Posts Tagged ‘craft of architecture


Design Wisdom: Leave Leavening

The “L” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Leave Leavening.

Most times the best answers (and designs) are open-ended and invite further inquiry.

Ever been in a conversation with a “know-it-all”? First, it’s not really a conversation if someone feels they already have all the answers. Great design, however, is like good conversation: it invites participation.


Why leavening?

Leavening is essentially a fermentation process used in baking to produce air bubbles that cause breads to rise. The metaphor here is about making space – literally and figuratively. Without leavening, breads can be dense and impenetrable. As a designer, you’re creating (in whatever medium) objects, performances, or buildings that you want others (your audience or user) to find engaging and accessible. For our purposes, then, leavening is about providing space for audience members to inhabit in some form – physically, emotionally and/or intellectually.

Leaving room for the imagination

Think of a world devoid of imagination. Everything would be reduced to nuts-and-bolts knowledge. Just the facts. There would be no room for “What if?” Without imagination, our world would be a pretty dull, predictable, mechanistic environment.

It might be tempting to say that imagination is in the eye of the beholder. After all, anyone who’s spent any time around young children has witnessed their endless capacity to imagine all sorts of amazing things in the most banal of environments – like the laundry basket transformed into an intergalactic space station. But simply to leave imagination to the beholder is a cop-out by you, the designer — and a serious lost opportunity for the audience.

An essential mission of a designer is to engage others – to provide room and encouragement to experiment, wonder and fill in the blanks. Leavening is what makes the design all the more engaging for the consumer.

Leaving room for serendipity

Besides creating space for the consumer’s imagination, you need to leave room for serendipity. By serendipity, I mean chance encounters or juxtapositions, or more fundamentally, room for discovery. In this sense, “leave leavening” means allowing some openness for spontaneous and even quirky personal responses, which in turn means surrendering some control over how other people will experience your design. Like a place without room for the imagination, a hermetically self-contained “know-it-all” design is also dead. Having chance encounters is an essential part of the human condition.

Making room for serendipity is easily illustrated in architectural practice. Dating back to at least when Louis I. Kahn was designing the Salk Institute laboratories, there was increasing awareness that scientific breakthroughs weren’t the sole provenance of the lone scientist toiling in his laboratory, but rather often occurred at the nexus of private reflection and collegial exchange. At least since that time, we’ve understood that providing space for random social interaction can be as essential as places for structured work in learning and research environments.

Think about it this way: If students were found to learn best from staring at an instructor or display surface, why would any classrooms have windows? The passing bird may offer more to the lesson than anyone might expect!

An example from design practice

As this “Design Wisdom” series has evolved, I’ve realized that I use the label “design practice” to mean any form of creative authorship for public consumption. In that sense, it applies to virtually all artistic fields — so it’s not unfitting that I turn to creative writing as the source of an example from design practice.

Back in college, I took a writing class as an elective. It was a crash course in looking structurally at stories – with the twin goals of increasing our appreciation of the craft of writing and helping us write better ourselves.

One of the exercises involved writing a careful description of a specific place from memory. It was important that it not be an invented place, but rather a real place from our personal experience… a place we knew intimately. We then exchanged papers with another student and silently read each other’s place descriptions. Finally, the entire class was given a list of specific questions such as: How big was the place? What was the predominant color? How would you describe the smell of the place? How did the place make you feel? What kind of light was there?

We had to answer the questions based on the other person’s description. The results amazed me. I had described my grandmother’s long wooden Greek Revival porch in Upstate New York, choked with concord grape vines in the summertime. My partner in the exercise intuited some answers right in line with my own memory – the size of the porch, for example. Other characteristics, like the quality of light and sense of feeling I had in the place, were rendered in a quite different (but very compelling) way by the other student – based on his own sensibilities.

