Where to start the design process for creating an Awesome Small House? I’ve already discussed the philosophy of what we’re trying to achieve in a previous post. That post defines the difference between an ordinary and perfectly livable house, and a home that is truly awesome. A place that appeals to the soul.

If my years of designing automobiles taught me anything, it’s that the big ticket items are all about emotion. If you want to build an energy efficient, green and sustainable house, it’s about more than just about hitting the numbers. Specifications are important, but it’s the intangibles that will make it worth the effort.

To achieve this lofty goal we first we need to define what good design is, and how it’s different from engineering or just building something.

Design is a creative process that is purposeful. It will incorporate both aesthetic and functional considerations into a solution for building a finished product. If you look up various definitions for the process of design, you’ll find lots of lists of the steps to perform. Something like this

  • Identify and define the problem.
  • Understand constraints, which might include time, budget, and materials.
  • Brainstorm and generate ideas.
  • Select an approach, usually a direction or theme.
  • Refine these ideas into a specific proposal. This might include engineering drawings, models or prototypes.
  • Test and evaluate, refine the design to make it better.
  • Build the product.

This sounds like a logical approach. Guaranteed to find a perfect solution for any project you could imagine. You would be wrong. Following the logical steps, along with some luck and perseverance, you’d likely come up with something like the Microsoft Zune or Pontiac Aztek.

The problem is that the human mind, and human inspiration, does not follow logical steps. While all these steps have to occur at some point in the process, great design is more likely to start in the mind of an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist with a dream. Want examples? Look no further than Arne Jacobsen’s furniture, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses.

Arne Jacobsen - Egg Chair 1958

If you want your house, and the things in it, to be something special, you’re going to have to find some design mojo. How do you go about creating great design?

First and most important in the design process is time. Start thinking and planning early. The more time spent in planning, the better the final result. A lot of great designs evolved, they didn’t pop up out of someone’s mind with all the details completely polished. Good design almost always comes with a history. Believe me, as you go through the process, your ideas will morph in ways you could never anticipate. A good designer will be well into the “refining the proposal” stage, and think of an entirely different material to use, or a different way of building the product. Time to go back a few steps and rework the idea yet again. It may look like you’re going backward, but the next step forward starts from a higher level, with a deeper understanding of the solution.

Visualize. You can sketch out your ideas. You can use Sketchup to do 3D modeling. Collect images from magazines in a scrapbook, or create a Pinterest page with your favorite images. Why not make a full size model of a new kitchen with cardboard. It allows you to experience the volume of cabinets and appliances. The process of making a rough model will allow you to better visualize shapes and spaces. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but you will avoid many expensive mistakes later on. There is an old saying that there is never enough time to make something right, but there’s always enough time to make it twice. It’s OK to make something twice, or three, or more times. Just do it early in the process when it’s cheap and quick.

Finally, I can’t stress the idea of throwing convention to the wind enough. We do so many things a certain way solely because it’s the way they were done before. Many objects we use are great designs because they have evolved to be perfectly suited for the job they do. A carpenter’s hammer, for example. A million variations have been tried, and it’s evolved to be a near perfect tool for it’s function. But what about bathrooms? We put the toilet right next to where you brush your teeth. In what universe is that a good idea? That practice has become the convention because it’s cheap, not because it’s healthy or desirable.

Minimalist Sliding Door Wardrobe

Minimalist Sliding Door Wardrobe

Closets are another favorite of mine. What did people do before we started building closets into the structure of the house? Think about what a closet is supposed to do? Are they for short term storage of things we use frequently? Yet they become places to store items we haven’t used in years. Every year we spend thousands of dollars to heat and cool those never used things. Most every closet has dead spots where there is no air circulation, those spots are great for bugs and mold. Why do we build tiny rooms with doors to store stuff we never use? Try thinking of a better way.

Find solutions that are better suited to your lifestyle, ignore convention, and create something that works for you. It’s so easy to build something similar to what the neighbors have. But once you start analyzing how things work, and what your real needs are, you realize that everything has multiple and sometimes hidden meanings. No longer is it acceptable to find a photo of something you like and copy it. Pretty soon you’ll be making doodles and drawing plans, a sure sign that you’ve started the process of designing something special.

Welcome to the world of being a designer.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Antoine de Saint-Exupery