Big projects = always poor detailing?
A short missive on the mismanagement of design hours of large projects
I’ve been noticing lately that the largeness of a project is inversely correlated with the amount of detail we can afford to give it.
Highways are a classic example where human-scale detail is purposefully removed. Since everyone is travelling at high speeds, detail is not necessary. As a result, it also leaves a lot of wasted space that literally become leftover wastelands.
Large buildings like high rises also suffer from loss of detail. Having worked on many tower designs, what inevitably happens is that there are less designer eyes per building design area, and there’s just no space in anyone’s budget for this.
While no one is asking for an increase in detail everywhere (which would surely be a project killer), there is a general notion that we should make place for more detail in high-activity areas. Unit designs often get a lot of project hours, as there is a clear correlation between effort and payout by future homeowners.
However, there are other high-activity areas that perhaps ought to get more attention, but often get pushed down the priority list. I’m talking about lobbies, hallways, and yes, street-level facades.
When I interviewed Oskar Stålberg a couple of weeks back, he said something very interesting which related to his game Townscaper. Instead of designing first the walls, then the roofs, then the pavement as separate pieces that are put together in different ways, he cuts the puzzle pieces differently focusing instead on the intersection of those things. So where the houses meet the pavement, or where the roof merges with the walls or neighbouring buildings.
The focus is on the intersections of these elements, not the elements instead.
This argues for a more holistic design approach that unifies and brings together the language and fit out of these liminal spaces.
It also warrants renewed efforts to prioritize the design of high-activity zones around a building. While no-one will miss the lack of detail on the 45th storey of the 45-storey tower, everyone will see what’s within 3m of their awareness as they walk down a street. Can we do a better job at creating something more granular and higher resolution in design? I think we can.
I have no grand solutions for this. Projects have a way of sucking resources in all kinds of ways other than on the stuff that matters for the human scale.
But one thing I’ve been mulling on is the concept of a new metric to measure this:
Design hours per building component.
The higher the ratio, the more hours we should spend making it human scale. The less hours it have, the more it can default to basic functional requirements like highway designs.
What do you think of my new metric to measure and properly prioritize design attention to places that we want it the most? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.
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Until next time, stay safe and stay curious.