Is design ever ‘finished’?

Finish it by Pedro Travassos, on FlickrOne of the greatest challenges of architecture and design is the fact that there never seems to be enough time.

From student projects onwards there never seems to be enough time to finish designing, detailing and documenting everything about a project.  Essentially, almost every building or fitout is a prototype and to detail every single junction, item or assembly might mean we would never actually finish.  Couple that with the fact that as detailed design and documentation progresses, we may need go back and modify or redesign different parts or elements to improve them or accommodate engineering or product details or the inevitable new client requirement, and at times it feels like design can be a never ending cycle.  Then even as construction takes place, the built reality doesn’t match the ideal, or the contractor has alternative suggestions for products or details.  The client then moves in and the way the space is actually used may differ from their original intentions, or their organisation may have changed over the time the project has taken to come to fruition.  Generally, there  comes a point where further modifications to the the project stop. Its often because of limits, of programs, fee budgets or client expectations –  But does this mean the design was actually finished – can it be and should it be?

To many engineers, it seems that architects and interior designers are notorious for changing their minds and never finishing design.  While it is true that many architects and interior designers are indecisive or looking to constantly keep improving the design at the cost of program (or engineering), it is also just as true that many of these ‘design changes’ are driven by technical or functional requirements.  If the mechanical engineer hasn’t advised the architect of sufficient space they require for plant at the concept stage, the structure may have to change to adjust.  If the client has decided they really need to keep their Comms room onsite instead of using a data centre, then the Comms Room is certainly going to be getting bigger with all the flow on effects to services and other parts of the building that may have.  Many clients and engineers don’t realise that even the smallest of decisions on audio visual or appliances can have flow on effects to the sizes of whole rooms and hence the whole building.  An example is that a corridor with no door in it could be 1m wide, add a door and you might have to increase the width to 1.6m for wheelchairs.  Obviously as architects and designers we try to build some tolerances into our designs from the beginning but extra space gets quickly eaten up.

In every project there has to be points where certain decisions are frozen, and will only change for a significant reason.  Usually we label these points as client sign offs or reviews.  Points at which the client agrees to the design.  The challenge though is always about what level of detail the client signing off.  Unsurprisingly many clients like to leave their changes and decisions as open as possible as late as possible. Its not only the architect or designer that wants to keep their options open.  Even with defined milestones, some clients can be quite difficult about what they believe they have agreed to, particularly if they want design changes and don’t want to pay for them.  Its easier to blame the architect than to concede the client organisation has changed its mind about how they want a space to function.  On one project, we proposed a combined reception and breakout space, initially the client stakeholder group really liked the idea and the images presented.  Some time after signing off on the schematic design and well into our detailed design process, we were informed that the client did not want to proceed with this space.  They wanted a traditional separate reception area, and questioned why we would ever have thought a combined space was suitable.  We found out later that they had decided to temporarily move a different user group into the fitout, and my guess is that the head of the new user group didn’t like the concept.  Thats their choice, but why should we be the ones paying to go back to the drawing board so to speak?

Even without any need for significant client changes during design and documentation, there comes a point where contractors have to price a design and be appointed, and critically construction has to commence.  In an ideal world, the design should not actually be complete before the contractor is selected.  Contractors, and particularly the sub-contractors who are actually doing the work, have their own ideas and suggestions about construction.  These ideas can be a real asset to cost and buildability, as they are the ones that have to actually make it happen.  However, it is rare on larger scale projects (in my experience anything bigger than a single dwelling) or anything put out to competitive tender that this happens in a meaningful way – even on supposed design and construct projects.  Changes and questions inevitably seem to be last minute and often ‘value management’ happens without the input of the designer. Often only the head contractor has been appointed when the design is being finalised, and later the sub-contractors have their own suggestions.

During construction design still continues.  If we detailed every tiny piece of every project then construction documents would be ridiculously complex and would really never end.  Shop drawings and site instructions resolve the finer detail of design.  This phase tends to become the only opportunity for sub-contractor input to design changes.  Whilst we all dream on zero RFIs and variations, is this really a feasible reality?  I’d say not within our current documentation and procurement systems.

When the day of practical completion arrives and the client moves in, many clients think the design process is well and truly done.  However the best clients realise that as you inhabit your spaces you will understand it and realise things you didn’t see during the design process.  Almost everyone can relate to this through their own homes.  Did the furniture you thought of before you moved in suit the spaces in the way you pictured?  It’s the reason why many architects like to camp on a site, or live in their own unrenovated or under furnished homes before they make all the final design decisions.  Its a great idea for clients to save some of their design contingency to continue to work with their architect or designer in the months after they move in to undertake those additional little projects that can make that space just right.  Even with the best design and planning, organisational, technology and other forms of change mean that design should never be static – a building should never be considered finished ‘forever’.  Maybe the built elements are complete, but the lightweight furniture type elements will always need to change over time.

So I believe the answer is no – design is never ‘finished’.  But that shouldn’t mean that we avoid decisions or sign offs, whether by the designer or the client.  If we don’t say stop here and allow the team to move on, then the building will never be built.  In his book, Linchin, Seth Godin talks about the concept of ‘shipping’ which he defines as getting a project completed and out the door.  It is better to have something that is not perfect out there in the world than to have nothing at all.  To me, this is the ‘finished’ that we need to realise as architects and designers, otherwise we could still be working at 2am every day.  To quote Seth Godin “If you want to produce things on time and on budget, all you have to do is work until you run out of time or run out of money. Then ship.” Maybe its not quite that easy, but apparently the more we try the easier it gets.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “Finish it” (CC BY 2.0) by  Pedro Travassos 

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Acknowledgements: Image Credits: by Pedro Travassos
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