“Design Attendants, Prepare!”
A former project manager/co-worker had once told me about a bumpy flight her fiance had endured upon returning from a trip out east back to southern California. She was trying to console (convince) me not to worry about a long flight I was preparing for by recounting this horrendous story of how her fiance’s airplane suddenly lost altitude and unexpectedly dropped 200′ (or was it 2000 feet…?) due to bad weather and air patterns. Wide-eyed, I asked her how he reacted? What happened?
Apparently, the pilot had notified the stewardesses only moments before with a quick announcement over the PA system, saying: “Flight Attendants, Prepare!”
As one stewardess grabbed a blanket off a passenger nearby, another quickly threw it atop the beverage cart and held it down. “Why’d they do that?” I asked. “To keep the hot coffee from burning the passengers!,” she said patiently. As I continued dissecting every detail of the the unfortunate (and hopefully rare) event, I was happy to learn that her fiance and all the passengers were fine. Apparently, these incidents happen when hot air meets cold.
The roughest flight I’d been on was an American Eagle flight from Vegas to central Ohio in which the plane shook uncomfortably side to side and we experienced severe turbulence the entire way there. All I could think of was my other friend (a structural engineer) who had also tried to quell my fears of flying: “All you have to really worry about is wind shear.” Wind shear? Yikes! This was L A T E R A L movement I was sensing…isn’t that, no it couldn’t be. Anyhow, at one point, the male steward ran through the whole cabin, slamming both of his hands simultaneously on each overhead compartment’s closed doors. I couldn’t help but think he’d done that just to rid of his frustration, as if using them as punching bags (while maintaining the otherwise expected professional composure). I myself had sat white-knuckled the whole flight, barely taking a breath. The lady at the terminal had been right, we were definitely in for a rough ride that night! She had just come in from the East coast and had experienced rough air.
What does this have to do with this blog post? You’ll soon find out.
Astute clients sometimes request certain computer technologies be used in the preparation of their building projects. A client who knows about the latest computer technology is impressive; one who can employ the technology him or herself is rare, in my estimation.
A few years ago, one of my prospective clients who’d been referred by an interior designer was one of those rare individuals skilled in the use of computer-aided design. The client wanted me to look at their 1980s builder spec home to determine if it had merit. Could it be transformed to meet their needs with minimal structural work? Or should they just move to a new place?
The Client Meeting
I drove out to meet with the client and his wife in their home. He had told me on the phone that he was an aeronautical engineer (yes, a rocket scientist) and his wife was in the medical profession. Their one-story ranch-style home was nice, it had some curb appeal with its all-brick exterior and big front yard. But I would soon discover that it had a large, awkward L-shaped kitchen that meandered on the periphery of a good-sized family room (that was made small by a corner fireplace and too many openings).
Upon entering the home, I noticed the foyer was also a bit small, but it opened up to a nice, large (yet empty and unused) formal living room which felt isolated from the rest of the house by the wall between it and the family room/kitchen area.
Many missed opportunities were present in the design, but these could be fixed; the challenge was going to be finding a way to increase the size of the kitchen without encroaching on the family room or the sideyard setback. The only other nice-sized room (which was being used as a hobby/crafts room)– about 12′ x 14′– was completely secluded and only accessible from the kitchen by a door between the refrigerator and the cabinets; it’s best feature, however was that it looked onto the front yard and had good daylighting.
The living room was on the other side of it and the client suggested removing the wall between them, joining them together for one big library.
Touring the Rest of the House
From the front foyer, the living room was to the righthand side of the house and the hallway leading to the bedrooms was on the left; the family room and kitchen area was straight back and toward the righthand side. The bedrooms were small and the kids’ shared bathroom was very tight, with no window for natural daylight, and minimal counter space.
Checking the Structure
My trip to the attic revealed stick-looking truss-joists that didn’t look very well-built. Tons of insulation, which was a great thing to see. My primary concern was wind– the house was in a hurricane zone and after seeing the shoddy trusses in the attic, I didn’t have the heart to design a superior streamlined modern kitchen only to lose the investment in a hurricane, God forbid. That the house was still there post other hurricanes gave me some assurance; however, another Katrina and who knew what might happen? Lesson learned here: bring in a structural engineer and/or a construction manager and discuss your concerns to get the straight scoop.
