Erik Spiekermann | Essays

Ideas Come First

Being on the other side of the design process gives new insight into what makes a good client, especially when  your own house is at stake. Getting the right architects is a start, and it helps if they’re German.

In 2001, I bought a late-Victorian house near Balls Pond Road in North London, and five years later it started to fall apart, having been kept together by that amazingly effective combination of an excess of dust and paint. First a disclaimer: this was not my first architectural project. I had already rebuilt a small house on a steep hill in San Francisco; converted an empty attic in Berlin into an apartment (and then rebuilt it twenty years later); and, at the end of the nineties, turned a former power station into the MetaHaus: 8,000 square meters of design studios. This meant working with four different architects, dealing with bureaucracy in Germany and the U.S., and going from a clueless but hands-on client (quite possibly the worst combination) to knowing enough about constraints and processes to become a proper client.

After thirty years running a design business, I know that the rules for any project are always the same: there is a purpose, a deadline, and a budget. More often than not, we help our clients to develop a concept, generate an idea, and then visualize it in order to make sure everybody understands it. Rebuilding a house, I learned, is very much like such a project: you have to define the essence of the existing house, compare it with the intended purpose, and see if there is any overlap. How many people will live there? Do they work at home, cook every day? Do they have children, like gardening, receive lots of visitors? Is the house intended for one family, or is it to be let to strangers and split up into self-contained units? If you have a thirty-year mortgage, most of these constraints may not be relevant in a few years, but the same goes for other design projects: the only thing we know about the future is that it’s ahead of us.

Before you think too much about all these constraints as well as all the outside factors like regulations, financing, contractors, inspectors, surveyors, and neighbors, it is useful to find your most important ally: the architect. As is usually the case for these types of personal projects, I asked around, and I found a small office, just around the corner from my house, run by an Anglo-German couple, Silvia Ullmayer and Allan Sylvester. This promised the desired mix of local knowledge and a conceptual approach with some Teutonic attention to detail and an understanding of the metric system, plus the knowledge that even sash windows do not have to be drafty if built properly. They also understood that central heating is not a luxury, but has been standard in German houses since World War 1. My priorities were very much on the side of pragmatic construction, not on winning design prizes. The budget did not allow for exclusive materials, touch screens for the heating, or interactive fridges, but we did want a small server and Ethernet wiring throughout.

Your second ally should be your contractor. The wrong choice can quickly turn the project over to the Three Deadly Sins of the building trade: Sloth, Ignorance, and Greed. The less a builder knows about something, the more money he’ll want to learn about it, and the less inclined he will be to apply that knowledge. We found a contractor who was not only keen to do the work but appreciated my attitude toward doing things properly, on time, and on budget. And he was — surprise! — German, from Berlin even. Our architects taught the builders about the specifics of building in London, and they reciprocated by being incredibly flexible when it came to solving unforeseen problems. In an old house, there are plenty of those. A collapsing ceiling, a rotten roof, flimsy floorboards, and pathetic do-it-yourself plumbing soon turned the original budget into nothing but a sketch. The builders responded by making a complete roof in Germany, putting it on a truck, and driving it to London — all for less than it would have cost to make locally.

Having found the right architects reminded me a lot of my relationships with clients and — I hope — made me a better client, too. The architects not only understood, incorporated, and even anticipated the constraints mentioned, but they also regarded this small renovation as an intellectual exercise. Victorian rooms of the late nineteenth century may not offer the same grand scale as a Berlin apartment from that period, but they have their own rhythm and structure which should be respected, if not slavishly maintained. These rooms have been opened and now afford more views into privacy as well as out from it. The clutter of electric cables, heating pipes, radiators, sockets, and new data connections has been concealed in a tall skirting that runs through the whole house, creating a leitmotif and bringing together old and new elements. A viable concept, indeed, and it looks great. Ideas, in other words, come first. In architecture as in other fields of design, however, they are worthless if they do not result in a tangible product. One cannot exist without the other, unless we make art—not design.

This article was originally published in the January 2009 issue of Blueprint

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