Skip to main content

Degree of Difficulty

July 29, 2023
Degree of Difficulty

Back in Canada I worked for an Architect who once likened the practice of Architecture to Olympic figure skating. There is technical skill, finesse, creative interpretation, performance, competition, and success is in part a judgment call. In scoring one looks at all of those elements and judges not only the execution but the degree of difficulty that a skater establishes throughout their routine. Attempting a quad-axel has the potential of a higher score but also increases the risk of failure. These parameters are not unlike those in architecture, though competition and performance are more applicable to high profile public commissions than most residential work. But the notion of degree of difficulty is one that has stuck with me, and it's one of the ways I describe choices to customers as we negotiate our way through the design phase.

One of the most common questions during the design process is, ‘How much will it cost?’ Custom home design is by its very nature, specific. We can offer ballpark figures based on previous projects, and cost-per-square-foot benchmarks. Site work- driveway, septic, well, landscaping is estimated separately. This applies for ancillary spaces as well- basements, attics, garages, porches & decks. In an accurate cost analysis, all time & materials must be accounted. Without that analysis, I know that Scheme-A with five distinct volumes and roof elements will be more expensive than Scheme-B with a simple rectangular plan and roof, but by how much? It depends on a lot of factors: the site, size, materials, construction methods, level of detail, and market conditions. When it comes to finishes, there is also a range of possibilities.

mountain loft

Degree of difficulty includes all the above, complexity would be another word for it. Some of this is determined by the site, such as flat with firm soil near the road vs. steep and rocky perched high above or below. The exterior massing plays a big role, ranging from small simple boxes to large colliding forms or complicated shapes. Exterior articulation and detail are factors, such as projecting bays, expressive structure, ornamentation, and masonry work. Similar factors apply inside such as the extent of custom cabinetry, millwork details, the extent of tile work, and the cost of fittings and fixtures. The expression of structure adds a connection to gravity and the process of building- posts, beams and various joints. Crisp and minimal flush detailing also adds difficulty, eschewing typical exigencies hidden by millwork. The customer determines much of this through their program and appetite for detail.

Architecture can be thought of as a hierarchy of layers. It starts with purpose and space, followed by structure, systems and surface. If we get the bones right, the other layers fall into place more easily. Those layers can also blur together and change places. A project might be driven by structure, or surface, or they might be one and same, at least conceptually. So we weave back and forth between concept, form and detail. Back to the figure skating analogy, there are technical requirements, physical finesse, the music, the narrative, costumes, the emotion and execution, all brought together into a seamless whole. And if not? It's like a project that doesn't quite come together, where the parts don't quite add up to a pleasing gestalt. Or perhaps it's just not to your liking. There is no denying individual taste in the experience and evaluation of architecture.

Generally through the design process an alignment is found between aspirations, complexity and budget. It is in the nature of the service to be optimistic and seek solutions that work on a number of levels. Occasionally there's a misalignment between expectations and reality that no creative bridge can span. Involving a contractor early on can bring an impartial eye to the scope and budget for the work. In balancing the pressures and decisions affecting a project one aims for the sweet spot of the right application of effort, the right degree of difficulty. This creative synthesis is for me the crux of residential design.