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  • Writer's pictureBob Barnett

Design Decisions as Algebra

The design process for a new home, addition or remodel can be very long and complex. Essentially the process is a constant stream of decisions to be made. As architects, our job is to help clients with the decisions. In junior high algebra, we learned about variables and constants. Problems could be solved as long as there was the right mix of constants and variables. If there were only variables with no constants, algebra problems could not be solved - nor can design problems.

In the design process, budget, timeline, scope, material, form, and product represent a multitude of variables and a nearly infinite number of possible combinations. It is only when some of these variables become constants - or at least a range of options - that the design process can progress to a solution.

It is important to try to start with big decisions and work your way down to the details. As delicate as the subject of budget can be when first discussing a project, it is the most critical item to move from the variable column to the constant column and start to provide the parameters of the project. A zoning analysis can give you the build-able envelope which also helps to reign in on expansion options.

For even a simple family bathroom, the choices of products and finishes can be daunting: Two sinks or one? Tub, shower or both? Porcelain, marble, or glass tile? Chrome, nickel, rubbed bronze finishes? In our firm, we create a long spreadsheet of all the product decisions clients need to make which includes Design Criteria as a column. The main point of this spreadsheet is to have an exhaustive list of required product decisions and start to calculate the costs of the product. But, one other benefit it is also to check on consistency of choices made: if one porcelain product is white, the others should probably be white; if one plumbing faucet is rubbed bronze, the others should probably be as well. This also enables us to lock-down the product decisions that have moved from variables to constants. This enables clients to have much more direction in the process to be able to focus on remaining decisions. While there is no hard and fast rule with determining which products get decided first, I often suggest starting with one of the most prominent elements, say the vanity. Once the vanity is no longer a variable but a constant, it is much easier to pick the tile. Once both of these are determined, the sconce choice is easier to make.

Once all variables move to constants, the project design is complete.

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