By: Sam Miller, RA, NCARB, LEED AP | Senior Project Manager
Creating architecture involves balancing many variables. Design professionals hold all this lightly, meditating on what to bring forward and what to leave behind. We can think of design as living inside a container of sorts, a set of boundaries – limits on what we may do. These take many forms: a structural material can only span so far. Finishes are beautiful, but flammable, a hazard unless mitigated by a sprinkler system. A client has a limited budget. In short, boundaries are essential and real. This is design’s first question: what is needed and where are the limits?
A wise colleague and I explored the importance of boundaries almost 20 years ago during a dialogue about what we believed constituted high quality design. Without boundaries, design usually spirals into chaos. Creating and managing a quality design process demands an understanding of boundaries and the sense to know and keep track of changes as we go along. Quality design process is the heart of a successful practice.
So what happens? The strategic view is to imagine design as a continuing series of inquiries: we seek an understanding of a project’s limits, its boundaries. We gather information, synthesize a solution, and present ideas for feedback. The solution can be part of the whole or a full vision of the architecture. Once we have comments (new information) the evolving design takes up this information and the loop begins anew. Building furniture provides a good analogue: rough wood is shaped, cut, finished and assembled into the final product. Before the wood worker begins, he or she knows what is intended: perhaps a dining room table of a certain size, finish, and features. These are the boundaries, part of the program for the project. We are obliged to put a conceptual fence around a design problem whether the work is creating a potting shed or a mixed use high rise.
One of the traditional saws in architectural practice is the idea of scope, quality and cost. There’s also time or schedule, intellectual capital, and available resources in staff, skill, creativity, and technology. Beyond the intellectual or administrative work of design, there is the very real world of construction: can a local builder provide the skill to install a particular building system? Will a material choice hold up over time and meet the needs of an Owner?
Over the years we have learned that as complexity increases, a certain level of unpredictability enters, then lingers. Strange, unexpected events derail what seems straightforward. Moving decisively from question to answer gets more complicated and difficult. An answer to a question has four answers and not one. Or no answer at all. Research yields more threads to chase down.
We use the word “friction” with our clients to share the variety of uncertainties presented during design. Friction in the process takes differing forms. In any given project the design team not only answers to the client, but the requirements of building codes, climate, site, local jurisdictional requirements for zoning or utilities, specialized review requirements depending on the project, plus the impact of financing. Each of these affects design.
Here is an example of principles and boundaries in a project for a client in southern Indiana. The image below is the first notion of how to express the architecture in a manner that supports the client’s mission and communal image: modern, forward looking, innovative.
First design concept from June of 2015
The vocabulary for the building was inspired by the architecture of the client’s existing facilities and the program for a 12,000 square foot medical office building with room for two future tenants on a suburban site. Boundaries included a carefully reviewed budget process, detailed design review with the Owner’s leadership team, a relatively tight site, oversight by the State Department of Health and so on. Below is the final rendering, a close approximation of the final appearance of the building, now under construction.
Johnson Memorial Health final design now under construction
Although aspects of the appearance are shifted and morphed, the basic shape of the design has held: a distinctive canopy to easily identify the entrance, a strong overall visual image to delight the eye, a thoughtful composition of materials. This consistency is part of using boundaries as a methodology to steady a design concept for the duration of the process.