User Experience

2015-10-08 17:42:53-0400
– Updated: 2016-10-28 13:29:24-0400
My Engineered House: User Experience
My multi-year involvement with another project has finally drawn to a close. Now I have the luxury of being able to turn my full attention to the next big commitment: building a house.

The idea was planted in our heads a couple of years ago but it’s only just begun to take hold in our hearts. We’ve lived in our current house for 22 years and I expected we would continue to do so until we died. Unlike many people of our generation, we don’t normally tend to buy things we already have just for the novelty.

Fit for Purpose
During September I began interviewing potential architects and builders. While I looked forward to collaborating with a team, I’m used to working only as a team member. I’ve never had to build a team. I’m used to weighing pros and cons of options in elements to make design decisions, but I’ve never had to weigh the pros and cons of people, to assess whether they were suitable for the task.

Fortunately, before I could go around in too many circles, my colleague +Peter Strempel stopped me in my tracks to share his wisdom as a business project manager. He pointed out that I would never be able to make an assessment if I haven’t first defined any criteria. How did I expect to measure success, to agree the result was “good”? How could I expect anyone to design to an acceptable standard, if I couldn’t articulate that standard?

So I forced myself back to the very beginning. What am I trying to make? What exactly is a house?

What is a house?
A house is a place. An environment. It both embraces and excludes the location where it is sited, celebrating the good aspects and protecting us from the bad. It shelters us from the natural environment and in turn becomes its own environment

A house is a structure. It is a machine of integrated systems that we inhabit to shelter ourselves.

A house is a refuge and a workplace. As human beings we have the imagination and tools that enable us to construct something uniquely conducive to the smooth and pleasant operations of our daily lives.

But we rarely do. We tend, instead, to think of houses in terms of features and styles. We focus a disproportionate amount of attention on our visual response to houses, without thinking too much about the entire user experience. How does it feel? Smell? What’s the sound and light quality? How does the space function and how do I function within the space?

I had mulled over all these aspects of houses but I hadn’t considered the house as a product. How did I jump into project planning without first considering criteria by which the product of this project would be assessed? The house must be fit for purpose and I had not articulated that purpose.

What is the business requirement? What necessitates undertaking the project? What need do we intend to fulfill? Why doesn’t the product we already have (our current house) satisfy that need?

I dug down beneath the layers of want and desire and uncovered the core requirement: I like where I’ve lived these last two decades and I want to continue to live here until I die.

Now I have a lens with which to examine every decision.
#myengineeredhouse (If I continue to write about this project, I may turn this into a collection later.)

Photo: NOT my house. Just one in which I like the play of light and the serene feeling imparted by its shapes and textures. The Hollowcat Wild House by Mell Lawrence Architects.
Shared to the collection My Engineered House
+1’d by: hin joe, Dalip Mehra, دموع الحنين, Ali Al- shamrey, Lynda at Sonoran Sun | Private Equity Investments, Лена L, Jonas Neergaard-Nielsen, Erik Feher, Erica Roberts, Ron Pemberton, Rob Ferguson, Els Mercken, Andrea Riva, dawn ahukanna, Tony Harmey, Gregory Esau, Mee Ming Wong, Rugger Ducky, Peter Strempel, Douglas Blaack, Gretchen S., Christopher Guillou, Melina M, Rupert Wood, Daniela Huguet Taylor
Reshared by: dawn ahukanna, William Rutiser
Douglas Blaack – 2015-10-08 18:12:54-0400
Minecraft house!
Peter Strempel – 2015-10-08 18:16:44-0400
It’s true that I showered you with the robo-managerialism of PRINCE2 project management principles, but I do also think it necessary that these are bent to suit your aesthetic and fucntional requirements, rather than bending your wants to meet management models.

I’ve been involved in architectural and building projects only by proxy, when my partner was an architect, but I’ll be very interested to see how your project takes shape.
Mee Ming Wong – 2015-10-08 18:44:53-0400
I really enjoyed reading about your new project and like Peter, I am very interested to see how it unfolds.

For me, the layout is important, the flow of traffic has to make sense. I have very large windows on both sides of the house, living in a cold climate, looking out is all we’ve got sometimes.

My house is wired for the European 220V as well, so bringing home a European appliance from travels is not a problem. I would say that is one of the smartest things I added to the house.
M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-10-08 19:17:46-0400 – Updated: 2015-10-08 21:32:51-0400
+Peter Strempel Ideas always seem obvious after someone’s reminded you but it’s amazing how quickly one can get mired and start spinning wheels in the mud when one loses sight of the basics. It’s good to stop and reassess the situation.

Part of my dilemma was that I can toss off my functional requirements without much trouble because thinking about functional design is my strength. Aesthetic requirements are more difficult for me to define and assess. We often have a visceral reaction to aesthetics and don’t bother to analyze the why of our reactions. People do this all the time about other things, like their reaction to a movie, a book, or something they ate. They love it or hate it but can’t articulate why.

Aesthetics is not my strength. I can make a thing work but I don’t naturally have an artistic eye. However, I do have strong likes and dislikes, so what I lack in creativity, I hope to make up in analysis. If I can convey what I want, then I can get others to apply their skills to the problem.

