As part of my ongoing series of posts about being a small practitioner this one has to do with details.
This buzz phrase became popular in recent years, perhaps due to a book by Richard Carlson PhD titled “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” I never read the book; I’m not exactly sure the complete context of the original phrase. Nevertheless, I am guessing it has to do with the notion that it is possible that lesser important matters or the minutia of a situation can keep one from more important facets of life causing unnecessary stress.
Perhaps mundane particulars reduce efficiency, productivity or just the ability to get something done. That would be my surmise of the situation as it applies to being an architect. I understand the point, but in the life of a small practitioner we need to sweat the small stuff, we need to sweat the details. That’s partially what makes us architects.
Three things come to mind in the life of being an architect.
Projects are often inspired by details
It is not uncommon for a smaller portion of a project to be the overall genesis for the entire scheme. Maybe it’s an entrance or the primary corner or better yet a particular material. If this is the case, then that is the one thing that has to be right. People will notice. So when the napkin sketch develops into something that can be celebrated, architecture becomes memorable. Architects will often refer to these areas of a project as ‘moments.’
It is understood that every part of a building or space cannot have the same degree of richness. This allows for important intersections or primary spaces to have extra attention given to them.
The details to which I’m referring may not be the joining of materials, but the degree to which an overall concept is resolved in the actual execution of the work. Is there a consistent theme? Is the overall intention evident? Does it work?
Small projects demand good details
The scale at which people experience our work tends to be more intimate. Most of my projects are of a scale that the entire building can be seen without being in airplane or standing several hundred yards away. When people can see the details, when people can touch the details, it is easier to notice when they’re not detailed or constructed properly. Therefore, it is imperative for us to get this right.
To an architect, there is nothing better than seeing a corner or intersection that one has worked over many times, detailed, designed, revised and worked out in the field only for it to come together to make something that’s attractive, beautiful and well-crafted.
Rarely do small projects have large areas of repetitive materials or blank surfaces. One surface quickly intersects at a corner or other change in material. Those moments of change from one color or one material to another need to be well considered – especially when they’re within eye level.
Too costly to miss a detail
Missing details, regardless of the size of the project or the size of the office, can have financial impact that could be costly for an architecture firm. One might argue that the financial impact is proportional to the size of the firm. However, it seems to me that a costly mistake to the small practitioner could be far greater than for a large firm. Maybe I’m off base, so I will only talk about small firms.
Oftentimes when we are discussing details, we are not thinking of the physical aspects of a project but the management or intangible aspects. Whether we address our clients’ concerns, needs, questions or requests and integrate that into the project is of equal concern to the method in which we bring physical materials together. We manage information, we manage people. Even in this arena, there are details to sweat.
Smart professionals carry professional liability insurance for these situations, especially a large situation. But if there is a mistake, an oversight, ambiguity or some type of communication gap between the documents and the builder, then it is discovered or determined or assumed that the architect is involved, the cost to correct that could be devastating to small practitioner. The scale of the issue might warrant an insurance claim. Nevertheless, even a few thousand dollars to make the client happy or make your situation “go away” could really hurt the cash flow of small firm.
Therefore, we must sweat the small stuff.
I’ve always been a detail guy. This seems to be the common phrase people throw around when they are sending me compliments. To me it has been the part of architecture that I really enjoy the most. On rare occasions, I miss something. I can’t tell you how much that bothers me.
True, I enjoy conceiving the overall gesture, the grand move, parti or the narrative. Yet, what often makes architecture great is the degree to which details are resolved and then connected back to the overall theme.
Some adhere to the ten-foot rule. Does it look good from a distance?
I ask, does the project look good when standing up against it. Does it feel good? Well-crafted details bring joy and elevate architecture. They demonstrate the power of architecture has in our lives. Caring for details, any details make happy clients.
Next time someone says don’t sweat the small stuff, hear their point. Don’t be paralyzed by unnecessary items, but if you are an architect, it is very important to get the details right – go ahead sweat this small stuff.