In Architecture, Your Beginner’s Mind is Only for the Beginning

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki   

Shunryu Suzuki taught his American followers that the proper attitude for the practice of Zen Buddhism is to “always keep your beginner’s mind.”  This is a wonderful approach to life, and it is a great approach for the early phases of design.  However, this is a horrible approach for the practice of architecture during the Construction Documents phase.

An open mind, a “beginner’s mind,” is almost always appropriate when you’re coming up with general solutions to a design puzzle, but by the time you get to the Construction Documents phase, you need to be thinking like an expert.  If you aren’t an expert, you need to get one.  You need a technically-minded person on your team, and you need to listen to what that technically-minded person tells you, even though what this expert says will probably limit your possibilities

Unless you have an Owner who has given you explicit instructions to get innovative with details and assemblies, and who has a big budget for design and a big budget for construction, you need to be using details and assemblies that have been proven and tested.  Unless the Owner has explicitly instructed you to do innovative detailing, and to design custom assemblies, you need to be using standard assemblies, and manufacturers’ recommended detailing.  If you must innovate even though you have not been given instruction to do so by your client, make sure you’ve wrapped up your imaginative thinking by the time Construction Documents phase starts, or your firm and your client may develop project budget problems. 

Get innovative with WHERE you put your windows, during Schematic Design.  Don’t get innovative with HOW YOU FLASH your windows – they might leak.  Get innovative with LOCATING your big skylight, during Schematic Design.  Don’t design a skylight assembly from scratch during Construction Documents – there are manufacturer-designed assemblies that will produce the same desired results, the same feeling for the users of the space.  Get innovative with the APPEARANCE of your roofs, but DO NOT get creative with how you detail the transitions from roof to wall.

Don’t detail one manufacturer’s glazing product to be framed by another manufacturer’s framing product if doing that will void the warranties.  Don’t detail construction products in uses for which they were not designed – more often than not, that will void the warranties.  

You can’t just make up construction details.  You just can’t (unless this is what the Owner is expecting, AND your fees will allow you to spend the time to research constructability, durability, transitions to other materials etc. – in other words, your fees will allow you to fully design innovative assemblies.)

If you are inappropriately “creative” during the Construction Documents phase, you are likely to end up drawing building elements that will either be 1) unbuildable, 2) unwarrantable, or 3) very, very expensive, since the Contractor will have to hire his own design professional to design a warrantable, buildable assembly to look like what you schematically designed during Construction Documents phase.

On many medium-construction-budget projects over the years, I have seen the architect’s favorite design element, the thing the firm spent lots of time working on, cut from the project because it was too expensive, or because it wasn’t detailed in a way that anyone could build it.  The time spent designing that “signature element” should have been spent on other things – the things the Owner was expecting it to be spent on – verification of compliance with building codes, development of construction details for the rest of the building, coordination between the architectural and engineering disciplines, coordination between the drawings and the specifications.

Many architects were taught in school to “push the limits” of design.  Many architects today think they’re not doing their jobs right unless they constantly try to “innovate.”  Sometimes, this is not what an Owner wants.  Please provide the service that your client wants.  If an Owner has a small budget for design and construction, do not waste your time trying to convince them to accept innovative detailing and custom assemblies, unless you can actually afford to fully design these assemblies within the fee the Owner is paying you, and the Owner can actually afford to pay for them to be constructed.

There are infinite good design possibilities using standard assemblies and standard products.  Standard assemblies, and well-detailed transitions, are more likely to stand the test of time.  Keep your “beginner’s mind“ in the early design phases, but operate like an expert during the Construction Documents phase.  Even though it may feel as if it limits your possibilities, it’s the right way to work.

7 thoughts on “In Architecture, Your Beginner’s Mind is Only for the Beginning

  1. I agree completely, Liz. Especially with the following:

    “The time spent designing that “signature element” should have been spent on other things – the things the Owner was expecting it to be spent on – verification of compliance with building codes, development of construction details for the rest of the building, coordination between the architectural and engineering disciplines, coordination between the drawings and the specifications.”

    This refinement, rewriting, double-checking, and debugging improves the quality and clarity of construction documents. It defines professionalism. It demonstrates a designer’s respect for owners and for builders.

  2. In some architects that desire to innovate to the end is hard wired. And the idea of using standard detailing and getting personal advice from a manufacturer rep is almost painful.

    The practiced alternative to innovative detailing is to do no details at all. And the CA budget goes out the proverbial window as everyone argues how to make it work.

    • Dave, I love your choice of words, “The practiced alternative…”

      The “no details” alternative even happens when the people doing Construction Documents are the same people who will be doing Construction Contract Administration, and they know what they’re doing to themselves.

      I know how it feels, to be at the end of CD phase and to just want to be DONE, and leave some things for the next phase. But it’s not good practice. It’s not like architecture school, where, once you hit your final drawing deadline, that project was OVER. In the real world, it’s not over until it’s BUILT.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s