The Devil is in ‘ignoring’ the detail

  • Building Design Expert
  • 5 years ago

Drummers are notorious for hanging around with musicians; any guitarist knows that one. I spoke with a young hanger-on recently whose insightful comment struck more serious chord. He said that whilst his drums spoke in one language, the guitarist would speak in a quite different one. He said, if only we could get them to understand one another that would be a recipe for writing a perfect song. Perfection is of course many different things to many different people, in which case it is probably questionable as to whether such coincidence would communicate an idea.

It doesn’t much matter whether the designer is drummer or guitarist, it’s the end product that matters not the journey it’s had to get there, say the pragmatists. The purists might disagree espousing the importance of the journey having passed every notable landmark to ensure every high street and avenue has been explored, recorded and assessed.

So perhaps we should marvel that anything gets built at all. But of course the exploration could take months, or it could take a few minutes, depending on the nature of the design. Olympic village master plan, or handrail / newel detail? The two are worlds apart in design terms, but embrace a commonality that in the wrong hands would have a disastrous outcome.

So the reconciliation of a building that is professionally designed, but only from the outside, becomes ‘uphill’ in real construction terms.

Mr Paxman was as qualified and experienced an architect as they come, but for some reason he had left this particular new build mansion to a jobbing builder who had reached the end of his trowel. The client still had time for her family architect – “Mr Paxman doesn’t do the insides of buildings, he only designs the outside”. The problem was that the inside had no chance of coordinating with that ‘outside’. A re-plan, and a further planning application later and we were back on the bus, albeit still with a basket of unnecessary compromises, and a limited stop ticket.

A little while later, just when you would think it was safe to start catching buses again, well, there was this care home: To cut to the quick, it was quite the same story. A building that has planning permission – different architect this time – but could not have been built in it’s approved form.

So how does that happen? Fully qualified and experienced professionals produce design drawings for buildings that cannot actually be constructed to that design. The first mistake, if only the client knew it, was an appointment that extended to design drawings for planning permission only. After all it’s not the planners job to assess the buildability; they trust, as does the client, that a competent professional will design a structure, a building, an environment that can exist beyond the drawing sheet.

How hard can it be? You determine a wall is required to partition a space two stories up. Is that wall also required to support the roof, or another part of the structure? In which case what supports that wall? – So, well yes, actually it can be very hard. Designing buildings is not an easy profession by any means, unless of course you have built up a wealth of experience, having made a few mistakes along the way, and learned that there are certain protocols to follow during the design process. Then it is never easy, just easier.

So what are some of these protocols?

1. Always understand how the building design is going to work cohesively. – That doesn’t mean you have to know the size of every beam, column and wall thickness, but it does mean that you need to know, or least have an idea of how each element will rely upon its neighbour for support, strength and stability.
2. Know your construction method from the outset. – Perhaps an obvious statement, but knowing that a certain building type is better suited to a concrete frame, rather than a steel, or timber frame, will help resolve layout and design / construction details far quicker.
3. Your best design solution is not necessarily your first, although it could be. As long as you have looked at the available options. – Recognising and assessing the validity of an option is a skill in itself, if you cannot recognise an option when it’s staring you in the face, the next time you may notice it is after it has bitten you on the bum!
4. Detail design should not dominate your thinking until you have mapped out the bigger picture. – It will be much more time efficient to draft out the whole design and come back what may turn out to be a signature detail, than let that detail dictate and possibly compromise the building as a whole.
5. If it has taken as much time to resolve a single detail as it has to layout the whole building, then perhaps you need to reconsider whether that detail is the right one. – “Keep it simple stupid – KISS” is very often good advice.

I have so often heard said that some “building extensions design themselves”. Of course it cannot possibly be true. It will seem like that to someone who has designed many many extensions, to may different types of building. A comprehensive understanding of the original building; how it was constructed, and using what materials is the bare minimum before starting down that road.

You may have heard your granny say that the “devil is in the detail”. Ignore it at your peril.


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