The “take-away” for me was two-fold. First, as definitively as we might try to “nail down” every detail of our project, some features will inevitably remain (and should remain) ambiguous. Secondly, a reader (or viewer, or audience member) must be able to find room in your design to inhabit and make their own. In that long-ago classroom exercise, I realized that “my” place description became richer for having shared it with someone who could enhance it with his own perceptions.

If you’re designing to engage an audience, your work shouldn’t end the conversation. It must leave space for the imagination and serendipitous discoveries. 

Remember, Leave Leavening.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter L, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Lapis Lazuli and Liver, and a photo of statues which Leave us wondering.


Design Wisdom: Knit together

The “K” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Knit together.

What does “Architecture” (with a capital A) have that transcends mere building?

Architecture is the knitting together of people and ideas to create places of profound richness and meaning. By contrast, building is simply technology.


The meaning of architecture

Works of architecture always have some utilitarian or commodity value, but the extent to which they are emotionally valued derives from the richness of meaning they convey to the people who experience them. You could say that the core task of any designer is to find meaning and make it palpable to others.

If architecture is about making places of inhabitation, then it stands to reason that works of architecture need to be attractive and accessible to their inhabitants. First of all, yes — physically attractive and literally accessible. But architecture must go beyond the surface and engage people with meaning specific to them. It is through finding intellectual and emotional meaning that a person comes to truly value a work of architecture, or anything else for that matter.

Why knitting?

Knitting (or weaving) as a metaphor for producing architecture has two key components: the product and the process. What is the product of knitting? A net or fabric. Through the joining together of multiple strands of fibers in a particular way, you create a product with strength and visibility. Think of a net that is used to catch fish, or a fabric flag used to attract attention. A knitted artifact is a multi-dimensional, meaningful artifact.

The process of knitting, on the other hand, is about gathering and assembling – coming together. Instead of the finished artifact itself attracting people, it uses the diverse qualities of individual fiber strands themselves as the attracting force. It’s about creating relationships.

A designer should be able to knit in both senses – using overall effect and new relationships to create work that is intellectually and emotionally accessible and engaging.

An example from design practice

Several years ago I designed a home that I dubbed “the treehouse.” The project was located on an island off the coast of Maine, in a mature coniferous forest. Some of the trees were easily sixty feet tall. As with all projects, I sought to understand not only the client’s functional needs and life priorities but also his core values and aspirations. The program for the house was pretty simple: a summer/fall vacation residence with two bedrooms, two baths, a living/dining room, a kitchen, a fireplace and at least one deck. Sun was a relatively scarce and therefore highly prized commodity on the site, owing both to the heavy tree cover as well as frequent fog, particularly in the morning and sometimes even for entire days.

Early on I became aware that the client held a special fondness for having built numerous tree forts in his childhood. To me, that memory became the initial thread of a very special knitting together of diverse inspirations and ideas. I had long been fascinated by the traditional post-and-beam construction used particularly in New England barns. Equally fascinating to me was the “curtain-wall” technology pioneered by Modernists, where the exterior of a building behaves more as a light skin than a heavy armor. I was also moved by the client’s close attention – spiritual affinity, if you will – to nature.

The result of weaving or knitting all of these (and many more) threads together was a slender, 3-story, fully-glazed timber frame tower of a house nestled among the hemlocks. The views and quality of natural light clearly changed as you ascended from the ground floor guest bedroom up to the middle shared living floor and ultimately the top floor, which contained the master bedroom suite. The design process and final expression connect childhood memories, regional vernacular heritage, and contemporary technologies to create a unique and timely architectural vision of living in the trees.

Design places of unique and enduring value by gathering diverse ideas and weaving them together to create a strong fabric imbued with deep emotional meaning.

Remember, Knit together

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter K, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Khaki and Kelly green, and a photo of knitted rattan fibers.



Design Wisdom: Joy is Contagious

The “J” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Joy is Contagious.

Our founding fathers almost got it right: “…life, liberty and the pursuit of…”

Joy. It seems like a dirty word, or something that’s too good to ask for. And yet we’ve all experienced it and been profoundly affected by it. Why not spread it?


