“Keeping The Art (Not So Much The Science) In Design”

Many things are partially art and part science. Design certainly falls within that description, and it’s good that it does. It’s nice to know that there are parameters to stay within or that there are best practices to follow. It’s also nice to know that we can take various liberties and leave to create designs that serve our clients and not a textbook illustration of what it needs to look like or follow. 

Many people like structure so it’s no surprise that they seek design standards – more than guidelines but actual prescriptions – of how to approach a given area in the home and what to include where. For instance, where do you locate a powder room – off the foyer, next to the kitchen, accessible from the living room, under the stairs, off the main hallway, next to the den? There clearly is not just one place to put it. It depends – on the home, the general layout, and the needs of the client, This is true for new construction as well as renovation.

Some people like to have solid answers on where to locate certain features, how big or small to make them, colors to use, and more. There are commonly accepted best practices to follow, design guidelines, and even a few standards. For the most part, there are no requirements. This is why we call it design rather than compliance, fulfillment, or some other term.

One of the keys to design is to ask the question about how sensible a particular solution is – recommended or not. Even when something generally is included, the size, color, finish, and location (vertically, horizontally, or spatially) is often a matter of client desire or professional judgment. Does it make sense to include it at all or to put it where it is suggested? Unless required by code, this is a judgment call – something that makes design an art.

Instead of looking for ways that things must be done or have to be included, let’s search for solutions that enhance the client experience and quality of life in the home. This is true for any type of renovation or design, but it’s especially relevant for aging in place planning.

As we assess an existing space or review plans for new construction, we are evaluating doorways, windows, counters, accessways (hallways), hardware, cabinets, bath fixtures, and other treatments. We are looking for ease of approach and access and how well someone in the home (existing resident or future occupant) might be able to use what is included.

Doorways frequently cause issues. They are too narrow (even though they meet a basic, outdated code), the physical door slabs open into a passageway or block access within a room, or there simply are too many of them opening onto a limited space – creating congestion.

Windows are another huge area to consider. How easy are they to open, are they low enough to provide a comfortable viewing frame, and are the located where they are easily accessible without anything else being located in front of them? Can they be unlatched and used by anyone, or does it take a certain amount of strength and ability to use them?

If we are searching for easy answers such as where a window needs to go, how large it has to be, whether the door swings from the left or right or is hinged at all, if sliding windows can or must be used, the size of the shower, the location of the toilet, the type of faucets, the flooring that needs to be used in each room, the type of paint to use or avoid, and so much more, then we are eliminating the art part of design and looking more for a prescriptive approach where solutions presumably have been tested and decided upon for us to use. Fortunately, more most design, this is not the case.

While there are building codes and federal requirements that apply in some cases, we generally have the leeway to decide what works best for our clients and for the specific living space in which we are designing – pure art. This is what makes creating aging in place solutions so exciting and rewarding. Each case stands on its own.

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