Narrative as Design Process

September 3, 2013 — 40 Comments

Sometimes it really does help to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – or in this case, take a shower in their bathroom.

I am a big-time believer in the power of story telling – creating a narrative – to help solve problems or as a mechanism to educate someone on a thought process. Since a great deal of what I do could be considered ethereal and esoteric, being able to articulate my reasons for solving a problem in a particular way is an important skill. Despite being the design professional, it’s not enough to tell someone “do it my way, it’s better”, you need to be able to walk someone through the design process. One side-effect to feeling the need to “educate” someone as to why your way of doing something might better is that you could come off as condescending or that you aren’t really listening to that person’s reasons for solving the problem they way THEY decided it would be best. To avoid this situation, I have used the process of creating a narrative to help explain what might seem simple or obvious to me in a way that helps the listener understand the process in a way that creates ownership in the end product.

In the simplest of manners, a narrative simply requires the designer to put himself or herself into the role of the end-user, sort of like role-playing (not in the Dungeons & Dragons sort of way). In the example I am showing today, it’s for a residential shower layout that crossed two other people’s desk before it got to me. When I saw it, I knew the shower layout needed to change, but rather than sketch up the solution and hand it off to someone, I thought “let’s make this a teaching moment” … let’s allow someone else discover how pretending to be the client and how they would use the shower in this layout and how that might would work.

Shower layout "Before" sketch

The sketch above shows the original shower layout. At first glance, it might not seem like that bad of a shower. There’s plenty of space, there’s a bench for storing shampoo and conditioner, a nice wide door, some options for where the shower head might go … not bad right?


So when you start walking through the narrative you can start to figure out why this shower would be less than it could be (which is code for “terrible”). Here’s the narrative:

You wake up and you decide that you’re going to take a shower. You open the shower door to turn on the water but … based on where the shower head goes, you might have to walk in to the shower to turn the water on. Do you hop onto the bench to avoid that initial blast of cold water? What about that bench? Seems kind of long to me – how much shampoo are you planning on storing? If the shower head is opposite the bench, does the water just hit the back wall and cascade onto the bench? For a big shower, there isn’t all that much room between the shower head and the bench – what happens when you get older and if you might need to be in a wheelchair? Statistically speaking, probably won’t happen but … you’ve got the room but you’re not really using it all that well.  You know how when you take a shower you like to have the water hit you right at the base of your neck? That way, part of the water spills over your shoulders and keeps the front part of you warm – this means that you’re actually standing right in front of the shower head. Wait a minute; what’s that uncomfortable thing I’m now standing on? That’s right, the shower drain. 99% of the time it seems the shower drain is place in the middle of the shower, which is exactly where you want to put your foot, and that sucks. The drain ends up in the middle so the slope is minimized but sometimes – depending on the size of your tiles – you get all these extra cuts in your tile pattern that almost always* look terrible.

Shower layout "After" sketch

Here is a sketch of the revised shower layout after we did our virtual walk-through – a few things changed didn’t they? The bench was moved opposite the shower door – it’s still plenty long but it’s not egregiously so. The door into the shower was moved and rotated so that now the door opens up against the wall, making it easier to get in and out of the shower; you don’t have to walk around the door to continue walking into the bathroom. This new door placement also makes it a bit easier to reach in and turn the water on without having to walk all the way into the shower to reach the controls. You will also see that the drain has been moved from the middle of the floor to the edge just in front of the bench – and it’s now a linear slot drain – much cleaner this way and you don’t have to stand on it while showering. The interior of the shower is now large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and allow it to rotate within the shower space – subtle change but effective should the need ever arise.

I have no doubt that the “After” shower is better than the “Before” version, and by creating and walking through a narrative, hopefully everyone else does too.

Cheers and happy showering.

Bob signaturePS – I also think that the reason builder homes (or spec houses) will never be as good as those built for a specific client because the narrative is missing. But that’s a different post for a different day.


*by “almost always looks terrible”, I mean it always looks terrible.