Happiness versus joy: What’s the difference?

Both joy and happiness are rooted in pleasure caused by a good or satisfying experience. But they’re not the same. Happiness lies on the surface of emotions. Joy is what emanates from within – a glowing resonance. Happiness is getting an A on the exam. Joy is mastering the subject matter.

Don’t get me wrong. Happiness is important, very important. But while happiness is about the pleasure of the moment, joy is more a “take-away” of lasting satisfaction. Joy is a triumphant contentment, a deep-seated sense of connectedness to values that have personal positive meaning. While happiness is usually fleeting, joy stays with you. I like characterize the difference as: Happiness you rent. Joy you own.

Positive passion

Dating back to the ancient Greeks, joy has been classified not merely as a feeling but as a primary passion of humanity. According to Plato, there were four cardinal passions, created by a matrix of positive vs. negative and present vs. future: Joy, Sorrow, Hope and Fear. For Plato, joy was feeling positive in the present.

It follows that there must be some benefit to focusing on what is positive about the present. And obviously this attitude isn’t restricted to designers. We can all benefit from being infected by joy!

Joy as process

Even outside the realm of design, joy can play a highly desirable role. Think of when you’re in a meeting — or any social setting, for that matter. One person radiating joy and optimism can electrify an entire group. And what follows can turn into a ripple effect — those newly inspired people infect still others with optimism. Joy is almost like a virus that spreads positive emotions and well-being.

Earlier I characterized joy as being “owned.” It inspires both a deep sense of stability and an increased capacity to reach out – to give or accept more. Joy feeds on itself. It’s the pervasive sense that you’re doing something so profoundly right or well that it’s resonating with your soul. It truly is infectious. Others want you to share it with them.

So, as a designer, think about the next time you’re making a presentation. What tool might you use to “win over” your audience and inflame them with your enthusiasm? Make the joy of what you’re proposing palpable!

Joy as effect

As designers, we typically create objects or “products” for our clients/consumers. We rarely accompany our designs or present them once they are built or produced. They leave the nest — our nest — and fly solo. What can we do to ensure that our “babies” continue to resonate with our enthusiasm?

What we can do — and indeed, the highest aspiration of what any designer should do — is to create embodied joy. What do I mean by this? Embodied joy is passionate optimism made tangible. Embodied joy is the soul of a craftsman. I think you can picture it. Think of a traditional Japanese garden, where deep knowledge of plants and climate, intense appreciation of the subtleties of place and materials, and a passionate optimism combine to create such a profound lyricism that it can’t help but infect any visitor.

We’ve all been infected by the work of the best craftsmen, artists, architects and designers alike, despite having never met them. If only our schools taught us the importance of embodied joy, our cultural artifacts would sing to more of us in our day-to-day lives.

An example from design practice

For a practitioner of architectural design, travel is essential for the soul – a great way to recharge one’s spiritual batteries. (Obviously you can learn a lot, too, but I’m talking about seeking joy.) In the summer before my final year of architecture school, I made a solo architectural pilgrimage throughout Europe to see buildings I had long appreciated from afar – with particular emphasis on Modern architecture.

After being disappointed in finding Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy under reconstruction and closed to the public, I looked forward to arriving at his celebrated chapel of Notre Dame du Haut. I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what the experience would be like. Instead, I simply tried to have an un-premeditated, authentic experience. The chapel was open and no one was “interfering” with visitors, so I was free to roam, in and out and around…I’m guessing for a couple of hours. I don’t think I uttered a word the whole time, although there were a number of other visitors.

I examined the building from close and far, caressed details and viewed overall effects. I watched others experience the building. I watched, listened and smelled the surroundings — catching the sky and the landscape with changing light and breezes. I made sketches and recorded thoughts. I felt like the privileged seeker/archeologist – filled with admiration and seeking clues to how I might accomplish such mastery. It made me feel humble – with a sense of wonder and awe, but extraordinarily glad to be alive and fortunate to be able experience the building firsthand. I still carry that joy with me every day.

