Design perfection requires intentional forgiveness. I am going to let you in on little secret in our profession. We are not perfect! Okay, well maybe that’s not a secret! We are a peculiar bunch of people with an O.C.D. like complex for perfection. If we had it our way: buildings would always be the right shape and size! Drawings would be the most perfectly clear, complete set of instructions, and contractors would ask ZERO questions, finishing with perfect execution. The end result would be a magnificently crafted building with perfectly plumb and straight walls, all gaps perfect, parallel and pointed.
But unfortunately, that won’t happen. It can’t happen, at least while humans are still involved in construction (remember we aren’t perfect). Here is how I propose we solve that problem so that things turn out “perfectly.” We design in forgiveness. Examples of this idea are evident in almost every product and every design solution. Materials are always imperfect, substrates bowed, corners not square, walls not plumb, and lines untrue. The idea is to accept these imperfections, even embrace them, and provide construction detailing with forgiveness in the design so that when constructed it looks perfectly intentional.
One of the rules taught to me early in architecture school was that two planes or forms should rarely intersect at a single point or flush surface. This is because the slightest variation from the material or construction tolerance can cause noticeable disjointedness. I learned this lesson during a critique of a study model for a project with two opposing roofs that converged at a single point. The constructability of the solution could have been improved if the roof planes passed over one another because in the field, more than likely, the contractor would not be perfect at that convergence point. For me this was a simple teaching point, but it is one that stuck with me that I continue to employ today. Evidence of this lesson can be found in every facet of design from the broad strokes of roof planes to the faces of cabinet doors and drawers.
The photo above is a recently completed project where designing in forgiveness created a strong, well composed end result. You can see many different trades coming together in one location, completing work during different phases of construction. Framers and drywallers completed the walls and fixed ceilings first, followed up by the painters. Flooring is completed. Casework subcontractors build the wood and stone countertops off-site, and install on location. Others hang ceiling grids and install light fixtures. All of it, visible at this one location. The design was detailed to disguise potential imperfections of construction and to look perfect.
Walls, shown red, are framed in first. The framer is accurate, but he is allowed some tolerance. His wall might not make a 90° corner, but instead 91° or 89°. At this time, somewhere in a shop miles away, workers are crafting the base cabinets and countertops. Typically, they build them just a bit small to fit into the designed space. Then, after delivery and installation, they cut a special piece called a scribe or filler panel, according our details to fill in the edges. This flexibility allows them to freely install the cabinets without conflict. When designing the cabinets, we used different forms and materials to identify different activities. The higher white form is a transaction top at stand up height (shown below in yellow). It is pulled forward to signify the primary action and location of interaction. The low wood base and stone countertop are the common work-surface at sit down height for both the employee and the visitor. They are set back from the wall to allow for the change of materials and different planes. Small grooves, or reveals, at the underside of each countertop surface allow for the vertical/horizontal change in materials and conceal any inconsistencies between the two.
When everything comes together for the final time, we have perfection. At least it looks that way. All changes in materials, surfaces, trades, were designed methodically to allow for imperfection. It is these nuanced details we must consider. Although this project was a great success, had it not been for the careful attention of the architects, interior designers, diligent subcontractors and craftsman the final composition could have been problematic. Next time you find yourself struggling to make it perfect, remember to add in a little forgiveness.