I went back to work today. I suppose to clarify that a bit more, I physically I went back to work and sat at my desk for the first time since March 13th, 2020. Was it weird? Yeah … it was a bit like coming back to school after the summer break. Everything was familiar but it didn’t feel quite right but it didn’t feel wrong either – it was a bit like wondering if I was going to get a swirly in the toilet by an upper-classman but then realizing that I was the upper-classman.
… except there weren’t any Freshman to be found.
We are currently allowed to populate our office with 25% of our staff so the leadership group decided that they would be the first ones back in the office before we started asking everyone else to come back in. In the area where I sit there – just because of the way things worked out – there were only 4 people whereas there are normally around 65 people. I rolled in around 7:45 am to get my temperature checked and I was ready to go by 8:00 am. I think I was one of the last people to leave (around 7:00 pm) and I am sitting at my WFH desk writing this blog post (some things never change).
As I thought about what I wanted to talk about, it became pretty obvious that I should talk about how my design process changed over the last 9 weeks. I typically sketch through my ideas – a process that has remained steadfast over the entirety of my career – but I think we can agree that due to the corona-virus and the isolation mandates that we are definitely in uncharted waters. No longer could I easily print out large format drawings to draw upon. I don’t think I’m lazy, I could have popped into the office and printed some stuff out, but I decided to take this time to work on my design process so that it could align more closely with how things work in my new office.
So that’s what I’m talking about today – an all-digital process.
Over the last nine weeks, I have worked the majority of my time on teams tasked with designing three projects; there as a 250,000 square foot office building as part of an 85-acre masterplan project, a 285,000 square foot office building as part of a request for proposal, and the project I will show today – a 35,000 square foot owner-occupied jewelry box of a project.
There are 4 designers on this project and we are each exploring our own ideas while collaborating heavily with one-another with frequent critiques and online presentations. Each of the diagrams above represents one of the concepts we are exploring (mine is scheme 03) and in our first presentation to the client, this is as much architecture as we showed them. We spent the majority of our time discussing the parameters and considerations associated with the project site, how each of these schemes would be placed on the site, and how we would distribute the programming throughout each building mass.
We were actually much further along in the process but there is only so much information we want to present – and ask the client to consider and digest – in a single meeting.
The graphic above is the programming for the project that has been prepared giving size and mass to each space. At this point, we get to go through a process where we identify room adjacencies, flow and circulation, and explain the base concepts for how these spaces work within each of the 4 concept massing diagrams shown previously. Normally I would hand sketch this portion of the design process rather than attempt to “Tetris” all these blocks into some form and shape that makes sense.
I’m the one who made these programming blocks by taking the square footage associated with each space and determining how the width and length work out when some sort of structural module is taken into consideration. Basically, I knew that the building would work on a 5′ planning grid and the structure would fall in line with columns at 30′ spacing (approximately).
I will admit that doing this portion of the project was incredibly frustrating and painful for me – I felt like I could get to where I wanted to get a lot faster if I could just use pen and paper … but then I would have to come back behind and go through the process of creating that information digitally, so why not try and skip that analog step?
That was the goal.
[most of these images will open much larger when clicked so feel free to knock yourself out with the clicking]
For fun – at least I hope it’s interesting – I thought I would share the elevations that I have been developing over the last week. Our meeting with the client isn’t for a few days so you are getting a chance to see this even before they are … I doubt they read this website anyways. I will keep the plans to myself for now despite the fact that these elevations would be a look easier to understand if you could marry them up with the floor plans.
Of well – you can’t win all the time.
I was speaking with one of the partners at my office (Andrew Bennett) and maybe it’s because we are basically the same age, and we both graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, so presumably we were taught to think in a similar manner, that we both design in 2-dimensional elevations as part of our core process. All the work I have been preparing is done in SketchUp and even though I work in perspective 99% of the time, I routinely flip back and forth to study my massing in elevation. Vertical alignments, horizontal alignments – easy things to review in 2d, easy things to miss when in perspective.
When you design on a grid – or a predetermined module – elevations can come together fairly quickly assuming that you’ve already applied your design rigor during the planning and floor plan design. This period of the design process is one of my most favorites because you are rewarded for slavishly working out your plans and your sense of scale and proportion (hallmarks of any designer work their salt) are on display. You may not like this sort of design but I think you would be hard-pressed to say that any portion of it is out of scale.
This project has been a lot of fun so far, and like any fun design project, there are always a few moments of discovery and whimsy that introduce themselves during rigor of the floor plan design. This project has two exaggerated light monitors that align with long viewing corridors, which also act as way-finding devices both within the building, and for the project on the whole. This project has highway frontage and is situated on three sides by dense foliage and a “sometimes-active” waterway – and these light monitors will accentuate those moments when you see (and hopefully “experience”) the building from some distance. This is a 10-acre site but the buildable area is just over 3-acres so we will make the most of the space we have to work upon.
There are actually so many moving parts to this project that I won’t even try to explain them here but with the exception of a few -albeit important – considerations, this plan works and I know that this would be an amazing building for the community or people who will engage and use it … but will this be the one that the clients chose to pursue?
I doubt it.
This is a fairly clean – and therefore modern – building and its nuances don’t come from complicated forms and gestures, but rather the lack of those gestures. In almost all the projects I have been able to design in a vacuum – which this one certainly qualifies – the scale and proportion, along with the user narrative, is what will make this project a success … but those are fairly nuanced things to ask people to understand and unlike the residential work I’ve taken on in the past, we most likely won’t spend more than 15-20 minutes maximum going through this particular scheme. If someone sees something that they don’t like – or understand – they’ll silo this into the “next” category.
That and the other 3-schemes are also fairly brilliant.
I have been tweaking these plans and elevations for the last 5 days – flipping between plan and elevations constantly. A push here, a pull there – constantly fighting for alignments between openings and massing. These things matter to me and like I mentioned are fairly nuanced for someone to appreciate in 15-20 minutes when they don’t read drawings for a living.
But that’s okay because while I designed this project, the ideas and conversations that come out of this process will help guide and inform not only the client’s knowledge but also the design team’s idea of what is worth considering. It could facilitate a conversation on the use of light, how vertical discovery occurs, how people not only enter the project site but enter the building.
At its essence, that is the value and benefit of collaborating with design teammates. Just like our time in school, the work of others helps shape what and how we solve problems.
Up until this point, I have purposely kept the images generated directly within SketchUp rough and loose. For the purpose of our conversation, I wanted to force you to attempt to figure out what was happening. The first images were an exploration into alignments and proportions – but I felt like I should reward those of you who have stuck with me this far and let you take a cleaner look at the building I’ve been designing the last few days. These images were all directly rendered from the Enscape plugin within SketchUp with no post-production work whatsoever (other than resizing images).
Our next meeting with the client will be this coming Friday and there is still a lot of work to do. These models need to be populated with “kids with balloons” – a phrase my buddy Andrew Bennett used today that I will use as my own moving forward. All the little things that could help the clients understand what they are looking at is crucial at this stage. Not only to help them understand how the bazillion moving parts of their program have come together but in my own self-serving way of hoping that this is one of the schemes they select to advance on to the next phase of design.
I will have to start thinking in far greater detail on the materiality of this building before my next meeting – that will undoubtedly go a long way towards softening the appearance of this building but I think I am up to the challenge … that and I have three other teammates who I know would be willing to tell me what they think.
Stay safe and keep it together,