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  • Luis

    I’m an architecture student and I’ve been told plenty of times by my tutor to consider the narrative to be the most important design tool. Consider the narrative and everything will just fall into place. Now, up until I saw a couple of your posts, I didn’t really understand what the narrative was but now I think I do. The kind of logic you applied with redesigning the shower was what I was doing when I was designing buildings. Perhaps it was never a conscious thing for me, maybe it was something I did subconsciously. Thank you, I enjoyed that.

  • Jaime

    Love this post. We all make the jokes about how everyone must earn their stripes designing bathrooms prior to getting to design the ‘real stuff’ – but this is the ‘real stuff’.

  • MarvinOne

    Awesome post again. I design commerical and always try to think like the client so it’s nice to know that I might be on the right track with that. I’ve not yet had the chance to do residential (my dream job) and while I’ve loved the look of the trench drain, I never put two and two together and realized that every time I shower (in a stand alone shower) I’m standing on the circular drain! It does suck! That trench drain is more than just a pretty face then. This teaching moment reached beyond your office to some of us in cyberspace…thanks for sharing!

    • Glad I could point out something that will drive you crazy for as long as you use your current shower. From now on, you’ll think of me as your taking your shower – I am so sorry for that.

  • Mark Mc Swain

    Oh, and if there is pushback on the trench drain (it happens) or it interfers with the floor pattern, two smaller drains will help prevent “honking-big-drain-underfoot.”
    None of which is as cool as the coolest shower floor I ever got to work with. Shower flooe was recessed 4″ flooe was grouted to plan round drains set diagonally. Center of the floor was built up to serve as a base for a 1.75″ slab of local granite. This finished within 1/8″ of flush to the rest of the bathroom floor. The grantie slab was aproximately 8″ narrower & shorter than the shower, making a “trench” all the way around. Local washed granite aggregate was set in the grouting layer, so it appeard as if the slab was “floatomg” on a dry gravel stream bed. Granite slabs were veneered on the walls.

    • Robert R. Machado

      That design sounds incredible to me! obviously budget was not a factor, which certainly helps during the design process

      • Mark Mc Swain

        Yeah, ths was a lavish job for a great customer. “Ceiling” detail in the shower was suspended light diffuser eggcrate about 50% filled with airplant, with an “illuminated ceiling” install of full-daylight lamps & a Vellux solotube. The effect was very much one of a natural setting. Oh–the fixtures? Bronze grapevine and branches–tres cool reporposing of stock items.

    • That is a nice detail – I’ve done it once before with tremendous results – very pricey even for one of my projects

  • Mark Mc Swain

    Narrative is hugely useful in getting everyone to percieve and agree upon design issues. It’s particularly handy for coping with preconcieved notions that restrict change (on either side of the coin).
    For example, in kitchen design, if a client wants something–larger or smaller work triangles; more/less counter tops; huge storage closets or casework, finding out the “why” will help prevent impass. Asking the customer to describe how they would prepare a meal in their dream kitchen is illuminating. Sketching this out as they describe helps too. Particularly for when one asks, so, at a party, with nnn people in the space, what should change?
    As is pointed out below, similar narrative is an excellent thing for bathroom design, too. People have preferences, like how hand a towel is; whether they step out onto a bath mat or not; dry in, or out, of the shower.
    It could be that an answer for this shower would be to turn the bench into two 18 x 24 seats, then lengthen the outside wall some amount–say 24″ on both ends. Then, mirror the access opening on both sides. This would make a “T”-like wall across the shower opening. Which could go, robe, towel bar, shower valve; showerhead/wand shower wand/head; valve; towel bar; robe hook. (note, that’s not a LEED-compliant install for having a ledt & right shower head; or a fixed rain head plus a hand shower/wand) .

  • After you explain it, that makes so much sense to have a trench drain.

    • Jake

      Linear trenches are always better. Pick the right one and it’s sexy. Sure you get a bit of extra fall but so worth it. It’s the worst when you see some crappy shower design where they’ve put the waste in the middle of a tile and had to cut it diagonally.

