Designing for Others

Designing for Others
In a sense, architecture is always about designing for others, is it not?  Even if I designed a home or structure for “myself”: as a married person with children, wouldn’t I ultimately take the needs of my family into consideration?  Unless I was designing a domicile for which I intended to occupy in solitude so that I could devote my time to a great work of literature (clearly I am not talking about this blog), would I not consider visitors?  Even Thoreau’s Walden: Life in the Woods devotes a chapter to the comings and goings of visitors (he always had three chairs ready for visitors).  We are never truly alone.
As it turns out, nearly all that I do revolves around design for others.  In my position as one of the “Checker of Drawings”, I essentially become a method actor playing several roles as I read “the script”.  The script, or the collective of the construction documents, as it were, is strictly a draft when I read it.  Depending on which act I am reading, I immerse myself into the character suitable for the role.

First, I become the Code Official.  I am likely seeing this set of documents for the first time.  Even if I know a lot about the project, I pretend I do not.  The Code Official must be able to review the first several pages of a set and get a general understanding of the existing conditions (if there are any), the type(s) of building(s) proposed, the occupancy, the construction type, the amount of area and height, etc.  A lot to do, and it is a challenge to do this clearly and succinctly.  Are there fire walls, and if so, where?  How much renovation is there (Level 2 or Level 3)?  Where are the different uses separated?  We have to come up with a way to convey this information even if it means adding little drawing vignettes to clarify.

Next, I try to take the point of view of the people building this structure.  How clear are all the transitional details – are there enough blow-ups?  Are the required dimensions there?  Even if the dimensions are there, are they in the right place, where they make sense to the builder?  How have the details considered the person physically putting the drywall on the wall?  We also try to incorporate all of the systems and engineering knowledge to coordinate consultant drawings; so that our drawings don’t say one thing, and the electrical drawings say another.There are so many things to consider that, unless you do the same building over and over again, no one would ever catch them all.  But we try none-the-less and strive to be better all the time.

Obviously, the point of view of the Owner, or in our case the end user, is of the upmost importance.  I have to look for details that do not comply with Codes, of course.  However, I find myself becoming the advocate for those with limited abilities of all sorts, where, even if the design complies with the Codes, I typically ask if certain moves might be made to improve accessibility.  In senior housing independent living apartments, typically (per ANSI A117.1) a sink in the laundry is exempt from side approach requirements (the ability for one to approach the sink sideways in a wheelchair and have enough room to center your torso on the sink).  The first instinct of a designer is to throw the sink to the corner as far as you can so that there is as much open counter to fold.  This may work fine for the able bodied resident, but what about one in a wheelchair or scooter?  Even if one is temporarily confined for the time it takes to mend a broken bone or some other kind of ailment, it would still be nice to be able to use your laundry room.
In closing, I look at this set from my own perspective.  For this set of documents, even though another architect was the lead on the project, I ask myself what personal experiences can I impart on the design?  I have been designing for seniors for over 20 years, but the office as an entity has been doing so for three times that.  We have a lot of collective experience.  You can also call it collective memory.  You can call it tales from the trenches.  You could even call some of them war stories.  Whatever these deign issues are called, we want to review each project from the perspective of this checklist of items, lest we overlook them.  As one of my favorite sayings goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  When the office produces a set of documents, I want us all to be proud of the end result.  For successful building projects, repeating advantageous design moves and avoiding detrimental ones can only help the cause.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is “Designing for Others” and was led by Jeff Pelletier.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:
Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
How To Design for Others

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
designing for others – how hard could it be?

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
“designing for others”

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Just say no

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Designing for others

Steve Mouzon – The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
Planting Seeds of Better Design

Anne Lebo – The Treehouse (@anneaganlebo)
Designing for people