Apply your skills with joy and you will not only inspire others during the process but will leave artifacts of your efforts behind which themselves will pass joy to others.

Remember, Joy is Contagious

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter J, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Jade and Jasmine, and a photo of the joy-inducing Notre Dame du Haut.


Design Wisdom: Humans have needs

The “H” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Humans have needs.

When was the last time you were somewhere you thought you didn’t belong?

Probably within the last 24 hours. I’m talking about buildings and places where your comfort as a human user seemed to have been the last thing anyone took seriously.


Who are you designing for?

Surprisingly, it often seems that the accommodation of users and their needs is secondary to some other agenda. How many times have you walked into a corporate lobby and said “Wow!” (wondering why they created such a vast 3-story glass-walled atrium) only to end up feeling sorry for the poor receptionist, blinded by sun glare and buffeted by blasts of frigid outdoor air every time the door opened?

You may be the owner or architect, but the question is the same: Who are you designing for? Are you designing to impress your competition? Are you designing things simply “because you can”? Or are you actually designing to deliver the best experience for the users?

Good design shouldn’t ever have to say it’s sorry. By that I mean to say that a well-designed building or space doesn’t require apologies for what it didn’t get right – because good design means getting the things that matter right. And guess what? People matter. One of the most fundamental aspects of “getting it right” is achieving ease of use and providing a sense of comfort for the occupants.

Suffering for (your) art

It’s fine for designers to suffer for their art. That’s their choice. However, they should never impose suffering on their clients without their consent. As a designer I would argue that our mandate, in terms of suffering for our art, is to achieve the “both-and” of beauty and functionality, not allowing one to fall aside at the expense of the other. Owners and architects alike should take as “standard operating procedure” that the buildings they commission or design both inspire and comfort users.

Interestingly, the size or complexity of a project isn’t relevant to whether it can offer both inspiration and comfort. Let’s look at a few notable famous failures and successes. All of them are inspiring. (They wouldn’t be in the history books if they didn’t inspire.) However, only some of them are comforting.

In terms of size and functional demands, single-family homes should top the list for comfort and ready accommodation of user needs. Apparently Mies van der Rohe needed a reminder: after completion of his all-glass Farnsworth House, Mrs. Farnsworth sued him for creating an “unlivable house.” The Franks didn’t fare much better when architect Peter Eisenman created a house that forced the owner couple to sleep in separate beds.

Museums arguably have more complex functional demands to meet – and yet they can achieve sublime comfort. For example, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (located, oddly enough, in Denmark) is quietly nestled, in a very unassuming way, in a residential neighborhood north of Copenhagen. Your experience as a visitor is like walking through a garden in full bloom in beautiful weather. Similarly, architect Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, offers a tranquil oasis – heroic in its transcendent luminosity, yet humble in scale.

An example from design practice

In most projects there are power struggles among the various stakeholders. Corporate departments or married partners often fight against a real or perceived constraint to obtain more of whatever their interests are. In these cases, your role as designer is as referee or counselor. Surprisingly, you often find yourself fighting to defend the most basic human accommodations in your designs.

In one case, I was working for a very dynamic and forward-looking CEO who had commissioned my firm to design some large meeting spaces for his institution. At some point, in exasperation, he demanded that the number of toilets be reduced by half. I explained that the number shown was required by the building code as proportional to the number of people being accommodated in the meeting spaces. When I asked why the restroom quantity was a problem, his response was: “I can’t find donors for bathrooms.” In the end, the code requirements were met – but not without my insisting that I would resign from the job if he insisted that we provide any fewer! Funny thing is, after graduating from architecture school, I had never imagined myself fighting a client in order to provide more toilets!

As architects we revel in designing spaces that inspire. Yet it is equally important that we provide comfort and utility for the joy of the humans using our buildings.

Remember, Humans have needs

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter H, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Harvest Gold and Hunter Green, and a photo of a Human happily hanging out.


