget.

My son’s first question is, “Will it be designed?”  “Design” is a new word for him, and he is using it more and more.  He’s telling me things like “I think that’s like…designed”, which in most cases means that he likes it.  He asks me a lot about what I am doing, and often, my response is an explanation about how I am designing a new house or that I am working on a design for a new office building or restaurant.  I always immediately follow up with a question to him:  “What do you think?”

6 years of Architecture school and 16 years of working in the field have helped me learn how to utilize the response that comes from any critique of my work.  “It’s nice”, might sound like it’s desirable feedback, but other than finding out that someone doesn’t absolutely hate what I’ve done, that comment usually isn’t too useful.  “I think it looks like a stick building”, he said, obviously responding to the elevation (above) that is 200’+ long.

He’s kind of right.  As a response to the building that is there now, I chose to utilize linear materials to emphasize the “horizontality” of the building (there’s also a term, frequently used in the design world, called “post-rationalization”, which in a case like this, means that I found some material that I want to use, used it, and then came up with a “reason why” I used it . . . which honestly is only because I think metal panel cladding will look cool).

So my next task is to determine if “looking like a stick building” is a good thing or a bad thing.  I am already thinking of a few ways to break up the upper canopy over the sidewalk; maybe with color, maybe with some “up and down” or some “in and out” that will start to break up the 200′ long surface.  I will redesign it and see if it looks better or worse than its current “stick” form.

Some Architects will disagree with me, but design critique and input doesn’t have to come from an educated design professional.  If someone walks by a building and thinks “I like this”, isn’t THAT a success in some respect?

I’ve always tried to operate with the mantra, “How could this be better?”  There is always a better way to do something, but finding the balance of effort, time, budget, & literally just getting the job done, can be difficult sometimes.  I can sit a redesign a project forever, each time coming up with a “better” solution than the time before.  I would love to get paid for that:  endless ideas, unlimited budget. . . but clients tend to want their projects built and don’t have bottomless checking accounts.  “Design” becomes the successful balance of all of these factors, not necessarily just the look of the building.

As we drive around, he asks, “Is that designed, Dad?”, pointing to a building.  Sometimes, my ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is enough.  I know that, at the moment, his interpretation of design is the aesthetic of something, and that’s ok.  I’ll wait a few years before imposing budgetary restrictions and timetables on his LEGO buildings!

In the building above, I think that so far we’ve reached a good balance of the factors.  Until it’s built, we’ll continue to tweak the look & the numbers while keeping an eye on how much time is passing.  Hopefully a successful effort for everyone.

Try, Try again. . .

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It’s true that most endeavors are not successful on the first attempt.  I’m currently enjoying (a.k.a. “downing”) my 3rd cup of Starbucks coffee this morning due to the fact that Little Guy decided that last night would be the best time to explore what 3:00 AM to 5:30 AM looked like. . . and by “explore” I mean “scream at”.

My wife and I took turns heading into the battlefield, kind of giving each other a nod to say “good luck in there” as we sleepily passed each other in the hallway outside his door.  “Don’t pick him up”, the Doctor warned us.  “Comfort him, let him know he’s not alone, but do not pick him up.”  That lasts about an hour.  Maybe I should give the Doc’s house a call at 4:00 AM and see what he thinks then. . .

Rocking, humming, patting, comforting, changing, checking the room temperature. . . endless attempts to make it right, and 2 hours into it, the simple statement, “Maybe he’s hungry” changed everything.  1 bottle, 20 minutes later and the universe had righted itself.

How could we be so ignorant?  JUST THIS WEEK we had visited the Doctor and relayed to him the increasing instances of interrupted sleep.  “Maybe he’s hungry”, he said.  Maybe we should have written that down.

The whole process is not too dissimilar from solving a design problem (including the coffee requirements and, sometimes, the time on the clock).  It’s great to claim to have all of the answers to every question, the solutions to every problem, and the perfect design for every project.  There’s this stereotypical image of an Architect (bow tie optional) that involves a controlled process of very smartly applying lines to paper in a perfect manner in order to solve an overly complicated problem.  “I think this will work for you”, is muttered as the sheet is handed over to the client.  Light pours off the page and illuminates the face of the bewildered and amazed recipient of the drawing. . . . it’s perfect.

Not the case.

In fact, more often than not, the design process is a chaotic and haphazard one.  What about this?  No, maybe THIS!?  Wait a second. . . try this.  In most cases, the sketch that “works” ends up causing all sorts of havoc when you actually try to make it work.  Move this.  Slide that.  Make that bigger.  No, too big.  It all sometimes ends in frustration.  You’ve just spent all of this time working this out and you’re at the same place that you started.  Not true.  You now know what doesn’t work. . . and that can be the most important information you can have.

“Maybe he’s hungry”.  New direction.  Fresh start.  Successful results.  But everything before that didn’t work gets mentally filed away for next time. . . . maybe for 3:00 AM.

 

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Architecture/Design products:

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I recently purchased these blocks made by Elegant Baby.   So far they’re a success.  I’m always looking for something for Little Guy to build with or stack. . . or bang together.  These work well and have a classic feel mixed with a modern touch of graphics.