Discerning the Clients’ Expectations
As we sat down at their kitchen table, while I rolled out some “butter paper” (yellow or white thin opaque roll of sketch/trace paper- also called “bumwad”) to sketch some preliminary concepts, the client nonchalantly unfolded his own pristine plotted sheet of floor plans that he’d recently drafted himself using AutoCAD.
Okay, I thought. That’s different. I guess this is what rocket scientists do in their spare time? So impressed by his AutoCAD drafting ability, I wondered: will he appreciate my freehand sketches?
Did I mention that he was also a pilot? Well, he had built his own plane and kept it stored in his garage.
He took us out to look at it while I was doing my initial consultation (I had brought my family with me, with their advance permission). It was on a Saturday.
Then, he told us that he takes his then 10-year old son with him for plane rides on the weekend, over the nearby lake and tourist areas. My eyes quickly darted to his wife. I would personally be freaked out by that, but she acted like it was a trip to the grocery store. Nothing more, nothing less.
A plane he built himself??? Yes, indeed. And it was amazing.
This was a very important factor/clue into the client’s desire- having an airstrip is not a typical lot feature. Perhaps it would be worth it to rebuild on this lot.
Right, that took a few days to really sink in!
The Schematic Design Phase and Following Up With the Client
After discussing various ideas, and getting a better a feel for their priorities, I went home to draw out some solutions. Somewhat thwarted by the limited budget of 30k and how far that might go (they wanted a completely new kitchen with updated appliances, a laundry room addition- situated such that it would not block the view from the breakfast room window out to the pool, I decided to bring in my friend, who is also an architect (and who was very proficient in CAD at one time) for one hour of brainstorming. Nothing concrete resulted from that meeting. She had her ideas and I had mine; no clear solution presented itself. Now, I was downright frustrated.
After sketching out a few different options, it was becoming more apparent that the house would require extensive remodeling to bring it up to modern day living standards of scale and proportion and I wasn’t sure the neighborhood warranted such expensive additions. During a phone update (as they lived over an hour away), I suggested they meet with a real estate agent in the meantime to get some comps in the area and get a better idea of the value of their house. He did that.
So, long story short, I put forth a few concept sketches and sent them via mail for review along with a bill for my time, preliminary sketches, and initial consultation. They paid the bill promptly; his wife signed the check. No questions asked. It was great to get paid! However, there was no note attached either; reading between the lines of what was not said, I assumed they must not have liked the schemes.
Lesson learned here: I could have taken the opportunity to call them to thank them for their payment…and to inquire as to what were their plans. Instead, I hesitated, not wanting to be a “pest.” While we creative types like to be paid, sometimes feedback is more valuable!
Unfortunately, I didn’t “make a sell” as the project did not progress any further. I’m not sure if they knew what they really wanted to do with the house. It remains unclear to me even now.
In hindsight (and revisiting the client file), I became stuck in my thinking and could not make a firm decision on how to move forward; I did not act quickly enough and let the moment pass by.
I did call the client a few months after sending him the initial schematics and he said they still hadn’t made any decisions as yet.
Lesson learned: Go with your gut instinct. If trying to get information out of the client is like pulling teeth, then perhaps this indicates this is not a good relationship fit. Understanding client expectations is paramount to a successful project. I can attest that dealing with a smart aeronautical engineer requires a certain finesse; maybe that’s why the original interior designer had sent him my way in the first place… (I mean, who turns away business?) However, she was correct to realize that the house needed so much more than a superficial interior decor makeover- it needed a major renovation.
The bottom line question that needed to be answered was: how much money were they willing to spend to create their dream house on what would seem to me to be a rare lot indeed, one with an airstrip.
Lesson learned: seize the moment! Don’t hesitate to go for it. I had two choices- offer a milque-toast, safe design idea based on his small budget of 30k OR go all out with a big bang-up display, showing awesome kitchens (images pulled from magazines), and making a model of the new layout. But,
I didn’t do that. Why? I guess because I sensed that my time wouldn’t be well-spent as their budget was simply too tight; and he seemed unwilling to budge from that budget.
Perhaps inviting a lender into the picture would have been an appropriate next step.
I doubt they’re going to move anywhere else. Unless he’s going to be willing to park his plane at a local airport.
As all good real estate agents say: Location, Location, Location! (i.e. Airstrip, Airstrip, Airstrip!)