Design Wisdom: Get Grounded

The “G” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Get Grounded.

Riddle: What do electrical work and artistic painting have in common?

Answer: They both require being grounded. Granted, they have very different grounding techniques, but the point is: any work requires a prepared context, or ground, upon which to safely rest.


Figure versus ground

Every designer is well acquainted with the formal distinction of figure versus ground. In my last article I talked about the need to establish a focal point or figurative aspect in any design project. In this context the importance of having a ground is in clearing away, making space for the figure to stand out and be appreciated.

If you want to make a statement, verbally or architecturally, you figuratively need to have the floor. If we were to take this to a deeper level, we might say you need to have the ground. One might be tempted, then, to think that it’s a bit like public speaking. A speaker’s first task is to gain the audience’s attention by becoming the focal point… in other words, by asserting control over the space and silencing any peripheral noise.

Are you making a speech?

Unfortunately, all too many designers end their conception of grounding with this clearing away or silencing. Yes, this approach can work for a small minority of projects (a public monument, for example) where you want the finished design to stand alone delivering a resonant soliloquy. But in most cases, architecture isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about giving a speech. You need to find a different type of grounding.

A better metaphor for most architecture design commissions might be constructing a conversation. In this approach, grounding is about understanding, acknowledging and reshaping your environment or context. Grounding becomes engagement with your neighbors. You can neither afford to ignore what people are saying nor simply repeat what they are saying and expect to remain welcome.

Using this analogy, it’s clear that the most valuable contribution of the designer is neither shouting down nor silencing the others in the room, but rather in shifting and elevating the ongoing discourse. The design process starts by finding common ground before you find the figure.

An example from design practice

At a corporate level, many business organizations seek to ground themselves by formulating mission statements, branding concepts and strategic plans. And yet, my experience tells me that such strategies rarely take on a tangible role in developing an architectural project.

Coming full circle back to electricians, a notable recent exception in my practice was in developing a new regional headquarters for NECA, the National Electrical Contractors Association. Working with these electrical contractors I was blessed with a client group who took their mission and constituents seriously and used them to effectively to ground their project.

Only rarely does a client’s full “wish list” find its way into a completed building. Even without “tangible” limitations – funding, for example, or the restrictions of the physical site — some degree of grounding  becomes essential if you want to shape a project into a more vital and distinctive whole.

My intake from the design meetings with the NECA Board was that they would repeatedly return to their core mission and strategic plan to balance the program and design decisions. Frequent questions included: Should a visitor’s first impression be about member services, trade mentorship or public outreach? Is a particular feature adding value for membership at the expense of the staff, or visa versa? Are we anticipating and encouraging growth or supporting a static vision?

This continual looking back to the core objectives of the organization proved to be really grounding for the project – both in the sense of stripping away the “noise” of unnecessary frills, and (to use another electrical term) ensuring connectivity between the organizational purpose and the resulting facilities.

Any successful design requires a prepared ground – the creation of which entails both clearing away and rooting to the established fabric of the surrounding environment.

Remember, Get Grounded 

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter G, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Grape and Green, and a photo of a Grounded plug.


Design Wisdom: Find the Figure

The “F” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Find the Figure. 

When was the last time you were accused of not seeing the forest for the trees?

In our caffeinated, attention-deficit inducing Information Age, the deluge of imagery in our daily lives makes it far more likely that you’ll fail to notice, let alone get captivated by, individual trees. And yet, successful design requires that we recover the ability to do so.


Problem Solving

As a designer you’re typically hired to solve a specific problem. It could be designing a website or a skyscraper. Sometimes your client comes to you without a clue about where to begin because the problem seems so complicated. Other times, what looks like a simple task at the outset quickly gets bogged down in conflicting details and secondary agendas. Either way, most design projects at some point run the risk of capsizing under too heavy a burden of options and information. How do you work through all the details to find a cohesive solution? Where do you begin?

