Friday, October 24, 2014

(Oct 24) House Design Article

The following is a small article I wrote regarding design and function. It's a bit of a rant at times but it has some valid points in it.

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It’s come to my attention, (understand, this is just my observation and opinion) that there are some really odd, and often bad, designs of little houses out there. I believe that this comes from a problem that seems to plague our entire society. Architects and Engineers feel compelled to design their goods prior to understanding the client, their needs, the landscape and the environmental demands on the structure. In martial arts, we consistently talk about Universal Truths, a solution to a problem (like trying not to get hit) that is so simple and pure that practitioners of many different types of arts have come to the same conclusion without any collaboration with each other.

We find many parts of our art, Wing Chun Kung Fu, are the same as we find in fencing instructions that are 400-500 years old. Doubtful our Chinese counterparts that crafted our martial art had much contact with French swordsmen hundreds of years apart but they both came to the same solution for a problem and no one has effectively improved on it since.

Thus it can be said for design work as well. Not that everyone wants to live in houses that all look alike, but I believe that there are Universal Truths about design, efficiency and functionality that we should work towards achieving. Don’t be different for just the sake of differentiation. Be different because it’s a little better in design and functionality than what you’ve seen before.

We, more than those buying McMansions, must be diligent in our use of space and resources. Then, shout it from the rooftops and let others see and build on to it for the future. Revel with them and acknowledge the improvements in subsequent models. At some point, you achieve perfection, a design so clean and efficient and functional that it cannot be added to or taken away from without lessening it’s simple truth, “This works with the least amount of effort and waste.”

I see problems arise all of the time from the necessity of design engineers changes. I understand some of the forces that drive companies and designers. You have to keep changing to keep up with the other guys. They, for the most part, are dealing with fashion though, not functionality. You have to constantly have new, stylish cars rolling out because people want to make a statement with the car they drive, much like the clothes they wear. I see changes in car models all of the time that make no sense. They were changes that were made just for the sake of change. Engineers need to justify their jobs. Companies need to differentiate their products from year to year to justify price increases. How many of you have gotten into a new car model to find that your favorite feature from your current car is no longer there and the new feature that they put in it’s place is much harder to use! This is what I’m talking about. Change for change sake. They probably have every intention of putting the better feature back in the car at a later date and will likely call it an improvement! Voila, another change!

The problem is, houses are not disposable as is a watch, a pair of jeans or even a car. I propose that we work together as a community and I challenge each of you to simplify and improve housing designs. You should always examine and critique every component as you design and build to determine if this is the “very best” way of achieving what you need to do, understanding that budget always plays a role in our decision making, though typically when we’re worried about budget, we’re talking about material type and finish, not layout and flow.

I’m not suggesting that we move to a minimalist approach, but that should be a starting point. Start with a blank slate and add rooms and features to your house by necessity. Any added features should make the design better, not just different. Features that serve minimal functional value should be replaced with something better or scrapped altogether. Then, put your design out there for the rest of the world to see. Get as many opinions as you can but be discriminant about your changes from there. Remember, there are lots of people out there that are willing to voice their opinion without any experience to back it up. Put more value in those opinions that come from real life experience. (Why didn’t we listen to our Grandparents and Great Grandparents when we had the opportunity! Do you think they had any less fun in their houses that were ½ the size of current building trends?)

If your house is going into a permanent location, get to know that location well before the design work begins. Where do the winds blow from in the summer? Are there any natural wind/sun breaks or areas that flood. What direction offers the best view in your favorite season. Be patient. We are a society driven by “I want it now!”. Politicians drive us to this every election. “I’m going to get our economy back on track!” What that really translates to is “I’m going to get everyone spending as much money as possible.”

Face it, if the Tiny House Movement ever catches hold in mainstream America, our entire economic model will shift and morph into something very different that we live with today. No longer would people be driven to spend more and save less. That’s why most of us who have been bitten by the bug, now start to question all of our economic decisions. Do I really need that new car and if I do, do I have to have this particular model with these specific features? OR, can I do with less and actually get to keep more?

Does it make sense for us, at this point in our lives and in these economic conditions, to purchase a 3,000+ SF house just so that we can have one that’s bigger than the one that we’re living in now? Embrace the reality that your decisions, especially regarding your house, will impact your future as well as your family’s future, for many many years to come. Sit down with family members and discuss the impact of committing to what amounts sometimes to half or more of your income, at current levels, with current conditions. Forbid that anything to lessen your economic prowess should something happen - a job loss, company failure, economic downturn, health problems, etc, etc, etc. and ever cross your path.

How many were caught flat-footed when the last economic downturn rolled around? Do you actually think that will be the last you see in your lifetime? How many of us can wake up every morning and say “You know, if I get laid off today, or if my spouse falls ill and has to quit work, or my 401K is suddenly worth ½ of what it was last month - It’s OK. I think we’ll be fine.” Most of us live with the cognitive dissidence (ability to rationalize 2 opposite ideas at the same time) that based on history, economic challenges come to fruition all of the time AND it could never happen to me (again)! What were we thinking! Plan for the future! Plan for things to be a little more challenging than they are now. Plan to get a little slower and a little poorer as you age. Accept a little reality and you will slowly lift the veil that clouds your vision. No one ever got to retirement age and said “Damn, I wish I hadn’t saved so much money!”

Make a conscious effort to improve your position in the future and a large part of that starts with being smart and practical about your housing expenses, usually the largest portion of your spending. Enough preaching! I look forward to a forum where we can exchange ideas without fear of being able to say “No, that doesn’t work in reality.” or “Sorry, that’s just wasteful! I’m going to keep it simple.” I know it’s a cliche, but from my heart, I hope that you all Live Long & Prosper! :)

1 comment:

  1. I'm just reading this now, 2 years after you wrote it but universal truths don't change, right? I spent months drawing designs on graph paper, making cardstock models, and even building Lego tiny houses. If I had a free moment, I was revamping my design. Then it all stopped because I couldn't find any way to improve my last design. I really enjoyed that process/obsession and I miss getting out the graph paper and sketching my latest idea but I can't make it any better. I'm going to my first Tiny House workshop in Austin next month where I'm sure I'll find lots of things in my design that don't work in real life. I'm kind of looking forward to that. Until then, I'm just going back to knitting.