Creative Process

Lately, I have been thinking about where creativity comes from.   I have read articles on the subject, sat in on Ted talks, etc. but this is my take on it.

Creative attributes

Creative people have a creative mindset that is open to ideas and looking for inspiration all the time.  If you were a painter, you would pay much more attention to the visuals around you, you would see more colors.  You would pay much more attention to how things look.  I remember going to an amusement park after my first year of engineering and all I could see was trusses, momentum, metallurgy and free body diagrams everywhere.  Since heading down this earth sheltered path, I constantly come across earth sheltered ideas including everything from welding and concrete to container gardening and tile setting and all the plumbing, HVAC and solar in between.  In the old days, it was a lot harder to find relevant new ideas, but the internet has changed all that.  Google and YouTube are really stimulating creativity by increased your chances of stumbling across things related to your earlier interests.  The world is at your finger tips

Creativity is also a collaborative process.  Yes, you can create something on your own, but even then you are building on earlier ideas you probably got from others.  When you collaborate, your creative juices flow more freely.  If you don’t collaborate with your spouse during the design of your earth sheltered home, you’re probably gona’ have a bad time.  If you collaborate with experienced builders, you could save a lot of time and money.  Collaboration with engineers or other earth sheltered building enthusiasts is a great way to get ahead of the learning curve.  I tend to have surges of productivity after good discussions with potential trades people who have a specialty in a certain area…  No one is universally creative.  Instead, we are creative within certain fields.  Someone who is musically creative may not be great at decorating or cooking.  There is also such a thing as engineering creativity or design creativity…  Again, this all goes back to your focus.  The more passion and focus you have for a given area, the more creative you can be within that field.  When building something like a home, you may need to tap into the creative fields of others to get the job done well.

Passion for an idea helps by compelling you to put more effort into it.  Building an earth sheltered home is not for the feint of heart and you should not even consider it if you are not at least a bit passionate about it.

The creative process

Creativity is much more than just a flash of inspiration.  In truth, there is a long process of working thru ideas that come in sparks and need work to bring to reality.   There has been research into this field and I probably got some of these ideas from various books, but since I was in the mindset, I have been subconsciously scanning for them in my own experience.  If you leave out elements of this process, it will stunt your creativity.  The inverse is also true.  You can stimulate your creative by consciously putting effort into these steps.  

Preparation is the first step.  It could be research on the topic or practicing essential skills.  It could just be your full life experience that puts you in the position to be creative in a certain area.  For my earth sheltered home, I have a couple engineering degrees as a good solid foundation, but then I have read more than 2 dozen books on the subject and as many magazine articles as I could find.  Every bit of information helps me interpret later knowledge, and new information may lead to a rethink on earlier concepts.  I have become an expert (at least a theoretical one) on many related topics.  Actually building an earth sheltered home will add to my experience.  Reading this blog counts as preparation for building an earth sheltered home.  Your background may be unique, perhaps it is in a trade that would be just as useful as my engineering degrees, but you will probably want to read a few books anyway.  Passion for the subject will compel you to prepare.

Next comes the incubation phase.  This could be over night (sleep on it) or during your daily life between preparation.  I get a lot of good thinking done in the shower without computers or other people to distract me.  Since you are in a creative mindset, your brain is tuned in and scanning for relevant inspiration.  Your subconscious is working to put everything together.  Opportunities for collaboration come up and ideas come to the fore.  No one really knows how it all works in our heads, but we have all felt it.  It is my number one excuse for procrastination.  It is why people can spend years designing a home, and then still want to make changes as it is being built (which can be pricey).

After you incubate all that important preparation, you get sparks!  Some people would have you believe that the creative spark is the most important part of the process, but it is just a result of doing the first two steps right and then being open to what comes out.  It may be that more “creative” people are just more “open” to their sparks (along with having more passion and doing more preparation/practice).  I remember the day that I figured out that I would use the open ends of my radiating vaults as dormers…  It solved a design problem that I had been mulling over for a while and it was great feeling.

Some people get too many sparks, not all of them are good and too many can be distracting.  I guess it is key to know the difference.  You need to carefully select the right sparks to develop.  Here again collaboration can be helpful.  Running a crazy idea by your spouse can help.  In many cases my wife (who is smart, with her own masters degree, but doesn’t have the same preparation in the earth sheltered field as I have) has no idea what I am talking about half the time, but I find that just explaining the idea out loud to someone else can help me decide if I should keep it or trash it.  Some ideas have been trashed and then dug up later when other information increased their value.

Schematic to illustrate a two part overhang (Solid + Trellis) as an effective "passive solar" design

Cross section showing the sloped front of the house with the vault end as the dormers.  It may not seem like much now, but I liked it much better than the large flat front or fake mansard roof I have seen on most other earth sheltered homes.

After an idea/spark is selected, you need to elaborate on it.  The devil is in the details…  You think you have a good spark, but just wait until you CAD it up, or do the math/trig, or combine it with other ideas.  It will either develop into something useful or be proven a bad idea.  Elaboration takes work, planning and maybe even some experimentation.  In my case with the spark of treating the ends of the vaults as dormers, I quickly found that if I sloped the dirt (like earth on a roof) at something near the angle of repose (lets say 45°) from the large end of a vault, it meant that I had no dirt at the edge of the roof and significantly reduced coverage on the outer half of the roof.  Visually, the dormer was too large and I still had to deal with how to retain the earth at the end of the vaults.   I was just about to give up on that spark, when it occurred to me that I could bring the front edge of the roof forward.  Suddenly, the dormers looked right and the earth coverage on the home was sufficient…  Of course, now I had to work out another problem (which some architects call a “pattern”), how to create an overhang strong enough to support that earth?

Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) is famous for saying “God is in the details”, I like that better.


This process of preparation, incubation, spark, selection and elaboration is not just a linear one.  It gets repeated over and over again iteratively.  Problems appear and creative solutions are found.  Costs are estimated, ideas are scaled back, etc.  It takes time and work.  It is a journey and I am enjoying it.




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