Good Design Is Hard to Find
The journey of taking an idea to a finished project can be a long and winding road. Bringing a construction vision into a reality is a feat in itself, even in a perfect world. In the world we live in, with budgets, timelines, code and zoning parameters, environmental considerations, etc. it can get overwhelming quickly, and sometimes it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball. One very important part of this process is getting the design right.
These days, with access to so much information through channels like HGTV, Houzz, Pinterest, etc. customers usually start with a good idea of what they want but usually they don’t understand what it’s going to take to get there. Actually, usually they don’t really even know what they are seeing in the pictures they put on their mood boards. They just know what they like, and they think ‘Hey, I like that bathroom, can’t we just do that for my house?’
While this sounds totally reasonable, in practice it can be devilishly difficult to do. There are a lot of practical reasons for this, from varying sizes and shapes of rooms to sun exposure and window locations, but I think the biggest obstacle is understanding what it is a customer is seeing. When they see a picture of a room and say ‘I like that’, what is the ‘that’? Is it the color or pattern of the tile? The paint color on the walls? The style or wood tone of the vanity, or the lightness and airiness of the space? We can separate these elements out and say, ‘ok, we don’t have the ceiling height to make this space light and airy, but we can use the same tiles as the ones in the photo, and we can paint the walls the same color’, but does that produce the same ‘that’? Unfortunately, in my experience, the answer is usually no.
A room is the sum of its parts, and if done well it can become more than that. When you start swapping out elements of a whole you end up with something different. Maybe it’s a little different, maybe it’s not the same thing at all.
Communicating this to clients is challenging. Most don’t have the background or experience to appreciate the subtleties of how good designs work by bringing things together, like a puzzle. If you take a piece out you can’t just stuff something else into that whole, it won’t fit right, and the rest of the puzzle will look off too. A good, simple example is paint colors. As anyone that has tried to pick paint colors out themselves knows, there are a lot of them. Almost an infinite number really, when you factor in all the different brands and sheen combinations. Didn’t know sheen affects color? It does. Know what else affects color? Everything around it.
It makes sense when you think about it: the color we see when we look at a painted wall is the light that is bouncing off the wall and hitting our eyes. But that same light is also bouncing off of other things in the room; the floor, the ceiling, the beautiful antique wooden desk. The light that ends up hitting your eyes is actually a combination of all the things in the room, and what we think we are looking at, in this case the wall color, is actually just part of the story.
So even something as seemingly simple as a client picking a picture on Houzz and saying ‘I like that color’ is actually not that simple because unless everything else in the room is the same as in the picture, the color is going to look different in the clients home. A great book on this and all things color by the way is called Color by Victoria Finlay, it’s fascinating. White is the best example of this. On their own, most whites look almost identical. When you hold them up next to each other though, you realize that they are all completely different, some are blue, some green, some brown or yellow. So when it comes to matching the feel of a room, it’s hard to tell sometimes whether it’s the paint color you like, or the effect the vanity is having on the paint color, and vice versa.
This is the situation I find myself in on the Lusk Street job; trying to guide my client on the path to realizing her vision. I had put together a list of Allowances, or the items she will need to select, such as tile choices, plumbing fixtures, cabinets, etc. Now it was just a question of checking these decisions off the list. We sat down for our first meeting after signing the contract to start making decisions, and I soon realized this was going to be easier said than done.
‘Apples to oranges’ is a phrase that is used often in construction when explaining why two things are sort of the same, but not really. Floating stairs vs traditional stairs, engineered floors vs solid wood, wood fireplace vs gas fireplace, handmade exterior french doors vs manufactured french doors, etc. Sometimes the differences are pretty clear and easy to explain, sometimes they are more subtle and difficult. Communicating how these differences impact cost, timing and design to the client takes time and patience. It also takes lots of emails, lots of dropbox files, and lots of phone calls to chase down pricing, materials, subs, etc. It’s all part of the process, and hey, with the right attitude it can be a lot of fun.
This is the third post in a series on the life of construction projects. Check out the next post in the series: Building Permit Approved.
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