There are 4 essential elements to judge a house and its design. The rest is subjective. Unfortunately an Instagram post forgot this and got nasty instead.
This past week, I watched something interesting unfold for one of the people I follow on Instagram.
@adesignersmind has over 220,000 followers and posts photos relating to building design, interior design, furniture, lighting, accessories and “anything else that takes my fancy.” And this week, he posted this photo, with the caption “The dark façade with white details really makes this pop” and included credits for the designer and interior designer/stylist:
On Alex Urena Design Studio’s website, (the designer) this project is described as:
“Placed on a corner block with great ocean views, the existing house needed to improve its relation with the surroundings and views as well as an overall change of external looks. Originally a split level home, the renovations included an additional level at the top. The final result is a warmer looking beach house with natural finishes like timber and stone.”
Everyone’s an expert …
What followed was a series of comments and lots of opinions. Not all very kind. Nest Emporium defended the project, and another user spoke negatively (very) of it, whilst defending their right to do so because it had been posted in a public forum. Alexa Urena popped in to express gratitude for the support and coverage. Others waged in with their determination of what made it a successful project. The hashtag ‘mediocrity’ was used (can you imagine searching for all things hashtagged ‘mediocrity’?). Interesting, to say the least.
Later, @adesignersmind posted a reply with an additional image of the project (the one at the top of this blog), which said this (I’m copying this directly from Instagram):
“OK, so the previous pic of this project by @alexurenadesignstudio appears to have started something which I don’t want to get nasty. To @nestemporium, it’s always difficult to hear negative comments about a project that you have put so much effort into. It’s important to remember that everyone has an opinion on design & it doesn’t always match up with our own. From what this project started out as, & to what it has become, is a result that you should be very proud of!
To @philthy1985 [the most vocal opposing voice], this project is not of the style I would usually post however if you have a look at the before pic of this project in the feed of @alexaurenadesignstudio, the improvement in the design has been increased a hundred-fold. Aesthetically, it also improves the surrounding community. I always like to give support to others & this post (and feed in general) is an example of that. I would never let anyone not voice their thoughts on a post.
A very diplomatic response I’ll admit, but this is my opinion.”
Another way of looking at it …
It begs the question – what makes a home successful as a design? And what is the framework we can use to judge whether or not a home is a success?
It’s a big question – and honestly, it’s the premise on which Undercover Architect is based.
I believe that there is an objective framework, and the way that we currently judge our homes doesn’t tap into it effectively (because we use a subjective one), and hence we’re missing out on accessing the fundamentals that REALLY make the difference to our homes.
Ultimately, these are the core elements that make our homes great places to live, facilitate us living our best lives, and offer the same to those in the streets, neighbourhoods and communities in which our homes are situated.
So Undercover Architect’s mission (and my mission through it!) is to unlock this:
What are the core elements that make a home great? And then how you can recognise it, choose it, ask for it, or create it. That’s what this whole website is about, and the products and services I offer alongside it. So that everyone has the opportunity to create a home that helps them live their best life.
Do nothing – that’s the only alternative
But back to instagram and that comment stream.
In his book, “John North Willys”, Elbert Hubbard wrote “Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing, and you’ll never be criticised.”
So whilst you’re doing something, you open yourself to criticism. It’s just a given. And creating and building a new home or renovation is a fairly public declaration of ‘doing something’. Then photographing it, and publishing those photographs … well, more of ‘doing something’. So it stands to reason that the criticism will ensue. Don’t worry – the fact that you put yourself out there doesn’t make it any easier to hear the criticism you’ll receive. It just helps to remember when you’re in the thick of it that the alternative is doing nothing – because that’s the only way you remove that opportunity for criticism. And often, those slinging the strongest criticism are doing just that … nothing.
It’s a matter of taste
When I heard Kevin McCloud speak at Grand Designs Live, he spoke about the judgement levelled at people’s homes, and made this interesting point … So much of what we judge in a home is about taste. The thing is, your taste is not my taste. And my taste is not the same as it was 10 years ago.
When we judge something from this position of taste, what we are actually saying is “I like this”, or “I don’t like this”, or “It’s not for me”.
Now, working out what we do, and don’t like or love, is important when we are creating our own home, because it helps direct and tailor our choices and decisions accordingly. And what we don’t like informs that as much as what we do like. So it’s an important assessment to make … when you’re about to buy, build, renovate or create your new home.