In other art forms, we talk about composition, balance, rhythm, narrative, imagery, metaphor, suspense, and satisfying conclusions. I think like any other human artifact, any other made thing, that all those elements can be incorporated into the making of a house.
Melina M – 2015-10-08 20:58:43-0400
I’d be extremely interested in this project/collection if you choose to do it. As a budding architect, it’s great to hear what people’s thoughts and experiences with this are like.
M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-10-08 21:33:31-0400
+Melina M If you are a budding architect, then I will be very interested in hearing what you have to say.
Douglas Blaack – 2015-10-08 22:17:47-0400
I”m working on building a house with friends, but it’s going to be more sculpted than engineered. Check my feed for a photo of the proof-of-concept ‘guesthouse’ we built to familiarize ourselves with the materials and process.
dawn ahukanna – 2015-10-09 01:44:07-0400
Good luck with the project. It will come down to how much you know and express your values and expectations. Will be following your updates. If you haven’t already please make this a collection.
Peter Strempel – 2015-10-09 04:17:57-0400
+M Sinclair Stevens
A note on aesthetics
May I suggest that you are a bigger aesthete than you give yourself credit for.

I recall a couple of years back discuss with you my choice of two new desks. You remember, the glass-topped steel trestles I chose. I discussed with you the functional requirements before I made my choice: depth of surface as well as length, and height. All three bigger than seems to be the norm now in all but the ugly, clumsy, plastic-coated office furniture you usually buy in bulk, or the heavy, heritage pieces that costs thousands and are not designed to be moved more than once in a lifetime.

Given that I am nomadic, and dislike unfunctional ostentation, I wanted pieces to go with all those requirements – size, simplicity, functionality.

As I recall it we talked when I was weighing the options, and you endorsed my eventual choice for the functional simplicity. I’d call that a finely tuned sense of aesthetics, and I wouldn’t sell myself short on it just because you aren’t a fashionista snob or jerk-off art critic.

I’d say that we share some elements of taste, judging by the image you chose: an elegant functionalism. I call my path to that taste aesthetics. Maybe you call it something else.
Edward Morbius – 2015-10-09 15:01:21-0400
+M Sinclair Stevens​ A few observations of my own:

1. Other major roles for homes/houses, particularly in contemporary culture, are as an investment — the question of “what can I sell this for should I have to”, and as a totem of self-expression or social signalling. Both are frequent roles, the first is often explicitly recognized (to the exclusion of many other points), the latter not so much, though it’s a big factor for many.

2. As I’ve found in many domains, goals drive methods. Figure out what your end results and requirements are, then how to accomplish them.

3. Homes (and buildings generally) as “machines for living” is another thought. Sleeping, cooking, eating, work, recreation, storage for all our stuff (as George Carlin’s poignantly observed), etc. I’d also factor in “something you’ll be comfortable and safe in later”, which includes factors such as negotiating stairs and accessing parts of in your older years. Also maintenance, future-proofing, and resilience to degredation. Friends of the family constructed their own replacement home (the second, at least, they’d built), and I was struck by their choices in certain regards — 2×6 construction (extra insulation), a stone exterior to a meter or so off the ground (resistant to rot and anything else), concrete shingles for the exterior (likewise, and no paint required), runways for electrical and comms — wired for CAT6 but with upgrades quite feasible, audio wiring throughout the house, etc. The design was actually based on a kit / preexisting design, to which they made a couple of modifications (and later candidly admitted they might have been better off leaving as originally designed). It’s among the best-designed homes I’ve ever seen.

4. I’d put a lot of thought into the home’s use of energy and relationship to weather. Water, moisture, mildew, and rot are enemies of much construction, and designs which minimise the negative aspects of these, and transport moisture out are going to win long-term. In warm climates, designing for staying cool is key, and features such as highly ventilated exteroir roofs, awnings, and other methods of minimising solar gain are highly useful. Designs for banking cold are helpful. If external airflow can help with cooling, designing with this in mind is useful. In colder climates, retaining internal heat and minimising leakages, while banking heat is advantageous.

Daylighting to the extent possible, while taking appropriate use of solar thermal gain (high or low, depending on climate and/or time of year). Efficient and well-placed lighting otherwise. Flooding rooms with light vs. task-lighting. I’m quite the fan of how LED lighting allows very precise placement of light sources to task.

I’d put a fair bit of thought into both hot water provisioning (an easy and cost-effective solar system is one of the best applications of same), and of how cooking heat affects the living space. The friends’ home mentioned is in a medeterranian climate, and features an outdoor patio kitchen that’s quite appropriate for 9 months of the year.

Natural gas while great to cook on may not be so cost-effective or abundant in future.

And how space is used, particularly with multiple people in the dwelling. Common spaces are good for socialising, but private space to which one can withdraw to minimise distractions either in (for concentration) or out (for possibly noisy activities — musical performance, workshop, children’s play) go far toward household harmony. A factor many “small home” designs seem to overlook.