    • I’m glad that what I wrote was coherent enough that it resonated! [that’s always a “Gold Star” moment here at LoaA]

  • lardavis1951

    Interesting to see this layout – and the thought process verbalized. Concern for later accessibility is great, but this layout seems to have some limitations. I’ve just designed a VA/SAH grant-funded residential addition and labored over compliance with the 2010 standards being applied. I’m with Robert about ditching the bench (to get the wall rail on three sides), providing shallow alcoves (what’s that chase for anyway), and considering whether a side-transfer movable seat is more likely than a specialized waterproof wheelchair. Linear drain is great, and off to the side, as long as you can still get the minimal/maximum slope. We also left off the enclosing walls to allow a ceiling track transfer rig to run from bed to shower, as our client’s ALS progresses and his wife still able to be his caregiver. But then, we were working with a particular set of evolving client needs, and a special grant.

    • interesting line of thought for your project as well – it sounds like you started off designing a bath to accommodate the caregiver and their ability to bath the person receiving the care. These considerations were not directed to us by the client and I would imagine that they would not like to see the end product as if it was driven by future possible considerations. I am adding this possibility to the design mix because I have the space to do so. That having been said, you bring up some good ideas to noodle over.

      Also, that chase space is really for vertical air distribution – we don’t actually know how much we will end up using so I don’t want to count on space I might not have access to later.

  • Robert R. Machado

    This a great post Bob! I have a shower which is identicle in layout to your second design. Our bench seems to be more of a storage shelf for shampoos and conditioners rather than butts. Don’t think I have ever used the bench as it was intended. If that were my shower I would create some niches in the wall behind the area where the door is for storage and just get rid of the bench. Might also entertain the thought of making the door the full size of the opening and dispense with the sidelite. Having creative discussions with staff and client can solve many issues as the design process evolves. We need to step back at times and absorb ideas from others and the narrative process is an ideal tool!

    • I need to verify with the client but there exists the very real possibility that the door will be removed in its entirety. The bench is sort of standard for us and while it might nit be used for butts, it is nice for the ladies to have a place to put their foot when shaving.

      • Robert R. Machado

        Understand the shaving thing!

  • Great post on the design process Bob and the complexities that go into what many take for granted. Plus, great lesson on how to be an effective teacher.

    • Thanks Enoch – I hope it comes across that way and not “Ugh, Grampa Bob’s got another lesson for us”

  • Robin Willcox

    This was a great post and great re-design, thank you. Love the linear drain. Triggered my running list of pet peeve design fails – or, more correctly, consequences of non-design: e.g. a view window where the sill is too high to see out of when sitting down, or spec houses that are oriented the wrong way, with kitchen and family spaces all facing the cold north (bad in New England) and all the good southern sun wasted on vestigial formal rooms; gah, I could go on and on. The narrative is a great tool; thank you for articulating it in this way. Great for small moments like a shower but also for various users in an entire building over the course of a whole day, in varied seasons/weather.

    • Hi Robin,

      This is also a nice way to get the clients involved in the creation of the solution – sometimes I think designers forget that this isn’t really about them, just their skills of observation.

  • Thanks for reminding people of the benefits of having someone on their side to really think about how a home works for its inhabitants. Love the revised design. One of my pet peeves is to have to walk completely into a shower to turn it on. A big name hotel in Chicago with an even bigger named owner, hint: ego, has this problem – a big design fail. Linear drains are so much more attractive and make it easier for the tile installer. Well done!

    • Thanks Lisa. I thought this would make for an interesting example because with the exception of switching to a linear drain, none of these items was cost driven (either up or down) – this is all about the experience that almost anyone can bring to the mix if they stop and think about the process beyond the aesthetic

  • Cathy

    thanks! that first sketch was making me really nervous when i opened your email today! “getting inside my client’s shoes” is why it’s still a good idea to have an architect consult on smaller projects too, i try to tell contractors. especially accessible home modifications, where it is truly custom design.