Being Subjective

Your primary skill as a designer isn’t your likeness to a computer, crunching huge multi-variable simultaneous equations. Your skill is in your subjectivity (and your persuasiveness, but we’ll get to that in a subsequent article). What’s the root word of subjectivity? Subject. A singularity. A point of reference selected by someone with a unique vision, just as an artist selects the central figure for a portrait or still life painting.

But let me be clear:  while the “figure” I’m talking about can be a concrete object, like a table or a tree, it doesn’t need to be. It can be a color, shape, concept, or feeling. The essential idea is that whatever it is, it is a palpable entity. This thingness can be achieved in many different ways, but the result is in differentiating one tree as unique within the forest. It is the capturing of focus that enables meaning to be created and savored. As a designer, one of your most valuable skills lies in making this subjective choice of what that the focus or figure of a given project will be.

Putting a Stake in the Ground

Think of going on a camping trip. At some point you’ll need to find a spot to spend the night. More often than not, you select that spot by finding a figure that serves as a focal point. It might be a view to a distant mountain or the flatness of a large rock at your feet. Finding a figure gives you a starting point. Establishing that figure puts everything else in some kind of relationship to it. Rather than roaming aimlessly in an undifferentiated forest, your perceptions and actions become relational to the thing you’ve claimed.

Granted, having found the figure doesn’t mean your work is done. Think of it as Thomas Edison’s 1% inspiration in relation to the remaining 99% perspiration of work. You still have to shape the subsequent relationships with everything else to make them meaningful and positive. But once you’ve settled on the focal point or theme of your project, you’ve essentially built the foundation for everything that follows.

An Example from Design Practice

A project of mine currently nearing completion is a residential retreat with guesthouse in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine. The client acquired the site for its primal natural qualities – a lakefront property surrounded by a mature forest, mostly hemlock. As with any project it had its share of impediments. The 10-acre site had three major zones: a moderately sloped portion which had previously been logged a decade earlier, a steeply sloped portion with virgin forest, and a low, boggy wetlands area. The most readily accessible portions of the site had previously been left visibly scarred from the earlier logging activity. The areas of greatest beauty and best views were deep within the site, heavily forested and steeply sloped with rock ledges just below the surface. The wetlands areas, of course, were environmentally protected and needed to be kept intact.

From the outset of the project it was clear that how we dealt with the existing conditions of the site would be the key to success. We gathered as much information about the site as possible, including surveying the slopes, mapping the major trees, and assessing view sheds. So, you could say we began with a soft- focus impression of site, without knowing the key to knitting the assets and challenges of the site together into a seamless whole.

At some point during our surveying I saw one remarkable tree — a mature hemlock — whose deeply textured bark was being highlighted by the direct rays of a late afternoon sun. Suddenly I realized that the central motif of our project would be a tree – more specifically, seeing a tree through the forest. The story of trees became our narrative glue – starting with reclaiming much of the original logging road as our site access. The largest area of the logging slash became a meadow within which we sited the guesthouse. The site for the main house was nestled into the wooded hillside, enabling approaching visitors to view past the house, through the under-canopy silhouettes of tree trunks down to the shimmering blue surface of the lake below.

While much of our effort was spent in preserving trees and shaping views of them (and through them), some trees inevitably required removal. Rather than treating them as nuisance waste, we chose to transform them into a featured element of our project. With careful handling we stacked the felled trees under a temporary shelter and air-cured them into building-usable logs. The logs became the “signature” front features of both houses – serving as loggia columns on the guesthouse and primary exposed structural elements for the roof and porches of the main residence. A visit to the property now inspires admiration for the many faces of trees, in all their forms of beauty and strength.

Finding a specific idea or object to provide a palpable presence in a project enables you to build meaningful relationships with the greater whole. 

Remember, Find the Figure

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter F, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Fuchsia and Flax, and a photo of a Forest


Design Wisdom: Engage Enthusiastically

The “E” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Engage Enthusiastically.