Anticipating unexpected or unusual household changes is another. Death of a partner, children or others returning to home, frequent guests, etc. Flexibility in design can help with each of these.
M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-10-09 16:38:04-0400 – Updated: 2015-10-09 20:48:54-0400
+Edward Morbius I think I’ve got all your bases covered….

1. I’m not interested in the “house as commodity” aspect. Although, like any project, there is an explicit business case for undertaking it as noted in the original post.

2. The point of this post is that the goals drive the project. See last three paragraphs.

3. As the main goal is to be able to live here until we die, of course the design addresses accessibility issues as well as daily and longterm maintenance chores.

4. Building a high-performance building is key to the core requirement of aging in place. After taxes, utility costs are the most likely to be burdensome. The house is designed for passive solar: keeping cool is more important than keeping warm in this climate and water resources are the most dear.

We will be employing BIM software to model solar impact, wind and ventilations issue, and shading and daylighting among other things. Again, we prefer to employ as many passive strategies as possible and use active/mechanical systems only as backup.

5. As the new house is designed for two introverts who never entertain, there is very little public space. But there will be quite a bit more than we currently have. Overall the house (at about 2000 sf) is larger than our current 1345 sf cottage.)

We each rule over our specific domains without much crossover. Every workspace is designed for our own workflows which we spend quite a bit of time observing, analyzing, and documenting…a natural extension of our professional work.

Hmmm. I feel pretty smug that there isn’t a thing you mentioned that we haven’t already thought of. I guess we’re on the right track.
Edward Morbius – 2015-10-09 18:19:32-0400
+M Sinclair Stevens Quite, and your response pretty much has the emphasis I’d have expected.

The commodity/status thing was just acknowledging the conventional views of home ownership/design, the first frequently emphasised in press, commercial offerings, and literature, the latter somewhat less so. More noted on a “these are the inherent / cultural biases you’re likely to encounter and have to overcome” perspective.

I was also simply making the “goals drive methods” point explicitly clear. You were all but there in your post above.

Passive rather than active/gadget design is my preference, and site-specificity is key to much of this. I’ve pointed out Thorstein Chlupp’s Reina LLC net-zero energy homes in Fairbanks, AK previously — not that you’d want to design a Fairbanks home (though his thoughts and emphasis on moisture management may be relevant), but that how he fits design to site is fascinating. Earthships likely incorporate more Texas-specific concerns — thermal mass, solar gain, passive ventilation.

Even with minimal entertainment, my observation is that a shared kitchen/dining space often makes for a good place to have the odd guest. I see far too many homes with separate spaces dedicated to “dining”, “living”, and “family” rooms, but lack any real dedicated project space. Workshops, music, and library/office most particularly.

Sounds like you’re on track indeed. Keep us posted.
M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-10-09 20:54:55-0400 – Updated: 2015-10-09 20:55:51-0400
+Edward Morbius From my years of living in Japan, I’m pretty attuned to the concept of “flex” space. I don’t get the whole separate room to keep a bed thing, for example. We don’t have a dining room now and our offices are crowded into what most people would use as the living room.

We enjoy more freedom of the cultural bias for having to make the place marketable or resale-able because of its unique location. We always knew that we could pretty much do whatever we wanted to the current house because when we died, some developer was going to tear it down to get at the land. Circumstances have changed slightly to push us into that developer role ourselves and derive the benefit.

IF all goes to plan…or anywhere in the ballpark.
Brian Titus – 2015-10-09 22:31:00-0400
We are just coming back up to the surface after a deep dive into what we thought was going to be a small powder room re-model. It mushroomed into a much bigger thing because of issues we found in exterior walls, etc. But anyway, it is satisfying to finally see our original ideas for some very specific functionality and aesthetics coming together now. Best of luck, I’m keen to see how it unfolds. (My project is here: I’d say we’re at 90% complete now).
Edward Morbius – 2015-10-09 23:05:16-0400
+Brian Titus So, the last 10% will take the 2nd 90% of the time?
M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-10-09 23:16:22-0400
+Brian Titus Well, welcome back to G+. So, the topic of house construction finally lured you in, eh?
Brian Titus – 2015-10-10 00:51:58-0400
You have that exactly right +Edward Morbius!
Brian Titus – 2015-10-10 00:53:02-0400
Only because it’s your house +M Sinclair Stevens 🙂
Drew McCarthy – 2015-10-11 10:15:14-0400
Having been to this rodeo many times, I can say:

Also, if you have relationships with folks in the building trades?
Use them. Even if (as is increasingly common) you don’t engage them to build your house. One hopes that your relationships with your designer and general contractor are amiable and professional, but they’ll generally have business reasons for being less than brutally frank with you about things. You should have your carpenter, your plumber, your electrician, etc. look over your plans, and check out the quality of the work done as it progresses. If you don’t already have relationships with folks like that?
You might ought to.
Have fun!
M Sinclair Stevens – 2015-10-11 20:56:05-0400
+Drew McCarthy Thanks. As it turned out, I found my builder while still searching for my architect. Then my builder recommended someone to use as a designer. After a couple of meetings, I think this is what will work best.

Typically, I do get along better with tradesmen than designer-types. I tend to be more pragmatic than artsy.