Applied Minds

“When you build a house, the professional skill may come from others,
but the thinking has to be done by you.”

Rex Roberts: Your Engineered House

So begins Rex Roberts in the book that so influenced me as a teen, Your Engineered House. When Roberts proposes to help us readers engineer our houses, his goal is to show us how to “decide for yourself, without regard for style, type, sales pressure or advertising, what you want and what you need.”

Only a few months ago, I read Guru Madhavan’s Applied Minds: How Engineers Think. His book explains in much more detail the engineering mindset. In some ways, Applied Minds is the theory and Your Engineered House provides one example of putting those theories to use. Both are focused on the question “how do we make it work?”and both stress that it’s not going to work the same way for everyone.

Together these two books are the bookends on the shelf containing my own discoveries, both personal and professional, in user experience design.

Madhavan considers the elements of the engineering mindset an ability to see components and the relationships among them, the ability to work within constraints, and the ability to make design trade-offs.

Components are important because modular design makes step-wise improvement easier.In house construction, modular design (whether it’s tatami or SIPs) reduces construction waste by using materials efficiently. In home construction, we might consider the various component systems (heating, plumbing, electricity, ventilation, daylighting) separately, we must also understand how they work together when integrated.

Constraints in home-building are fairly standard to any development project: schedule and budget. Houses also come with books full of design constraints in the form of building codes and permitting.

Where Rex Roberts is trying to shake us up and make us think about our houses is in those self-imposed constraints, our preconceptions of what a house should look like, the size and number and type of rooms, and how they are laid out.

The process of engineering requires a disciplined approach to problem-solving: modeling solutions, testing them, improving upon them or dismissing them.

I love building models…actual 3D ones (out of cardboard and paper) or virtual ones using SketchUp (after hand sketching my designs).What I’ve found to be most useful is to model ideas that I want to dismiss out of hand, either because I don’t like them aesthetically or I don’t think they will work for me. My library of “failed” models has become an important resource to me whenever I (or someone else asks me), why didn’t we do it this way? I can show them the model and say, “We tried, but it didn’t work for this reason.”