A new motto for design success – People before Proportion

When people wonder why I made the move to architecture later in a career sometimes the real reason hasn’t always been apparent. But when a prospective client comes in to talk about their new home and renovation dreams needed for architect designs to fit their growing family, I found myself back in that ‘place’ again and just knew that this was a story that had to be told. Something told me that my story was about to become theirs.

As a 28-year old venturing into the world of self-building in the early 00’s I very quickly realised that I wanted something different in the form of my first grown up home. I long despised the traditional two-storey boxes that have blighted our rural landscape and found a local architect with whom I felt at ease and knew they would tease out my architect design style and hopefully steer me as far away from a ‘ box’ as possible. Lord knows a lot of us will go down in one when the time comes; I have no desire to spend my living and breathing hours in one.

I always remember my office colleagues at the time chastising me for using an architect, ‘sure you’d get your kitchen for what you’re spending on them’ and ‘haven’t you some notions’ were the regular office regales. For many, retaining an architect was something of status (and a ridiculous waste of money) but undeterred I forged ahead with my scrapbook of dreams, cutting and clippings and photos that I hoped would inspire them to create my new home.

Fast forward several months and clutching a water colour in hand I finally had a visual of my new space; It was the first design that I received, and I instantly fell in love with it. I mean, what did I really know about architecture, other than I knew how great buildings made me feel and I knew that I needed lots of light having experienced life living in the brightness of Western Australia and the powerful impact it had on my overall mood and wellbeing. Once the house build began, we were given the drawings and watched as our field of dreams was brought to life. It didn’t take long for the cracks to appear, metaphorically as our team of builders found many an error in the drawing measurements, to the point where a large portion of one roof had to be redesigned. Undeterred we forged ahead and once watertight we really started to see the shape and form appear. In the middle of the build I gave birth to my first daughter in the spring of 2001 and trekked over daily from our cottage perched on the cliffside in picturesque Dunmore East to watch the progress of our forever home.

I will never forget one day, parking the buggy at the front door and being so excited to see my new walk-in food press (pantry sounds so extravagant). I turned the corner into the kitchen and eagerly opened the door, where to my horror the body of the stairs was firmly entrenched. I stood in disbelief and after several fraught phone calls realised that the architect has mis-measured the stairs and space proportions and my walk-in food press was no more. At best, it could hold some shoes miserably underneath. I wont lie; I cried and cried. How could this happen? I paid a lot of money for an architect to design my new home and they knew how important it was for me to have this little sliver of organisation. What’s more I wasn’t even told and made the discovery myself, completely with no warning. If you are still reading this story you may wonder why I had such an emotional reaction to a functional space, but our home holds so many emotional reserves for us that often, unbeknownst to us we make decisions that are proudly driven by emotions of past experiences. As a child and teenager, I watched my mother cook in a small but highly functional kitchen and every available space was used; there was literally no room for waste. These memories shaped how I wanted my kitchen to be, yet it became a technical argument with the architect with no regard for why it was so important to me. Our home did get finished and we did move in but spiralling costs to finish it and a design that worked less and less as we grew as a family meant that we reluctantly had to sell our forever home. My memories are bittersweet, I wanted to be the last one to leave the house the day the sale closed and the memories of my feet crunching across the gravel as I locked the gate for one last time will never leave me.

You see, the prospective client I mentioned in the opening paragraph is not just a singular unit; they are a tribe who have yet to meet each other, and have battled through not really knowing why their projects have gone so horribly wrong, why the project ran over so much from the initial design, why certain things just don’t work for them in the house, why the house no longer accommodates a growing family and why they are stuck with a huge mortgage when all they initially wanted was a modest home. I never knew why our first home build went so horribly wrong until I started my new career in architecture and it was while researching a thesis earlier this year on the design stage in architecture, I came across empirical research referencing the role of psychology in architecture and made an significant discovery. Within academic training for the profession, no formal training is given to architects in interpreting the needs of the client or interpreting how clients think and design simulation is done in a studio setting with no real budgets and no physical client.

Even more interesting is an article by Tschimmel (2007) who describes the processing of thoughts and feelings as a basic skill to bring about new situations and as such needs to be core and central to design education and the importance of being empathic to get into the client’s heads. The architect I had retained never once asked about our lifestyles, our needs and wants, he never delved into us as individuals nor got to know us; it was all about square metres, rooms and proportion. In hindsight I had to keep pressing my worn scrapbook into his hands desperate for him to get to know where we have been on our travels and how we wanted our home to be. I got a Frank Lloyd Wright rip-off of one of his famous interiors (again something I only realised years later). Classic signature architecture which translates to ‘I’m not listening to you the client, I’m giving you what I like’. The aloofness I couldn’t put my finger on then, has now, following significant research been translated into a lack of empathy and ability to connect.

In conclusion, choosing an architect can be fraught with complexities and cost implications and last week when I heard the prospective client utter the words, ‘ we want to see if you will be a fit for us’ it was the realisation that I too made the same mistake so many make. We assume all architects are equal. While all architects hold the same qualifications, sadly however, one of the most important components we need to know may not be apparent until we spend time with them- their EQ (Emotional Intelligence) which is defined as ‘the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically’.

I am reminded of a medical phrase taught to prospective doctors ‘do no harm’, whereby given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good. Perhaps its time psychology and EQ were given more credence from a learning and development perspective within the profession and maybe just maybe we can bring human-centred design closer to the technical.

Karen Douglas is a co-founder of Douglas McGee Architects and responsible for Commercial and Strategic Operations with an emphasis on Lean Enterprise Excellence. Karen can be contacted on karen@dmgarchitects.ie