Urbsanity: Raising the bar

Good design starts before a single line is drawn. It begins with the relationship between the client (and various stakeholders) and the design team. Communication, understanding, respect, and a shared goal, form the foundation of any quality built project.

Architects have historically held a coveted position in society as their work shapes the world we live in. The practice of architecture has produced enduring monuments of civilization and progress but it is also responsible for the rest of the built environment: for example, your home, your place of employment, the grocery store, the bank, and school in your neighbourhood.

Despite the still prominent role of architects in society there seems to be a disconnect between today’s professionals and the general public. If it comes up in conversation that I work for an architecture firm there is usually a keen interest and curiosity about what I’m working on and what I do. It seems few people actually understand what architects do, the scope of our work, and the ways in which we can add value. That is one of the failings of our profession at the moment.

There is a common misconception that architects come up with outlandish designs that function poorly and cost an arm and a leg. When I hear variations of this I wonder if the work of a few is shaping the opinions of many.

You will not find napkin sketches as the focal point in many architect’s offices. In fact, most architects I have come to know are humble, hard working folk. Keep in mind that we need clients in order to work. Architecture is a collaborative, cooperative, and contingent process, not the work of a ‘master architect’ with a singular vision. Good design comes from a meeting of minds where all parties must participate in the pursuit of a common goal. Client, architect, consultants, and contractor must all want to create something great, and they should share the same criteria for what constitutes good design.

In an effort to get some perspective on the criteria that people use to measure good design, I posed the question to some of my colleagues as well as some friends who have no affiliation and limited interest in design.

Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, the feedback I received from those within and outside the industry was remarkably similar. I found myself wondering if there truly was a disconnect between architects and the general public. Granted it was a small subject pool, but both sides clearly place value in the same things which begs the question: is this just a communication issue?

It seems that above all else the design must be functional – surprise, surprise! A building that does not work for its intended use is not a good building, it doesn’t matter how stunning it is visually. I’m not suggesting that all buildings must be completely utilitarian – I believe buildings can be playful and even whimsical without detracting from their use. In fact, having variety in terms of spaces, expression, and detailing can help give the design character and personality.

With function as the building block of the responses, most expanded to say that good design will enhance the use of the building. By empathizing with our clients we as designers will get a better understanding of how they work or how they live, and what their routines may be. From there, one respondent wrote “good design can even teach us something (how to live in a better/easier way, how to perform tasks more efficiently, how to be more comfortable.” To this end, good design can and should afford an ease of use, it should be intuitive – imagine if all buildings were as easy to navigate as the iPod is with only a scroll wheel and a single button.

Durability and longevity is another key criterion to both architects and non-architects. When so much is invested in getting the design right it is important to build with materials and craftsmanship that respect this embodied effort.

Beyond these, most people considered the social and environmental sustainability of a project as a key contributor to quality design. Is it inclusive, safe, and welcoming? Does the design contribute positively to the environment in which it is built? Does the design consider construction or operational waste?

Noticeably absent from the majority of the responses were beauty and budget. Aesthetics, of course, contribute significantly to the overall feeling of a building or a space but good design should not hinge on personal taste. Also, good design should not be synonymous with big budgets. On the contrary, a limited budget demands more creativity in the way you use it to maximize the end product. Canada’s current architectural darlings, 5468796 Architecture, have proven repeatedly that bold, interesting, and good design can come out of limited budgets.

Our experience is perhaps the best way of tying together all of these criteria. Sometimes there are seemingly minor design decisions that go unnoticed but really enhance one’s experience. It can be installing bi-parting elevator doors in a self storage facility that open faster so that you don’t bang your trolley into them as you move stuff in or out. Or, it can be ensuring that when the door to the washroom is left open (which is always the case at my house) that you see a wall or the vanity because no one wants to stare at the toilet when you are eating or watching TV in a living space. These are two very small things found in two very different buildings which, in my opinion, significantly improve the use and experience of the building/space.

Also, I can’t count the number of times that I have walked up to a building entrance and there are pull handles on both sides and inevitably push when I should have pulled, or vice versa, and I quietly curse the designer for not thinking that decision through.

It is hard to evaluate good design because there isn’t a foolproof checklist one can follow. Instead, good design balances the various inputs making sure every voice is heard and opinion considered. When setting out to design a building we must be considerate not only of the client’s agenda, but also the impact it will have on the neighbours, the community, the city, and the environment. Architects and architecture can be a venue for big ideas, but it is the small ideas that seem to define good design in the minds of architects and non-architects alike.

Good design fulfills its purpose and enhances the lives of those who encounter it; it contributes to a happy and healthy building and urban environment; it starts with the people not the idea. To borrow from my yowLAB co-director, Sarah Gelbard, “All projects have flaws, they can never be all things, to all people, all at once,” but with a similar concept of what constitutes good design there is no reason why we shouldn’t collectively – architects, contractors, and our clients – strive to make every design not simply good, but great.

Story: Jeff Salmon, via yowLAB

This article has been cross-published: yowLAB is Ottawa’s architecture and design ideas lab, fostering and supporting collaborations and exchange of ideas in the community. UrbSanity is also published in Centretown Buzz and supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.

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Image: Project by 5468796 architecture inc. in Winnimpeg Manitoba, through flickr creative commons