usable house & requirements gathering

After reading Bridging the gap with requirements definition I suddenly remembered my favorite example of design-urge overcoming user-centeredness. […]

After reading Bridging the gap with requirements definition I suddenly remembered my favorite example of design-urge overcoming user-centeredness.

My grandparents hired my step-grandmother’s son to design their house. He’s a formal architect, and had studied Frank Lloyd Wright. My step-grandmother is a tiny woman… 4’10” or the like. really tiny. A while back, I was in the house the architect designed for my grandparents, and she was complaining about this house. It seems that she had thought that this would be the first time she would finally have a kitchen that fit her. But no, like every kitchen she’d ever encountered, most of the cupboards are up too high for her to reach.

Even worse, as she’s grown older, she can’t stand atop a stepstool as easily as she did when she was younger.

So what happened? The architect certainly knew the house owner was tiny– he had known her literally all his life. He knew her age and fragility as well.

I have two theories… one is that he was so excited to design a house– architects get to do this less and less– he forgot who he was building it for and built his dream house without considering the inhabitants. My second thought is that the patterns of kitchen were so deeply imbedded in his head he forgot they could be changed. I hope to see my uncle-in-law again sometime, so I can ask. For now I just see their house as a message to remember the person who must spend hours with the thing you design, while you’ve moved off to the next fun challenge.

Requirements gathering, especially user requirements, can make a big difference to the pleasure your design affords.


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  1. 1

    It’s also possible that the architect was thinking about resale and designing to commonly accepted standards rather than custom specs that would make it even more problematic for future owners. Customization can make sense. It may have made sense for your grandmother, but it can also trap you with unanticipated consequences.

  2. 2

    Then he was thinking of his own profit over my grandmother’s… since she had made it clear what she wanted…. Well, this train of thought is starting to creep me out…

  3. 3

    argh. the architect just wasn’t thinking.

    i haven’t been particularly active in home renovations since the mid nineties, but even then we had books and journal articles on how to make homes accessible, and more accessible as the clients age. it’s not a black art.

    things like build the cabinet around the sink so it can be removed later, and the sink lowered, for wheelchair access without needing a full rebuild. there’s so many things, just like web accessiblity, that just require some forethought and small investment to avoid an inevitable major rebuild down the road.

    as for frank wright… he’s a great designer and a poor engineer. fallingwater should be called falling concrete. architects must study the repair history of his houses, not just the drawings. typical frank soundbite when yet another client complained about roof leaks: “that’s how you know it’s a roof.”

    frank would build a web site that only ran in ie6 with cookies on, then claim that was the only way to access his brilliance.

    architects and web designers who think access means unsightly wheelchair ramps stapled onto their design just don’t know much about design yet. if they did, the design would be beautiful _and_ accessible. but that takes real talent

  4. 4

    It might also be said that Frank Lloyd Wright — like most “star” architects — was a sculptor rather than an architect.

    Unfortunately architecture — like graphic design or writing — all-too-often has aspirations to fine art that denigrade practical and pragmatic considerations. It’s the equivalent to the techie’s fascination with technology for technologies sake, or the complaint I just saw in one IT magazine that (some) projects managers are more obsessed with a perfect process than getting the project finished.

    Ultimately it all stems from the same root: hubris.

    Unfortunately, too many people can’t seem to realize Howard Roake might’ve been a good fictional hero (if you’re into Ayn Rand) but a lousy role model.

  5. 7
    Randolph Fritz

    The most likely explanation, I think, is that the cabinetry was simply left to the carpenters. FLLW was notoriously poor at designing kitchens, by the way.

  6. 8
    Donna Maurer

    Interestingly, my husband and I have recently designed a house (well the architect did the drawing work, but we did the design).

    There were lots of points where things didn’t seem quite right, but I’d think “oh, it will be OK – I’ll get used to it” then think “hang on, this is my house and I have a chance to do something about these annoying things”.

    It is so easy just to go with the flow and not think about the tricky issues sometimes…

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