“Let’s Be Clear About What We Mean”

When we start designing for aging in place, universal design, or visitability purposes – arguably essentially the same in many cases – we may know what we want, but sometimes we don’t convey it very well. 

For instance, we may notice that a space is a little small for maneuverability so we will request that “ample” or “sufficient” space be set aside, created, or supplied. But what exactly is that, and does it mean the same thing to each person? Clearly it does not. An ample portion of food at the buffet line to a person with a large appetite is quite different from an ample or sufficient portion to a much smaller eater.

There are many words that we use in design that have a general form but are not specific – they are subject to interpretation based on the hearer’s particular frame of reference. We all tend to filter information based on our life experiences.

Unfortunately, communication is based on the transfer of information from one person to another in a way that makes sense so it is comprehended and understood. Even using a unit of measure – liquid, weight, time, or distance – can interpreted in may different ways.

What does a few minutes mean, or a little while longer? If something looks like it’s 5 feet long to me, how do you perceive it? Does something seem like it’s a mile away when it’s only about a quarter of that?

A bathroom may seem very small, but then how big does it really need to be to be functional? Typically it has a 5 feet long bathtub along one end – and if not a tub a shower in that space. If someone is not familiar with this conventional unit of measure, they would likely guess an amount greater or smaller for the space the tub occupies – based on what they think an inch or a foot is in their mind.

In addition to a tub or shower – or a combination, a bathroom needs a toilet and a sink or wash basin. They can be quite compact – say 20 square feet. Here again, 20 square feet may sound unduly tiny to someone whose mental image of that is toward the small size.

Other words that sound nice but convey no specific meaning when it comes to design are ones like significant, viable, substantial, and functional. How much space between or around objects is required for something to be functional? What constitutes a substantial amount of counter space or a significant amount of drawers in the kitchen? What is an adequate amount of outlets or windows?

Because we may know what we mean or what we want for a client, and the terms we use to suggest or describe them may be so general as to be meaningless as to our intent, we have to use specifics. We have to talk about a window with specific dimensions, an exact number of windows, the actual space between the island and the perimeter cabinets and why we find that necessary or desirable, and so forth.

If we aren’t clear about our intentions, we either have a confused client or one that thinks they know what they are getting – because that is what they want – even though it may be far away from what we are considering. We can’t afford any misunderstandings.

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