Are you enthusiastically engaged and passionately sharing the work you are doing?

If you’re not feeling fully engaged in your work, and you’re not enthusiastically engaging others in your vision, it’s far less likely that your endeavor will succeed.


The Enthusiasm Litmus Test

Be honest with yourself: are you excited about what you’re doing (or trying to do)? Are you engaged and passionate about your work as a design professional? If not, something needs to change. It might be your attitude, or it might be your circumstances. But this much is clear: you need to take the lead in cultivating your own enthusiasm and sense of engagement.

If you’re experiencing a deficit of enthusiasm, it usually means you’re not optimistic about the process and/or the results you anticipate. Ask yourself why you have doubts. Examining your attitude should spark in you a quest to at least identify the source of the problem. Once you identify it, you’ll either be able to remedy the situation or find that you can’t. But even in the worst-case scenario, you can seize upon the enthusiasm you feel for other aspects of the project rather than letting your doubts cast a pall over the entire works.

The point is, if you want to get others on board, you need to be selling them on your ideas. Nothing builds success and buy-in better than your enthusiasm for the ways and means of realizing a project.

So, What About Others?

Architecture involves a client, designer, materials suppliers and a builder at the very least. They’re all dynamic and essential players, so their engagement is crucial. Think of the gears of a watch or bike that need to interlock to produce results.

At the most basic level, engagement is about communication. The designer must be able to open channels of communication with as many stakeholders in each project as possible at the outset, then work to assure the open flow of information for the duration of the project.

When I was fresh out of architecture school, I used to picture the ideal client as someone who told you what they wanted, handed you a check and said they’d be back a year later for the finished product after taking a ‘round-the-world cruise. While the part about being paid in advance would be nice (!), trust me, you don’t want an absentee client – despite how tempting it might seem. If a client disappears during the design process and fails to communicate with you, I can assure you that you’ll be dealing with a different person when he returns. Even if you designed something perfectly suited to his expressly stated yearnings a year ago, his sense of what he wants will have changed during the course of his adventures.

You can see that communication is a key to engagement. But it’s not the only key. Think of it as the “what” of engaging a project participant. The “how” of engaging them is enthusiastically. Enthusiasm conveys the feelings — your feelings – your excitement and confidence about things to come. Enthusiasm is contagious. People naturally want to be part of a winning team. Your enthusiasm is critical in assuring them that they’ve found that team.

An Example from Design Practice

My first year out of college was the most demoralizing year of my life. Although I haven’t taken a poll, I’m guessing this isn’t uncommon among graduates of architecture, fine arts, and design schools. The reason? The transition from the lofty idealism of academia to the grittiness of real-world practice is akin to a high-speed car crash. Gone is the sense that you’re striving to change the world – replaced instead with the brain-numbing ennui of wading through an endless stream of “redline” drafting corrections.

The first major project I worked on that first summer out of school was for 185 units of public housing in Upstate New York. At the time hand-drafting was still the norm, and I can’t tell you how many times I had to “mirror-image” or otherwise make repetitive design changes to 185 bathrooms or kitchens by hand. The “joke” among the four drafting interns was: “Don’t draw more in the morning than you can erase in the afternoon.” Boredom and cynicism ruled. After a year, the corrosive nature of that environment finally got to me and I realized that I needed to move along for my own survival.

The school-to-practice transition probably isn’t any easier now than it has been for earlier generations of graduates. It pays to remember, though, that it’s not someone else’s job to make sure you stay enthusiastic and engaged. At least initially, you probably won’t find everything you’re looking for in one place. You might have to assemble your life a la carte to create the right conditions for enthusiastic engagement.  Don’t shy away from this task: it will help ensure your sanity and success.

You are the steward of your own passions. It’s your responsibility to actively cultivate your interests and enthusiasms so you can engage others with your optimism.

Remember, Engage Enthusiastically

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter E, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Eggplant and Emerald, and a photo of Engaged gears.

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