I think we can all agree that good design, like quality and beauty, is hard to define, but “we know it when we see it.” Looking at the winners of this year's Remodeling Design Awards, the question is not whether they represent good design — they most assuredly do. The question, rather, is how do they achieve it? What is it about the projects collected here that distinguishes them from designs that are serviceable but merely ordinary?
This is a question worth asking, because all remodeling projects deserve good design but, I'm sorry to say, too few receive it. This is partly another symptom of an industry that still has too few barriers to entry, but more often it is the result of an oversimplification of what good design entails.
Elements of Great Design The classic tests are for function, durability, and beauty. All remodelers would agree that good design should serve a practical end, but too many believe that simply rearranging a floor plan meets the standard. A floor plan is two-dimensional, and good design demands thinking in three dimensions. It is sculpture with a purpose, and there is more to that purpose than simply providing a roof over our heads or a way to move from one room to the next. A vaulted ceiling is “expensive air,” as one of my carpenters used to call it, if thought of merely as the underside of a roof. But it takes on a deeper purpose if it serves to uplift the spirit of those who gather under its protection.
Good design should last a long time. This is true in the sense of good engineering — stout beams and tight connections — but also in the sense of timeless relevance. The materials should be durable, not only in resisting the elements, but in their appeal to the eye and the touch. And the structural elements should be arranged so that they not only resist gravity, but they do so in a logical way.
Finally, good design should appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities. Often, this is mostly a matter of the details, the smallest parts of a building — the texture of tile, the shadow created by a band of trim, the play of light through a well-placed window.
Good design is difficult to achieve in new construction, which — except for the site — is a clean slate. It is even more difficult in remodeling, because good design must be compatible not only with the existing structure but with others in the immediate neighborhood. The decision to replicate, complement, or contrast with what has come before is the background against which every designer makes his or her choices.
Remodelers vs. Designers So, back to our original question: How is good design achieved? My best answer is: When it's put into the hands of professionals. Remodelers who either have architects or professional designers on staff or who contract for third-party professional design services consistently produce better-designed projects.
Don't take this the wrong way. There are remodelers with a flair for design. But they are the exception that proves the rule. The skills we bring to our businesses and that we learn while building our businesses have more to do with the nuts and bolts of putting materials together than with deciding which of those materials is most appropriate for the design. Our sales and marketing skills are considerable, but they are better suited to high lighting value and building relationships than they are to designing pleasing spaces. And although we know which products and which brands we prefer to work with, our judgment is guided more by their utility and the reliability of the supplier we obtain them from than their aesthetic appeal.
Can good design be learned? Absolutely.