What Famous Architect Sarah Susanka Taught Me About Problem-Solving

I attended a conference a few years ago where nationally known Residential Architect Sarah Susanka spoke and told a story of a potential client and a small project an hour’s drive from her office.

The homeowner invited her in to talk about a family room addition; she was led through an empty and dark living room to the kitchen/breakfast room, packed with all the family’s everyday stuff.

“See the problem?” the homeowner said, “this just isn’t enough space”.

Ms. Susanka thought for a minute and asked, “Couldn’t you just use the living room for your family space?”

“It’s too dark” the owner said, “I’d open the blinds, but neighbor’s windows look right into our living room windows”.

Again a moment of thought, then, “What if you replaced the clear glass in the living room windows with art glass that would let light through but still obscure the view?”

“Hmm,” the homeowner said, “I guess that would do it!”

Problem solved, tens of thousands of dollars saved.

I’ve always enjoyed that story and have retold it many times, because it’s about what Architects really do - solve problems (hopefully, problems that involve designing stuff!).

So is an hour’s drive time and ten minutes’ advice “too small” of a project for an Architect? Most Architects I know would answer that with a resounding no – because the Architect provided a valuable service using her knowledge and experience.

The “is the project too small” question is one I hear often; here’s one from my email just last week:

“We were interested in some ideas for adding on a mud room and possibly a bathroom in the basement. I don't know if these types of projects are too small for your firm or if you can help us out with getting in touch with someone who can help us with ideas for these additions.”

“Too small for your firm” probably means “is there enough fee in it for you?”

Ay, there’s the rub.

But evaluating every potential project on fee alone is shortsighted, IMHO. Smaller projects have a tendency to lead to larger ones, if the Architect does his job well.

The problem is when an Architect’s workload is dominated by small projects – projects that take nearly as much care, thought, and time as larger ones, but return a smaller fee. Smaller projects have their own rewards, but it’s better to have a balance between project sizes.

Small projects have a way of helping an Architect maintain focus and keep skills sharp; problems must be solved quickly and efficiently.

It’s a big reason why I’m a fan of quick tracing-paper sketches rather than using “home design” computer software.

I can explore many more ideas much more quickly on paper, and I can do it all at the kitchen table, with my client.

Small projects may also require a unique approach to finding a contractor since the typical competitive bidding process might be too time-consuming. That might mean engaging a trusted contractor early on to help with pricing and product selection.

Or maybe we’ll arrange to cut down on travel and meeting time (and therefore, fees) by communicating primarily through the internet – email, Skype, and other online tools can close the distance between client and Architect considerably. Or holding more meetings at my office and fewer at the client's home.

There's almost always some combination of appropriate services, time-saving strategies, and fee structure that makes a small project feasible for an Architect to undertake - even if it's nothing more than a few minutes' good advice.

And that might mean that no project’s too small.

Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at RTA Studio.