Architects don’t always get it right

October 29, 2012 — 44 Comments

It pains me to say this but architects don’t always get it right. That’s right … I said it. I am secure enough in my abilities to admit when I don’t get it right (**notice that I didn’t say that I got it wrong, I’m not crazy**)


The room - renovation at Life of an Architect World Headquarters


Maybe I have set the bar to high – not sure that you could set it higher if you think somebody … anybody … gets it right 100% of the time but that doesn’t stop me from trying. My personal expectation is that I get it right to a point that you can’t tell it’s wrong, which to me sounds a lot like getting it right all the time.


The new room - at Life of an Architect World Headquarters


It is Saturday morning and I am sitting in the front room of my house beating myself up because I’m not happy with the lighting plan for the remodel at my own houses. What makes it worse is that I spent a lot of time thinking about the decision I made, thought I could be wrong, but convinced myself that, nahhhh, I got it right the first time …

… and then my wife walked in and pointed out the same issue. Rather than stop at that moment and say, “I got this wrong,” I continued to drink the Kool-Aid and carry on. I can still fix my mistake, it will cost me a little bit of money and a small chunk of pride but it’s the right thing to do.


Locating lights in the ceiling

So here is the mistake – where I chose to center the lights. I had originally stood in the space (which was the old space, complete with walls and furniture which are now all removed) and decided that the center of the room would be perceived as between the wood furr down on the right and the new glass wall on the left. Now that I am in the space, the perceived center is between the furr down and the beam. When the original window wall was in place, it was so heavy that you felt its presence and the beam above your head was a nonentity. Now that the wall is mostly glass, all you perceive is the wood beam..


new lighting layout

The red dots represent the location where I should have put the lights…


trash bag lighting study

In order to solve this little issue, I resorted to a little on site mock-up. We stuck some paper inside kitchen plastic bags and started moving things around until everything started to feel right.

So what happens when I make a mistake on one of my projects where it’s someone else’s house? Do they punch my in the face or start rubbing their thumb onto their fingers together in the widely recognized gesture for “pay up”? Well, I’ve never been punched (at least not literally) and nobody has ever asked me to pull out my checkbook. I attribute this to the fact that I have always maintained a great relationship with the people who hire me and they know that the decisions I make aren’t cavalier – but I also haven’t made any huge mistakes.

It’s possible that what I call mistakes are really esoteric judgement calls – i.e. “I think this would look better than that” and then it doesn’t. Sometimes you end up living with a decision because you don’t think it’s all that bad – or the solution is worse than the mistake, delays the project, or nobody but me cares enough to make the change. All I know is that I have to make things right …




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  • The-Sir Andru

    Hi Bob,
    Am an Architect myself, currently Project Architect and head of the Design team of the firm where I work. I must say, this is something someone with such responsibility as an architect over a project, experiences nearly day-in day-out…And I think, the mindset that quickly adapts to the “not right”(hope you noticed, I wrote ‘not right’) decisions we make, and move to the next step and find another one.
    At the end of the day, as you said it well in your last statement…’we have to make things right’. That’s the mindset. The way you have talked about the lights’ positioning versus what they would have optimumly been, and eveything else in the article, makes me feel so much better…better that, the mindset is actually that which gets us through these such scenarios.
    Thanks Bob. I read your site at least everyday, however busy I get. And I must say, its so inspiring. Thank you for posting.

  • no idea

  • Debbi in Texas

    I am married to a residential architect; I “get” this….

  • mantaray

    This entire post makes me feel so much better. I have wrestled with the *same exact issue* in a house – literally, what exactly was the perceived center line in the space, and should the lights be moved. It’s a tricky issue and comes up more than you’d think. (Good ole RCPs…) Anyway, as a younger architect, it means a lot to me to see you struggle with the same issue – and admit it. Gives me some confidence that maybe I’m not either a) making inappropriate mistakes OR b) worrying too much about something like light placement. You make me feel like it IS important, and it IS sometimes hard to get perfect! Thanks for sharing.

  • Julio

    I’m glad you defined ‘mistake’ at the end…. it really is a judgement call based on the experience of the space….and how that experience actually changed due to the materiality (or lack thereof due to the new floor to ceiling glass) of the wall. I find these nuanced experiences to be quite fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

  • D.

    “Or nobody but me cares enough to make the change…” … ain’t that the truth!

  • Jwkathol

    Sometimes you just don’t know until it all starts coming together. The time and cost associated with getting it “not wrong” far outweighs a lifetime of regret AND not enjoying your meals. The table probably feels right at home between the beam and the furr-down.

  • Kirk

    Paint the beam white

  • Why don’t you just leave the lights as they are and attach candles where you currently have the hanging bags? It would be extra romantic.

    • yes, except the mood might be killed when the fire department has to show up and put out the blaze…

  • Margaret

    Why have you changed from 2 lights in the wrong place to 4 lights in another place? Is it because now that you are aware of the beam the room feels wider?

    • it was really about recapturing a lost opportunity. My project is coming in under budget so I have the chance to reevaluate past decisions. Since I am going to be up in the roof at that point relocating the two, might as well look at adding some wall washing art lights.

