People may think that an architect’s role is to come up with a design and drawings for their built project. This is certainly one tangible outcome of architectural service, the consequence of an involved design process. Beyond the outcomes, the design process is primarily a facilitated decision making process, using design thinking to arrive at the most appropriate outcome for the site and for an owner’s needs.
In instances where there are multiple households and multiple titles to consider, where the site is challenging or where there are specific constraints [such as retaining existing structures or significant trees], the best outcome for a built project is not going to be immediately apparent. There are always many solutions to the same problem, and the architectural design process is an open ended one, in that the best outcome is not assumed to be known at the start. Rather, the design process is a useful iterative process, which allows all parties to table relevant information, assess it, design a solution that responds to it, and repeat the cycle as required. Drawings and visualisations form a part of this work, and are a tool employed to describe an evolving solution, and to test that solution against a myriad of competing constraints, until a final, well considered design solution is reached.
To give a clearer insight into what this process practically involves, what follows is a dive into the Concept Design Stage of one of our projects. We were engaged to find a way to convert a 1930’s bungalow, centrally located on a large site, into a development that could accommodate at least two households – creating a beachside home for the owners as well as space for another household. The owner was also keen to retain the existing house, as well as a fruitful mature avocado tree, the northern garden space and a significant commissioned mural on the boundary wall.
The owner originally engaged The Henry Project as he thought this might be achieved all on one title, where a second dwelling could be planned for in the current upgrade to the existing dwelling, but only added at some stage in the future. After a careful concept design stage, the project has evolved into an entirely different form, in a manner that is better aligned with the owner’s needs and ambitions, and the constraints and opportunities of the site.
We began with a period of information gathering, starting with a client brief where the owners had the opportunity to download all the thinking they had done about the project to date, as well as being prompted to consider new aspects. Importantly, this step involved articulating the owner’s motivations (financial, emotional, personal, aesthetic etc) and intentions for the project. This step ensured we identified our client’s real needs, in order to pose the right questions through the design process.
Given the owner’s desire to retain the existing house, a structural engineer was engaged to assess the building, in particular if it could bear a first floor addition. An arborist was also engaged, to advise on the health and lifespan of the significant tree and how it would cope with construction work.
Worth noting is that this early information gathering also included conducting a scan of the property market in the area. It’s important to understand the different housing typologies in the market (eg, are these predominantly apartments or units or large family homes) and to get a clear sense of property values. This is an essential starting point, allowing us to work towards a clear understanding of what the final asset will be and its place in the property market.
The next step involved mapping out all the possible strategies for the site, in response to this initial information. These strategies included, but were not limited to, the one the owner originally had in mind. Rather than proceed down a single route, we broadly mapped out all the options which might be possible, reserving judgment about what was the ‘right’ or ‘best’ approach. We then broadly identified how each strategy met key factors of the client brief, (such as ability to retain existing dwelling and features) and other key considerations like difficulty of compliance with local government approvals, build costs, final asset value, ease of future sale, ability to stage the project if desired and so on.
Our next step was to take these broad strategies and test them against the advice of other professionals and consultants. This step acknowledged that as design professionals for the built environment, we are custodians of an outcome that requires expertise in many areas in order to come to successful fruition; we sought out this expertise as early as possible to assist our decision making.
In this instance, we spoke to several builders to understand how the different strategies would compare in terms of buildability and construction costs, and how the owner’s desire to retain the existing house would affect costs and construction methods. And we sought advice from a real estate agent to understand how the options compared in terms of ease of future sale, market demand for this type of product, final asset value and the impact of retaining the existing house on future sale prices.
Absorbing and synthesising this advice, we were then able to limit the strategies down to two, discarding options that did not make the most of the physical and economic opportunities of the site. Given the budget constraints, we offered ways in which these two options could be staged, and assessed how staging the work compared to building the two dwellings at once.
With these two strategies in hand, the owner sought further advice, this time from a financial advisor, about how to proceed.
After this process of designing and testing, the owner came back to us with a firm decision to build two new dwellings at once, whilst also incorporating as much of the existing structure as possible.
Again, it’s worth noting, this decision was a significant divergence from where the project started, which was essentially a renovation to a single dwelling with the potential to add another dwelling in the future. Careful consideration of all the assumptions that underpinned this starting point resulted in a different solution coming to light, which was better able to meet the owner’s needs.
Having reached this pivotal decision, we were then able to design a concept that gave form to all the priorities, ambitions and needs we had been discussing and coalescing in the preceding months. Budget considerations drove many of the decisions at this point, including the idea of leaving the ground floor existing dwelling intact as much as possible, with minimal additions only of an entry gallery and stairwell to each dwelling. The first floor was conceived as two north facing living ‘boxes’ placed over the existing structure, in a way that would simplify the construction method. An informal beachside attitude informed thinking around materials, use of space and connection to the outdoors.
This was the start of a Design Development Stage, where a similar iterative and collaborative process was pursued with the owners and a selected builder, to refine and develop the design in keeping with the owner’s needs and budget.
In describing this process it might seem that the decision making process is quite clear cut, or cerebral. This isn’t necessarily the case. Very often, decisions are still made quite intuitively or emotively. From an owner’s perspective, they might, for example, have an attachment to the existing house, and despite the evidence and consultation pointing to the fact that they might lose value by retaining it, that could still be their decision and a risk they are prepared to take. Likewise as architects, we collate and absorb all this information, and the act of giving form to these ambitions is intuitive and creative.
The design process then brings together many disciplines, and is a tool for critical thinking and decision making via drawing and a creative process. This thorough design thinking is the essential service for which clients can engage an architect, availing themselves of the skill and expertise to add value, appropriateness and longevity to their built projects.