    • Thanks Cathy – sometimes it just takes more than one set of “experienced” eyes (or in this case, two more sets of eyes)

  • Patrick

    There’s no indication, but it looks like the plumbing for the shower in the second iteration is placed on an exterior wall. I suppose this is ok if there isn’t a freezing issue where the project is located.

    • Dallas, Texas – plumbing in exterior walls isn’t really a concern here (at least not when the barest amount of preparation is taken which we always exceed)

      • Tony

        Climate may not be an issue… what about future access to plumbing? Access via an exterior wall versus an interior wall, i.e. drywall patching versus stone/siding/brick.

        • fair enough. I haven’t ever had a problem before so while that might mean I’m due for a problem, I don’t design around it either.

          • Mark Mc Swain

            Differing jurisdictions can trip up, too. In Austin, you are required to have a plumbing access behind shower or tub valves. This can make for a less-than elegant exterior finish detail.
            Plumbers can be contrary, but there is no reason the shower valve cannot go on the wall to the right of the shower door, or the one to the left (right hnd side would be “cleaner” in being free of “poke you in the side walking by” valves). Shower head is just a plumbing fitting on a supply pipe, it need not be directly over the valve body.

  • Surfmental

    nice post! indeed, i have this conversation with my colleagues all the time (that’s code for: i lecture them). in china, it’s often the case that they simply have not had enough experience of things done well to be able to imagine how they can be.

    • I agree with your final statement and it’s a big part of why I think the narrative can help. This process allows people to work through their own experiences and bring that combination of practical experience together with their own unique brand of problem-solving skills.

  • kerry

    so I still see problems. where is the robe hook to hang a robe and towel just outside the shower door? and why a door at all. i do not have a door on my shower and the water is contained without getting water outside the shower. And most importantly, why do you have to reach in and turn on the water? specify recirculating hot water like i have in my house. i get into the shower, turn on the water, and it is hot (or whatever temperature is comfortable) within 3 seconds max. no waste of our most precious resource. which in case you have not noticed, in north texas we are in stage 3 drought conditions.

    • all valid points but you are speculating on all of these items (maybe because I didn’t address them). I’m not showing any hardware because it’s placement wasn’t specific to the before and after conditions that were the focus of this post. Not everyone wants recirculating water (this is a LEEDS for Home house and that would be a no-no). Instead we have tankless water heater just a few feet from this location but there would still be some cold water to flush out of the pipes. We may or may not have a door – that’s really an owner driven item and not a design solution. Even so, the after design still work better should the door be removed from the equation.

      Yes, I have noticed our water shortage, thanks.

      • Jwkathol


        • I sounded a little irritated didn’t I? Whoops

      • kerry

        that is a consistent issue with LEED. to get points you don’t do what is right. and not just with this point. there are others that just don’t make sense, and there are numerous forums that rant about that topic in general. the pump for recirc hot water adds pennies to the operating cost with electrical usage yet is more sustainable because it does not waste water. tankless hot water heaters do not always perform and i know people that have had to take them out because they did not survive. as far as the door not being a design issue, i would not agree with that. a well designed shower does not need a door. and the owner should be given the design options to consider.
        and you did not sound irritated at all. just an honest response, as i hope you see this honest reply is. so no zing perceived nor intended.

        • Glad you didn’t take a tone in my response, it generally takes a lot to get my dander up and normally people’s responses are correct in the scope that I’ve divulged in the post. The door is a good example of that – I didn’t say that the owner wanted a door to the shower and without that information, things change.

          I am not a big fan of recirculating pumps, not because they add cost (most of the projects I get to work wouldn’t consider that an obstacle) it’s that they can sometimes be heard and some of our clients have complained about it – something that is incredibly difficult (and costly) to remedy after the fact.

          We are even looking at using a solar water heater, if so, which we would almost certainly recommend a recirculating pump in that instance.

          Keep the comments coming!

          That’s the positive and the negative about writing these sorts of posts, it’s easy to get off point in the comment section – even if they are good points.