      • Margaret

        Wow…your project is coming in under budget?!! Wish I knew how that felt. My husband says all our (my) projects are Retail Plus. Can’t wait to see lots of photos of the final project.

  • Kevin McLaren

    I’m pleased to see an architect not stuck on high-center but actually doing something to his home, unlike me. I design, redesign then do it all over again. Meanwhile I have great ideas with nothing implemented. I’m enjoying living through you.

    If you figure out how to illuminate those bag light mockups, you could sell them for a fortune through DWR. Just sayin’…

    • who knew trash bag lights would resonate with so many people! 🙂

      this renovation is a big deal to me even though it barely registers on the size, scale, or budget of the projects I work on at the office. It would appear that size, budget, and scale don’t figure into the excitement level when your own home is involved.


      • Julio

        Heck, based on the pics you’ve shared,…the transformation of the space is tremendous! That in itself trumps size, budget and scale for excitement!

  • Reflections Interior Designs

    As an interior designer, I find it’s ALWAYS toughest to design my own home. I’m condfident doing client’s home, but once it swings back to me, I’m forever going back and forth on my ideas, second guessing myself, making changes at the last minute.

    Thanks for sharing your struggles, it helps to know I’m not alone! 🙂 and… I love the idea of the hanging bags for light positioning. Sometimes we can sketch and draft all we like, but a visual reference, makes it an easy decision.

    Can’t wait to see the gorgeous finished project!

    • Thanks Jil – a few more weeks and everything will be complete. The big reveal will come when I grind down and polish the existing concrete floors!

  • Every job has some of these situations that could have been resolved a little better but are not what I’d consider a “mistake.” Architects are tasked with making literally thousands of decisions throughout the course of designing a building, some big, some small. It’s just not possible for all of them to work out perfectly. I find that most of the time, I’m the only one who even notices the situation. Nevertheless it may keep me up for several nights trying to find the right solution.

    • yes, this isn’t technically a mistake, it’s a judgement call that presented a better solution than the original (and people wonder why architects can never stop designing…)

  • Well, if the “architect” thing doesn’t work out, at least you know you always have the fallback as a “lighting designer”. I love those “reclaimed” pendants!

    • now if I could only figure out how to illuminate them without setting my house on fire…

  • Yikes. It takes a lot of confidence and humility to admit your mistake and then turn it around as a teaching opportunity on your blog. Cheers.

    • Thanks – sometimes these “learning opportunities” just present themselves!

  • Your bar isn’t set too high. Everyone’s bar should always be that high and it’s a sad thing to see when it’s not and work is ignored because it is too much effort to fix.

    • yes – I set the bar at a level that seems appropriate to me but everyone has different thresholds

  • Lemmor Solis

    Everything we design, critics are always present. The difficult part (for me), are my own criticisms to solve… But we were born to be Architects… We find, we solve… we solve, we find… No perfect satisfaction… The best part here, we explore… That’s Architecture.

    • yes – it is a process and we take the results from each project on to the next one … no project is ever complete, they live forever

  • Cathy

    i learned this in architecture school: No matter, try again, fail again, fail better. (Samuel Beckett) You’ll be a better architect now. 😉

  • Stephen

    Quick question…ok, the hanging fixtures relate to the beam and then center over the table, but now how does the table sit (or feel) in the expanded space… centered or offset/offcenter ??

    • despite the room not being complete, we moved a large table in the room to simulate the final furniture layout. It felt right. Now that everything is cleared out and the space is open, the decision really wasn’t all that difficult – I think that’s part of the reason this bothered me so much.


  • Margarita Nielsen-Palacios

    Equal-equal is overrated.

    • I am a fan of alignment – and that typically starts with finding the center and working from there. I think Equal-Equal is just where it needs to be.

  • architectrunnerguy

    I like the bag lights too! Gives a whole new meaning to the word “recycle”. I think you’re onto something there Bob.
    I’ve been down that road. there’s no such thing as the perfect project.

    • The bags worked out great – we had to simulate height from the floor (since I am mounting the lights slightly higher than normal) height and diameter. The space is large so making sure the fixtures wouldn’t be too small was probably the driving factor in this whole process.

  • leeCALISTI

    This is where your wife is supposed to say “if you wouldn’t have stopped to write that blog of yours, you could have moved them already.” Or perhaps “get the job done already, there’s more things to worry about.”
    I feel your pain though…

    • my wife is actually very nice about these things – in fact, she tends to think that I overly stress and complicate matters. I suppose we both have our roles, but I know that when she does chime in with an opinion, I should probably pay more attention.

      • …and she’s obviously a reader of your blog (with a reply like that) ; )

  • David Cuthbert

    I love the look of the “bag lights” – don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I find that the mistakes add as much to the space as the things we’ve planned

    • That’s a positive way of looking at things – sounds like a life-extending philosophy.

      Thanks David.

  • Enoch

    Great example of the power of paying attention to *every* detail. This is where the rubber meets the road.

    • I’ve become very skilled at kicking myself in the butt.

  • That why they call it the “Practice” of architecture. We’ll get get it right someday.