Posts Tagged ‘engaging others


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: 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: 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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