However, when you’re just expressing and opinion on a home you see? Well, it’s not the best framework of judgement. This judgement is an aesthetic one, and its incredibly subjective.
Aesthetics is defined as “a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
Taste and appreciation … I like it, or I don’t like it. It’s for me, or it’s not for me. This is about your individual preference … not a statement of fact.
A better way to judge a house?
So how SHOULD we judge a home? And determine its success?
One comment on the instagram feed stated that “if the clients were happy with it, then that’s all that mattered.”
Well, yes, given they paid for it, their happiness is useful and important in the overall determination of the project. However, the clients will also be judging inside an objective AND a subjective framework. The subjective framework will be an aesthetic one … “This is for me, I like it”.
However, it’s the objective framework I really want to help you understand, and then start to use yourself.
To go back to Kevin’s talk, he had a great way of summarising this objective framework succinctly, and he did it in defence of the sometimes-scathing criticism he gives of the projects (and their owners) on Grand Designs.
The two elements on which he judges whether a project is successful or not are these:
Quality of design
Quality of execution
Design in this instance is not about aesthetics. Design here goes back to the core elements. Here’s a quick history lesson.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, was a 1st century BC Roman author, architect and engineer. He wrote a multi-volume book “De architectura” (On architecture), which is considered one of the most important writings on Roman Architecture, and it was the first time that serious architectural theory regarding design was written about. His writing on the importance of human geometry and ergonomics in design is what Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian man (done in the late 1400s) was based on (see image below – does it look familiar?). Vitruvius established that a structure/building must meet three qualities of Firmitas, Utilitas et Venustas. These have various English translations, which are outlined as follows:
- Utilitas: Commodity, or usefulness – The functionality of the design. Is it useful to all? How?
- Firmitas: Firmness, or sturdiness – The structural durability of the design. Is the design durable? Are the materials durable? Does the structure perform?
- Venustas: Delight, or beauty – The beauty of a design, assessed using the design principles (contrast, harmony, proportion, etc).
So why should we listen to Vitruvius?
Well, this is THE theory that has been taught in architecture since that time.
I can’t emphasise how relevant this framework is to design teaching throughout history. And interestingly, in 1999, the Construction Industry Council, UK, established a measure called the “Design Quality Indicator” (DQI), which uses these three principles as a recognised assessment tool on public buildings in the UK.
The action to establish the DQI was in reaction to the poor quality design in buildings, and it was backed by several government authorities and the architectural and construction industry. It took four years to develop, and later, in 2006, it was introduced in the USA.
It’s been used on over 1,400 projects in 11 years … these are public projects … hospitals, schools, libraries. That is a phenomenal figure. AND it uses a modern day interpretation of the Vitruvian principles as the basis of its assessment framework:
- Functionality (utilitas) – the arrangement, quality and interrelationship of spaces and how the building is designed to be useful to all.
- Build Quality (firmitas) – the engineering performance of the building, which includes structural stability and the integration, safety and robustness of the systems, finishes and fittings.
- Impact (venustas) – the building’s ability to create a sense of place and have a positive effect on the local community and environment.
Kevin cited these as the 3 principles to judge “Quality of Design” and he added a 4th – sustainability. Not just environmental, but the triple-bottom line approach to sustainability : environment, financial and social – which is true sustainability.
What about Quality of Execution?
The judgement of this comes down to craftsmanship. This is about the well-made thing that we can touch and feel and see has been lovingly, and carefully put together, with care and intention. Now, most of us know very well how to recognise that – that one is pretty straight-forward.
See, with these two elements or fundamentals: Quality of Design and Quality of Execution … it is possible to not like something, but we can still admire it. That’s what judgement should be about – our admiration and respect of a job well done, not our individual inclination or preference.
Now it’s your turn …
So, next time you’re flicking through a magazine, or looking at the neighbour’s new home or renovation and you go to express your opinion, ask yourself this …
Is it well-designed?
Is it well-made?
Everything else is a matter of taste. I like it, or I don’t like it.
I won’t apologise for championing quality in these two elements – design and execution – and neither should you.
These are what makes a house – a home – work. Recognise it, choose it, ask for it and create it, and it will serve you in living your best life always.