As the voting in the Who's Next contest carries on I'd like to call attention to some of my favorite entries and make an appeal for you to vote for them as well. But before I do that I want to explain how I am looking at the entries and what I thought was important for a good design. The purpose here is to create a stock house plan - something for which I've strong prejudices. At the root of it a house plan is a different thing than a custom design. Here is what I think are important characteristics for a successful design for a house plan.
- A house plan ultimately is a product, and a good product must satisfy more than one customer. Architects are more accustomed to singular commissions, houses as very personal expressions of a client's vision of home. Predictably they have difficulty stepping back from that situation and approaching the design problem from the standpoint of creating a product. A good product has a target customer and aims to create strong desire in that profile. It can not be too general - balance is needed. Neither too esoteric, nor too bland to create strong appeal within a segment of consumers.
- A good house plan design must be feasible to build at market rates. If customers are to succeed in building the house then the design must anticipate realistic budgets. A small house intended as a "starter" can not require elaborate craftsmanship or expensive materials. Beyond feasibility the design must be resilient enough to retain its most important characteristics when built without the expensive details the designer may incorporate into their renderings. The salient properties of the design must transcend budget. When the builder substitutes vinyl windows for mahogany sash the qualities of a good design must still come through.
- A successful design must challenge and conform to american expectations, both at the same time. That sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. You have to know the rules before you can break them is the classic way of expressing this. The way this plays out is that interesting designs often push the boundaries of convention, open your eyes to new possibilities, and propose compelling situations for living. When a designer does not grasp these boundaries the designs can seem random and out of left field, the intention unclear.
- The house plan design must be suitable for common site scenarios. Again, Architects are trained to look to the site, the orientation, local influences to guide the design and make a unique solution. While this can enrich a custom design, it also can make it unsuitable for sites with different conditions. A house plan needs to be flexible and adaptable to a variety of site conditions, particularly the ones that are common in the US.
- Enabling people to understand the qualities of a house design is very important for a house plan. Drawings need to be clear and accessible. Hand drawing, or computer drawing does not matter. Some people will respond to the romance of a hand drawing, but that is of little help if the drawings don't do a good job of describing the house, or worse if the "artistry" of a drawing contributes to making false representations. Hand drawings and computer drawings are both susceptible to this. I don't mean to single out hand drawings here, but I've never heard anybody express passion for a computer drawing. A hand drawing does not a winning design make. I'll just close this with the thought that obfuscating a drawing via indulgent complexity or color coding that adds no insight to the graphics should be avoided.
These are tough lessons, and run counter to many of the fundamental lessons of architects training. With all these things considered many of the most dynamic design examples in the contest miss the mark for being a successful house plan. Yet with the great number of people in the country its not out of the question that these could find a perfect match in somebody. Such is the world of house plans! In our next installment we will look at some of our favorite designs from the Contest and ask for you to vote for them.