Turning Challenges Into Opportunities

Have you ever had a truly uninspiring commission that made even vanilla ice cream seem exciting? How you overcome such challenges and turn them into opportunities, says as much about you as a designer as it does about the project, or even your client.

Early in my architectural career, I was given the assignment of developing a set of construction documents for a go-kart raceway. The client had a good idea of what he wanted, but needed someone to produce a set of working drawings and specifications for construction, and to obtain a building permit. Being the low man on the totem pole in our office at the time, I was given the project and told to “run with it.”

If million-dollar custom homes are at one end of the design spectrum, a go-kart raceway facility may well be at the complete opposite end. However, I was young and idealistic and committed to doing the most I could with this assignment.

First, I made it my mission to show the entire package of necessary documents on just two 24- by 36-in. sheets, knowing that most builders prefer everything on the drawings if possible. Floor plans, elevations, sections, details and schedules were on one sheet, while the site plan and specifications were on the other. There was very little white space left, but somehow I made it all fit.

My second ambition was to use the client’s predetermined low-cost building materials in the most creative ways I could. T-111 wood siding, asphalt shingles, roll-up garage doors and chain-link fencing became my palette; good design was my objective. I’m not sure if I successfully created a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but I sure gave it my best try.

I tell you this anecdotal story to illustrate the challenge that all architects face at some time in their careers when the client’s budget, scope, site restrictions, or parsimonious behavior make us want to toss the project in the wastebasket. In these moments, we somehow find a way to make the process exciting in spite of the obvious handicaps.

When there is an opportunity to use common materials in unusual ways, this might be the avenue we pursue. For example, one needs to look at Frank Gehry’s early residential works to see what can be creatively done with chain-link fencing and plywood. Likewise, several noted architects have developed wonderful house facades with corrugated metal siding and exposed fasteners. The limitations are more often a reflection of our own capabilities than the materials at hand.

If the program and appearance are predetermined by the client such that unconventional solutions are not a viable option, there may be the opportunity to hone one’s skills in the detailing effort. Alternatively, site development or circulation patterns may become inspirational factors that can add excitement to the design process. Writing a concise, well-coordinated set of specifications is a skill that needs constant attention to be perfect. And a fine set of specifications on one project could become the office master for future work.

We all should be so lucky to do interesting projects on a regular basis. However, when offers come along that don’t conform to our high creative standards, and there are bills that must be paid, we can find ways to take on these commissions and still make the most of them.

Skills must be polished in many areas if we are to remain at the top of our game. Concentrating on perfecting less obvious, but essential aspects of the process when more glamorous objectives can’t be achieved is one way to successfully move from challenges to opportunities in the design profession.