Posts Tagged ‘renovation


Design Wisdom: Woo Wonder

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

Woo Wonder.

Sometimes it’s best to turn off the amplifiers and simply listen.

“Unplugging” is a wonderful tool. Not only does it reconnect you with who you are, it enables you to reconnect with that most basic instinct of childhood: wonder.


Remember wonder?

I’m sure you remember numerous occasions from your childhood where you felt awe or wonder –seeing a meteor shower, hearing a symphony of insects, watching a magician, or looking down at the earth from a plane for the first time. Those experiences of getting goose bumps are truly gifts – which seem to get rarer with age.

As adults, although we might work hard to give others a sense of awe or wonder – as a parent and/or working within the mastery of our respective crafts – we often fail to remember to cultivate wonder for ourselves. And it seems to get harder to do, amidst the business of life and sheer weight of accrued experience. But the path to reconnecting with wonder is probably more accessible than you might think.

Making it happen

Based on my experience, there are three “simple” steps to accessing wonder:

  1. Turn OFF your… Put your agenda and to-do lists on “pause”. Allow yourself to take a break.
  2. Turn ON your “beginner’s mind”. This means setting aside your filters of experience and habit; suspending analysis and judgment.
  3. LISTEN actively. Observe. Hear. Smell. Taste. … as if for the first time.

Let’s look at each step a little more closely.

First, turn off your…

As anyone with an active brain knows, it takes effort to turn off all of the voices in your own head; things to accomplish, questions to answer, people to meet, etc.  However, even amidst an active schedule you can practice the path to recovering wonder in your own life. Give yourself permission – whether it’s for five minutes, an hour or a weekend – to pause. Do it once and wonder why it took you so long to give yourself a break.

Beginner’s mind

Turning off the calendar and commitments isn’t enough. You also need to turn off the critics, analysts and project managers in your head. Actively keep yourself from analyzing and objecting. You’ll have plenty of time to do that later. After all, you’re not free to readily receive if you’re busy screening and filtering. Beginner’s mind is finding the “blank slate” or “empty vessel” again.

Active listening

Now that you’re in a position to truly hear, observe, taste, smell and feel — you’re the new sponge. Just sit back and simply try to fully absorb what’s being offered in your midst. It’s amazing what you hear when you’re actively just listening.

There are numerous rewards for arriving at the point of listening actively. The two I find most rewarding are: being surprised (pleasantly) and feeling wonder. It’s a true gift to tap into these feelings again.

Cultivating a “beginners mind” while taking a walk, or seeing an exhibition, or attending a conference has the effect of turning most everything into a “sleeper hit”. Doing so enables one to experience each speaker or event as being more informative, fresh and enjoyable – and yes, even the source of wonder.

An example from design practice

Earlier in this year I attended a regional TEDx conference. I didn’t go with any particular expectations. But I did arrive to the conference with intentions, or an intention. I did my best to arrive as an empty vessel.

While I felt most speakers to be inspiring, one was the true stand-out for me. Pam Dorr was billed as a social entrepreneur, introducing sustainable housing development and positive change for over 400 families a year in the severely impoverished county of Hale, Alabama. Barely into her talk, even before describing her work in the rural south, I became transfixed by the explanation of how she got there.

The journey she described, struck me as beginning with self-empowerment in her native community near San Francisco. The seed of her journey was in making a home for herself. I mean, literally.

She showed a “before” picture of a derelict interior space – a ruin, the prototypical definition of a “tear-down”. Next she showed the “after”. I felt like I was seeing the most beautiful space I’d ever seen. Why? It was authentic. She had made it herself, for herself – almost entirely from salvaged scraps. It wasn’t idealized or romanticized or made for how others might react. It was made for her, by her. In fact it was rather elemental — clean, filled with sun, free of clutter and intervening structure, with a sense of an overarching protective roof. It wasn’t about ideal proportions, fetishized details or expensive materials. It was space and light and protection. Above all, it was accomplishment – perhaps her first realization of owning “can do” for herself.

The rest of her talk was how she blossomed… taking what she learned to do for herself, and expanding upon it to help another individual and another… and now helping to lead an entire community towards nourishing and sustaining itself. Ironically, for those coming with expectations of what they were going to hear, that was the delivery. For those of us “unprepared”, Pam Dorr’s delivery was goosebumps — of authenticity, self-discovery and altruism.

Allow yourself permission to take a break from what you “should be doing” and take in a healthy dose of unfiltered raw data from your senses. It just might spark wonder.

Remember, Woo Wonder.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter W, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Wine and Wheat, and a photo of Pan Dorr doing Wonders at PieLab.


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.


American Philosophical Society: Design-Build

Earlier this year our American Philosophical Society renovations received the Best Design-Build Project Award from the General Building Contractors Association (GBCA). Always by Design (AxD) provided the architectural design leadership while J.S. Cornell & Son (JSC) served as the project lead and construction manager for the four phases of this $6.15M project. This marks the second time that I’ve received a GBCA award working in a design-build relationship with JSC. (The Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Ullyot conference center addition received the Best Institutional Project Award the year it was entered.)


In my experience, the strength of the design-build process has been in fostering teamwork and shared responsibility among Builder, Designer and Owner. In contrast to the myopic, mine-versus-yours provincialism and frequently adversarial environment engendered by a conventional low-bid process, design-build encourages thinking in terms of achieving the best shared outcome. Particularly when working with a non-profit institution relying on receiving grants for a phased renovation involving multiple existing buildings, the ability to accommodate incremental funding and concealed or unforeseen conditions is invaluable. The design-build methodology represents a very useful project delivery option, facilitating the shift toward greater teamwork. The evolution of holistic, “sustainable” thinking and availability of new tools (such as object-based Building Information Modeling (BIM) software) is allowing an even more fluid, integrated, and productive approach to design and construction.

[3 Nov. ’08 GBCA awards program – Ed Barnhart, AIA]

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