Design Philosophy


I personally started out in the Aerospace industry (My bachelors is in Aerospace Engineering), and then moved thru automotive (I got a masters in Automotive Engineering) and finally into software development (Working on my MBA) where I work as a project manager.  As a project manager, we discuss design and development philosophies that can help us get to the best product possible.  My specific company, ANSYS Inc, has settled on the “agile development process” for software development, but I think that a number of its key principles can be applied to other areas.

For contrast, the Agile method is most often compared with the “Waterfall method“, in which everything is planned out in exhaustive detail and then built based on the plan.  Houses and bridges are built this way because it would be much harder to make changes along the way…  Software development can be more agile because it is relatively easy to make changes along the way.  While I agree that Waterfall is needed to construct a home (change orders are expensive), I think agile can apply very well when it comes to designing a home.

These are the key agile principles that we applied to our design process…

Break up the task


You can’t possibly form it all in your mind at once.  Trying to do so is daunting, just bite off a chew-able piece at a time.   There are different terminologies for this approach, but the basic idea is to start somewhere, lay a broad vision out and then start to repair the details at a finer level.  Along the way, you will have clashes and need to resolve issues.  For instance, you may want your kitchen on the East side where it will be full of morning light, but you may also want it close to the garage.  If proximity with your garage is pulling your kitchen to the west side, you have a conflict of requirements and you need to resolve it.  Perhaps that means a compromise or other adjustment that will cause conflicts in other areas…  Just process it one bit at a time.

The Book, “Building Green” by Clarke Snell, calls these bites “patterns”.   While  I don’t like that term, I like his idea of starting with a central vision (such as a passive solar earth sheltered home), and then moving on to the next most important general context (less broad in scope).  The second may conflict with the first, resolve that conflict and move on to the third.  Some “patterns” may work together, others will conflict.  Solve conflicts as you go.   Clarke suggests that in each step you identify a general context (such as “the entry way”) and then define the problems or goals that present themselves there (such as “provide a smooth transition between out and in” and “keep cold gusts out in winter”).   Then express solutions to the problem (identify elements that should come together to create a great “entry way” such as covered porch, room to greet, “airlock”,  bench for putting on shoes, near the driveway, easy to find, etc.).  Then illustrate the solution and move on to the next context or pattern…


This second tip is strongly related to the first…  You will need to take bites out of your project and adjust as you go, but the “agile project management” philosophy also includes aspects of transparency, of getting those ideas and adjustments out to the “stakeholders” as soon as possible for review.  Of course, in this context, the primary stakeholders are the family members who will be living in the house.  This transparency can be painful, you may not like what you hear.  It is better to find out your spouse hates a certain idea sooner rather than later.  Heck they may even have some good ideas or catch things you missed.

I saw one friends plans where he focused almost entirely on the entertainment room.  The detail of where the speakers would go was carefully spelled out, as was the path to and from the refrigerator, but other rooms were just dropped into place.  He was chronically single, so there was no one to complain, but his plans could have benefited from some balance.  Another member of my own extended family designed a home for his family, after it was all done and detailed, he finally showed it to his wife who immediately noticed that he had forgotten to include any bathrooms.  There are humorous cases, but I hope you get the point.

All of us are smarter than any of us…    But we need to share the vision to tap into that.

When designing an “alternative” home, this sort of dynamic is even more important because you will need to be a “team” to succeed.  A house divided against its self can not stand.

At some point, you will need to extend this transparency to your neighbors and perhaps even your mortgage lender.   You may even consider your friends and family to be minor stakeholders.  Not everyone will be as open to the idea.  You will hear things like, “What?  You want to live in a cave?  What about Earthquakes? Mold? Resale Value?   My friends and family may have thought some of these things, but they have actually been quite supportive.  You may not be so lucky ;).  In many cases, you may be able to educate some of these doubters.   Point out some of the good reasons for moving underground, contrast those with above ground homes, etc.   However, in some cases they might be right… Use these as sanity checks and do the research.  Perhaps you need to make a small adjustment.

In the end, you don’t need all your friends and family to be on board, but I don’t recommend going down this path without you spouse 😉   If your lender isn’t on board, I suggest it is time to find another ASAP.  (GreenStone Farm Credit Services seems to be pro Earth Shelter if you have your ducks in a row)

Working drawings


Scale drawings along the way will help you realize when your ideas just don’t fit.  I am not talking about fully dimensioned CAD drawings, those will come later after you have worked out all the kinks…  And I am not talking about rough sketches without dimensions; those also have their place, but are not enough…  I am talking about the between level of detail that lets you see if a bed or toilet will fit as you imagine.   I consider myself to be pretty good with 3D spatial visualization, but I have often had to revise my plans after drawing them out in scale.   We had a rough time laying out our guest quarters efficiently in the corner of the home allocated.   Only many iterations of adjusting scale drawings were we able to sort it all out.

Full scale is also very helpful.  We measured rooms, drew things out in chalk on the driveway, etc.   Finding rooms that are similar in dimensions to the ones you have planned are also helpful for the imagination…


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