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  • June 14, 2012

A Mind Forever Designing

The conference room. It’s a silly name, really, because these rooms never host a conference. It is a room for meetings, a place to duck into for a private conversation or an ad hoc boxing bout between the CFO and the top sales guy. Decorative Illustration

In Austin, our new conference room was planned to be rectangular with 9 1/2-foot walls, a door, and a bounty of the always-awesome combination of ceiling tiles and fluorescent lighting. It was the first idea from the architects that I redlined. While I wanted something simple, they took this to mean the DMV. Thankfully, I just needed to give them a bit of direction and they appeared relieved that they didn’t have to design crap.

The next iteration featured a clear garage door that would act as a ceiling when open and a bank of windows when closed. This was a cheap alternative to an otherwise twenty-thousand dollar wall of glass. It was a cool idea until the architects realized that in order for someone to leave the conference room during a meeting, the entire door would have to be opened and then there was a problem with lighting and fire safety, so the whole idea got scrapped.

The last iteration called for 12 1/2-foot walls and the use of a “barn door” that wasn’t really a barn door but it did move from side to side. The property managers got into the game by offering the use of some doors that were already on the property. The next day we inspected them and the general contractor confirmed that he could make the doors work, so we checked it off the list and moved on to other rooms, materials, paint colors, and lighting fixtures.

Within two weeks, we designed the entire office space on paper with a handful of tiny material samples. Satisfied with the drawings, everything was sent to the City of Austin for approval. That all happened in early January, when we were on track to build the new office and move in with plenty of time to prepare for hosting a SXSW party, but that never happened. Instead, our awesome party plans sat in an inbox somewhere on the desk of a city clerk for the next four months.

Many moons passed while we continued to work in a temporary space designed by someone with a deep passion for 90’s movie theaters and The Shining. Imagine a ten thousand square foot space with maroon floral carpet, deep maroon walls paired perfectly with exposed air ducts, plumbing, and a wood ceiling painted forrest green. Add wall sconces that were inspired by a bad night with a Kenny G album and you get an idea of the Designing Women hell we have had to work in for the last six months.

Finally, in the beginning of May, news arrived that our construction permit was about to be approved and work would begin immediately. And that’s when the real fun began.

Once everything from the previous tenants had been demolished and cleaned out, the contractor put down blue lines for us to get an idea of room dimensions. While the architects had used standard sizes for the conference room, it was barely big enough to get people in, let alone walk around the room. We went through one more iteration and called an audible. Within 24 hours, the sticks were up and walls were in. It wasn’t until after the sheetrock went up that I realized we had made a huge mistake with the conference room.

The one room that we need to be the most functional and inviting had been designed to be the perfect cave. Turns out that 12 1/2-foot walls with “barn doors” does a great job of blocking out a lot of natural light. Somehow during the architectural phase we had gone from DMV to Translucent Garage to “Barn Doors.” Remember the ample lighting provided by all the fluorescent tubes? Those were replaced by a handful of Edison bulbs which provide the lumination of a lightning bug’s behind. I’m standing in the middle of this room and thinking to myself, “we have to host an important client meeting in this room weeks from now and it looks like the perfect setting for a Jihadi prom: Khyber Pass, A Night to Remember.”

Duh?! Right?! Facepalm.

It’s at this time that two things happened: I turned into the type of client we try to avoid and my checkbook sought entry into a twelve-step abuse program.

Now that the general contractor and I were able to be in the space, we were able to see where all of our best thinking from January didn’t work as planned. I wondered if all of this might have been avoided if we had maybe spent more time “documenting” the design of the space. With the type of planning we did, I have to say no because it’s impossible for blueprints to provide a holistic view. Perhaps if more research, thinking, and drawing were done we could have detected how these ideas would fail, but at the end of the day it’s still only on paper. In this type of project, you’re either spending more money on an architect drafting ideas or with the general contractor where you can be more hands on with the problems.

This has a few parallels to what we do every day here at Happy Cog. In the last six months, we’ve started to consider that throwing more “paper” plans at an interactive project doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount of problems encountered when the design and development work begins later on. Clients (myself included) do their best to use these artifacts to visualize our solutions to their problems but in the end, it’s still too much guess work from both sides of the project: client and contractor. It’s not really until there is something which which to interact that we can catch details missed, no matter how large or small they are. I believed this before my stint as a client and after this project, I believe it even more.

Over the course of the last week, we have made tweaks to the lighting by adding recessed cans which will require more J boxes, switches, and touch up painting. The “barn doors” never made it to the dance despite all of the extra framing and header blocks that we had installed to support their weight. The conference room entrance will now sport a 9-foot door and a 9×5-foot wall of glass panels that will help welcome the abundant natural light. When its all finished, our conference room will beat up your conference room any day of the week.

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