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Different designers have different working styles. Some take the let’s-go-for-it approach, and their initial sketches are surprisingly detailed and worked out. Many designers, however, take it one step at a time. Their early sketches are abstract, typically rough pencil jottings meant to suggest an approach that is not so much visual as intellectual.
If your architect begins with rough drawings, you will see little sense of style, dimension, or even shape but will be asked to think about the doodles as representing in a thematic way the nature of the space you are building the traffic patterns through it, and the relationships of the spaces within to one another. On the other hand, if the paperwork you gave your designer clearly spells out your desires, he may arrive with drawings that are recognizable as floor plans and even elevation drawings and perspectives. Then the discussion can focus in on the details much sooner.
Whatever his or her approach, your designer will probably want to sit down and review the early plans with you. The designer-architect will explain his intent in executing the design as he has, and discuss with you any reactions you have.
If you’ve given him your sketches or notes, what he gives back to you should be familiar. If at first you don’t see in his drawings what you expected to see, focus on what is different. Is the designer’s vision better in some ways but not in others? Ask your architect to explain to you his rationale for what he has done.
In part, the point here is to be open-minded. You must give your designer the opportunity to respond to the task you’ve assigned her. Pay her the courtesy of listening to her as she did you. Your architect will have taken your materials and will have absorbed what you said. She will have applied her own training, experience, and instincts. Even if at first you don’t like what she has done, give it a chance.
It is also very important to inquire about anything you don’t understand.
THE PRELIMINARY SKETCHES
These should probably look familiar to you. You’ll see elements from your existing house you recognize. Even the new parts should, at least in part, reflect your ideas and wishes. If the first sketches do not look like what you were seeing in your mind’s eye, try to look through whatever details of finish that the designer has contributed. Do you see the same shapes and relationships you discussed earlier? If there has been a major departure, ask why.
Ask yourself if the design answers your needs: If not, say so.
It’s a good idea for you to live with a set of the preliminary sketches for a day or two before giving your designer your formal response. Have others in your household study them, too. The architect or designer will no doubt take notes on your reactions as he shows them to you and as you express concerns about the size of this or the absence of that. However, almost invariably your response a day or two later is more reasoned, thoughtful, and complete than at the moment you are first confronted with new shapes and thoughts and visions.
It creates headaches for everybody to have friends or relatives kibitzing (“I wouldn’t do it that way if I were you.”), but if you are not confident of your feelings about how the plan is emerging, you may wish to involve one outsider whose tastes are compatible with your own. Take care not to let that person dominate you. It is, after all, your house that is to be renovated.
When you do discuss things with your designer, have written notes to guide you. An elaborately typed and phrased letter is unnecessary, but having a carefully assembled list is important. That way you won’t forget something, and you will have an idea of the number of issues you are raising. You may even discover before you talk with the architect that there is a pattern to the problems so that one general overall comment can be made that covers a number of smaller issues.
Be candid with your architect. Don’t get personal if you really dislike something, but be frank to say it doesn’t work for you. If it doesn’t work at all, say so, but at the same time be sure your response is a fair one. Just because it isn’t what you expected doesn’t mean it’s bad. It could be better than your original notion—after all, you have hired a professional to do the best job she can, and maybe with her training and experience she can see things you could not. Give the drawings fair consideration.
Be as articulate as you can about why you’re not satisfied. The more specific you can be about your objections, the more likely it is that he will be able to make the changes you want in the next set of plans.
As you consider the plans, think about the lives and schedules and habits of the people who will be living there. Imagine yourself in each doorway, seated in every corner. What do you see, in the room, out the windows, looking down the hallways?
Oh, and one other thing: If you do like what you see, don’t hesitate to say so. Designers like approval just as much as other people.
How many sets of plans will you see? The earliest drawings will be the most generalized and are as much for discussion as anything. It may take one or many sets of rough sketches before you are satisfied with the direction the building is going. But once you are confident with the overall approach, it’s time to go on to preliminary plans.
If you see several sets of preliminary plans, each set should have more detail than the last and should incorporate the changes you discussed in the previous versions. However, before the preliminary plans give way to the final plans and specifications you should get your architect’s best estimates of the total cost. It is never too early to talk about budget (construction budget rather than design fee), as your architect should know from your first session what your financial range is. But at this point it is realistic to get specific about costs.
By this stage, the “working systems”—the electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems—enter the picture. Specific materials, too, are useful at this point. Doors, windows, wall coverings, and so on factor in here. It is also at this stage (if you are putting on a major addition) for your architect to prepare “outline specs” (preliminary listings of materials and instructions used for purposes of estimating).
Some clients or architects will ask a contractor to join in at this stage. A contractor can be useful at this time for estimating purposes. In addition, he may be able to offer some hands-on solutions from personal experience to certain problems, solutions that your architect might not offer.
A last act you should perform before instructing the architect/designer to go off and execute the final plans is to study the last set of preliminary plans one room at a time. Be sure you understand what is being done for you. If you get a sketch from your architect and you aren’t sure what that 8-by-12-foot bedroom he has drawn really is like, measure a similar room or rooms in your house to get a sense of what it would be like enlarged or shrunken to 8-by-12.
Ceiling heights, too, should be seen and not merely imagined. If you are considering a towering 20-foot ceiling, find one and experience it. You may discover that 12 feet is just as dramatic, or that the floor space in the room you are planning is dwarfed and you feel like you’re in an upended shoe box rather than a palace.
Make sure your furniture fits. Check the location of every light fixture and every plug; are there enough of them? Again, imagine yourself living in the space: Does it all seem to be as you want it?