Reaffirming Art, Science, and Attitude of Design/Build

by Maurice Levitch, AIA

Recently I had the opportunity to re-discover the benefits of design/build. As an Architect/Builder I guess I’m either spoiled or incompetent. I like to think the former. To be able to make on-the-fly design decisions at full scale comes naturally to me and most often leads to a successful project. It is like sculpture; where the sculpture (design/builder) is putting his or her hands to the actual piece that will be experienced by others, having the opportunity to fine tune the design at will as it is being created.

If it wasn’t for long lead-time order items such as windows and doors there would be no problem with this method at all. As it is, however, we push ourselves and our clients into making design decisions while our minds are focused on trying to get approval from the client, the City, and the neighbors, all the while making sure we are paid and the client is trying to find the money for the project at the same time as being possibly possessed with trying to find just the right faucet for the Master Bath. An early decision on a window order that gets confirmed two months before the start of construction is a mistake waiting to happen.

Of course, if there is not enough forethought put into decisions that will have to be made later then it is harder to make the decision quickly, on-site, while the crew is awaiting directions. For example, I thought my client was putting too much time into finding the right window product while we were in preliminary design, but it turns out that the early education was helpful because immediately after demolition, we erected a full size mock-up of an 8’ x 10’ window opening facing out to the bay. We found that we grew it to 9’ x 12’. All we needed to do was tweak the window order slightly and we were on our way for a twelve-week lead-time order. With a quick phone call to the supplier and my clients’ on-the spot acceptance we turned the mock-up into permanent framing and went on with the project.

Even with the decision made, and the window and door order in hand awaiting final approval, there were still many earlier decisions to make and/or re-check, such as glass type, tempering, hardware style and color, type of operation, color of screen, handing and swing for the doors as well as whether there would be a key in the lock or not and if the screen mesh type and frame color was called out correctly.

Not every decision process is so intense but nowhere is there such an opportunity to sculpt the space “live” as there is when you have the opportunity to work with windows and space in a major remodel such as this one.

I ask myself whether I and my client should be able to visualize space, windows, and other details on a computer screen, a 3-D model (cardboard or computer) or on a 2-D drawing (at a scale of ¼” equaling 1 foot) and really understand the light quality, volume, height, view corridors and other aspects of the final space. Am I incompetent? Should I just get the clients to trust me and make the final call? I believe it comes down to knowing what decisions need to be made early and what decisions you need to leave for later. I believe good designers create under a certain amount of pressure with a creative burst. Whether it is fifteen minutes before a design meeting or just before the window guy is going on vacation, we know how to get things done and done right. I swear with each project that this will be the one when all the windows and doors come in correctly as ordered and that the client and I will love them once they are in. Maybe this is the one!

This article was originally published in the September 2007 issue of Builder/Architect magazine.