Constraints: putting the Grand into Design

28 Jul 2015

Last night I watched the first episode of season 15 of Grand Designs, 'Living in the City'. It's a 'flashback' episode where they look back over fifteen years of spectacular architecture and focus on what makes these ambitious, beautiful, and frequently tiny city dwellings a work of art.

Usually this is where I'd have a whinge about flashback episodes being a sign of either lazy writing or budget cuts. Not this time. Instead I was transfixed by a realisation that could only have come with the comparison of a cohort of similar builds.

These incredible city dwellings are truly grand designs not in spite of their constraints, but because of them.

Grand Designs - The Derelict Water TowerOf course there were some designs that were simply out of control - the guys who'd decided to build a house out of an abandonded 100ft heritage-listed water tower, for example. It's impressive mostly for the utterly unique vision which allowed it to come into being. It's also an example of rampant excess. Costing millions of pounds more than budgeted, the end result is not one that not many of us would aspire to. It's too big, too excessive. Too grand.

But the primary reason why it fails to resonate is that unlike so many of the other properties featured on the show, the owners didn't feel compelled to stay within the natural constraints of the project. When presented with the problem of fitting kitchens and bathrooms into a narrow tall building, their solution was to simply build another building. An attractive building, one most of us would be content with as a primary home, but the result is a devaluation of the tower itself. It becomes little more than a vertical entry way to a lofty and impractical lounge room. A tree-house writ large.

Which is probably why they had to knock £2 Million off their asking price after being on the market for months with no interest.

To my mind, the houses which attract most strongly are those where the builders had both an uncompromising vision and an immovable constraint. It's at the intersection of these two seemingly impassable contradictions that true genius occurs.

Fourteen years ago, Kevin McCloud visited a build called 'The Jewel Box' where a young couple wanted to build a home on a long narrow block that used to be a mechanic's workshop. It needed to incorporate their lives and both of their individual business studios. The result was a spectacular, simple, beautiful home with perfectly matched purpose and design. But that building would never have come to be without the constraints imposed by the awkwardly shaped block.

The constraint in the UK is frequently that of space, with home builders needing to explore below-ground options or extreme space-saving measures. Often it's budget, where the decision to upsize or overspend is taken out of their hands. Sometimes it's the unwavering internal pressure to create a building with a singular goal - a passion for a material, an aesthetic, or an ideology.

But the end result is always the same, buildings of awe-inspiring beauty and vision that would never have come into existence without the constraints that the vision itself imposed.

it's the same in our line of work

Without constraints we have hodgepodge layouts and pages that lack focus and coherence.

  • If you have a strict word limit you will find the most efficient means of communicating your intent
  • If you only have a single page to work with, you will prioritise your most important goals
  • If you can only use one font, you will spend more time finding the perfect typeface for your needs

By aligning your goals with constraints you provide fertile ground for the creative side of buisness-building to occur.

Kelsey Brookes

Ex opera singer turned messaging consultant, I position clients through evocative content, craft their user's journey in code and make sure all our technical ducks are in a row.

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