The design was simpler than we ever imagined

November 25, 2009

We had an affectionate connection to our Quaker meeting house in Portland, but it didn’t work very well.  The circulation was poor, so that after meeting for worship, visitors had a hard time finding refreshments, and we had a hard time finding each other.  There was no handicapped accessible bathroom.  And we knew that with our growing population of young families, we’d need more space for children’s programs.  We could imagine adding more space, but not any natural way to cure our building’s problems.

Than misfortune hit us with grace.  Part of the plaster ceiling in the meeting room had detached from its framing, and so we hired a contractor to remove and replace that ceiling.  They had just started the demolition face when the whole ceiling fell — exposing framing that was dangerously weak.  Luckily nobody was hurt. At one point in our history, there had a been a removable partition dividing the meeting room into separate area for men and women, and when that had been taken out some important structural members had been compromised as well.  Luckily the pending failing of these beams was announced by the falling ceiling, and we were able to put up temporary bracing to make the space safe.

But now there was no putting off major work on our building.  We engaged as one of our meeting members, Chris Wriggins, as  architect for this project.  His recommendation to us was startling and disturbing.  Chris noted that our meeting room was a long rectangle, and that by simply removing one end of that room and turning that space into a wide hallway, we’d have excellent circulation right through the core of our building.  There would be enough space to create a new wide stairway to the lower level, with a power lift riding alongside that stair.  That would make the already large bathroom accessible to all.  Finally, we could put a modest addition on the rear of the building, creating new classroom space.

What was disturbing about this plan was that it entailed cutting off part of our meeting room — and that room was our reason for existing.  It seemed unthinkable that we’d diminish that space — at least until we thought carefully about it.  But we realized that the meeting  room, even without that end, was large enough for almost all our gatherings.  And for those events where we couldn’t fit, the space in question wouldn’t make any difference.  (Very large funerals were typically held at another church in town.)  Finally, we tended to arrange chairs in a circular formation, so making the room more square might even feel like an improvement.

We decided to go forward with this plan, and have found that the renovation turned out to be an improvement in every way.  The meeting space feels more comfortable, circulation is better, the addition does provide important new space, and the overall project was not as costly as many of us feared.

I tell this story to illustrate some key points in this design thinking:

  • Chris Wriggins, the architect, was able to put aside emotional reactions and look clearly at the space and circulation issues presented.
  • His solution represented a new paradigm for how to deal with the building.  (Rather than just add the spaces we said we needed, he changed the whole building’s circulation.)
  • While the solution seemed obvious once it was put forth and argued, it was “out of bounds” to most of us before that.
  • The solution was remarkably simple.

What enabled Chris Wriggins to see this simple solution, while the rest of us couldn’t even imagine it?  He’d never seen exactly this problem before, or even one that was very close.  He had no special tools, and no advanced technology.  As a member of our community, he shared our emotional connections to the space and how it was used.

Clearly, something in his training led to a kind of design thinking that led him to a crucial idea that was the key to this solution.  I wish I could explain — actually wish I could fully understand — that design thinking.  But suffice to say that it is distinctive, that it’s of special value, and that it’s relevant in most aspects of our institutional and individual lives.  Design thinking is central.

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One Response to “The design was simpler than we ever imagined”

  1. great information thanks for discussing, hope you had a superb new year.

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