Gonna build a house

Let’s pretend.

Say you came to me and said that your family wanted a new house. And that you were contracting me and my firm of experienced architects and house-builders to do the job.

And oh, you say, could we have it ready before the first week in December? Uncle Albert has a touch of the ague and the cold weather sets it off. Make sure the central heating’s working!

Fair enough, I’d say, I’ll have some sketches next week. You and your family can look them over, and when you’re happy, we’ll order the bricks and whatnot and build your house. That deadline’s a bit tight, but we’re confident we can do it in time.

So next Tuesday comes around and I show you our sketches. I show you the four bedrooms (master bedroom with en suite), the dining room, the living room, the two (count ’em!) bathrooms, the hallway with the especially designed rack for hanging raincoats and wicking away the water so you don’t get mould growing in your fitted kitchen (I have to admit, I’m particularly proud of the kitchen), the kennel for Rex, and of course a state-of-the art central heating and hot water system that is powered by a mix of solar energy and household waste. We’re forward-thinking like that, see.

Great! you say. Love it. Let me show the rest of the family and get back to you.

Weeks pass, and finally you get back to me. Awesome, you say. Everybody loves it. But can we have a garage, too?

Sure, I say. No problem. But we’re going to be a bit pushed to complete on time now. I’ll get you the plans we’ll work to next week, but we’ll need you to sign off on them within a couple of days, otherwise it’s going to hold us up and Uncle Albert is going to suffer unnecessarily. We’re already thinking that we might have to hold off on the garden shed and the swings for the kiddies until after winter, if you want everything else doing.

Fine, show me the blueprints on… Monday? Great!

Next Thursday I call you up. Hey, I say, we’re still waiting to hear from you. I got you the plans Friday night, and I understand if you weren’t checking your email over the weekend, but we really do need to get a move on here.

Sorry Richard. Got a bit tied up. Had to take Rex to the vet’s. All sorted now. Yes, the plans are fine. Awesome, actually. You can start digging, or building, or whatever it is you guys do.

I get back to the office and tell my expert team of experienced team of architects and builders that we can get this job done.

A month later you call me. Richard, you say. We just bought a new car. Lovely car. Shame for it to get wet. Best make it a double garage.

Okay, I say. Anything else?

Well, you say, we were wondering if we could stick a granny flat on at the back…?

I look at my watch.

Hmm. To be honest, we could, but we wouldn’t make the first week in December. How about we build to the specs we’ve got—

With the double garage?

—with the double garage, certainly, and come the new year we’ll negotiate a new price for building you a granny flat.

Actually, you say…


Actually, I was thinking we don’t really need the shed. Can we hold off on that and put the money saved towards the granny flat?

Yes, I say, you could. But you won’t get either of them by Christmas at this rate.

Okay, okay. Never mind. Hold off on the shed, we’ll talk about the granny flat after December.

Another couple of months pass. I’m just looking at paint swatches with my chief decorator.

Hey, Richard! Long time no see. How’s it going?

Brilliant, I say. Was just about to call you. We were thinking that you could go for the duck egg blue, but given the style of the façade and the furniture you already have, Georgian red would work really well.

Oh. Oh, I don’t know if Auntie Mabel would like that. I’ll have to check. But talking of Auntie Mabel, could you make sure that there’s wheelchair access from the street to the dining room, and a stairlift to her room?

A stairlift? We didn’t talk about a stairlift. I don’t think there’s money in the budget for that.

Ye-es, I’d thought of that. Use the money for the shed for it.

For the shed? You’re certain you don’t want the shed?

Right. Use the money to install a stairlift instead.

Which is, you realize, going to involve rebuilding the entire staircase?


Well, structural integrity for one thing. Getting all the parts in through the doors for another. This is really the sort of thing you should have thought about when we showed you the blueprints, if not the preliminary sketches.

Yeah, well, we didn’t check with Auntie Mabel.

You didn’t show the blueprints to Auntie Mabel?

Not ‘show’ as such. No.

And she’s going to live in the house…


…and you didn’t show her the blueprints.

That’s about it, yep!

Okay. Is there anybody else you didn’t show them to?

Um… No, I don’t think so.

All right. Here’s the deal. I can’t promise a stairlift. It’s at the absolute bottom of my list, and we’ll do it if we can. Okay?

Okay! And… I’ll go and talk to Auntie Mabel and Uncle Albert and the rest about the colour, shall I?

You do that.

All too soon, it’s the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. We’re putting in the wiring and choosing curtains. You come round to see me.

Hey, Richard! Thanks for doing the stairlift. And sorry about Auntie Mabel and the colour. Between you and me, the rest of us were rooting for the red, but you know how it is.

Sure. What have you got for me?

Well, we love what you’ve done. Awesome work. Everybody’s really happy.

Good. But… ?

Well, we’d like a cat-flap for Fluffy. And Ricky and Sharon are moving in with us. So we need a fifth bedroom. With an en suite on bedroom number three.

Sure. We can do that.

You can? I was worried it was too late!

No problem. It’ll be ready June next year.

June? But we need to move Uncle Albert in next month!

Well, it’s your choice, really. We can build the house to the designs we agreed to by next month. Or we can tear down half of it and have it ready for June with these new features.


I can probably do you the cat-flap, though.

It is now the 21st November. Auntie Mabel, Uncle Albert, and Ricky and Sharon and everybody all want to come and see and approve their new home tomorrow. And I won’t be able to make any changes after they’ve seen it.

Welcome, as they say, to my life.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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9 Responses to Gonna build a house

  1. Emily says:

    Amen! Couldn’t have said it better myself. 🙂
    Your friend,
    The Medical Writer

  2. Mark Frautschi says:

    One way to look at this problem is in terms of working memory. I think that there is a late 1950’s USAF sponsored study by Miller et al. called “The magical number seven plus or minus one” which was among the earliest to measure the number of new things a person could keep in mind at one time. Each phase in the negotiation you describe represents many choices and I would not be surprised if this magical number were exceeded each time. And that’s assuming no other distractions, which your story points out were manifold.

    There are many things that can consume working memory in a process like this, including the discussion of a simple architectural term unfamiliar to the client yet critical to the architect.

    I would not be surprised if working memory overflow prevented the client from receiving all of the input from the architect and, further, prevented or delayed a creative response or questioning about new requirements like a granny apartment or a cat door. The hysteresis effects then pile up as you describe well.

    My suggestion would be to look at the process and see if it could be enriched, perhaps by making it more visual and interactive. Could the exchanges be broken down into smaller chunks of new information? I wonder if a cartoon of the blueprints could be made in say four modes. Sleep. Eat. Work. Live. For each mode a marker for each ‘user’ of the house could be placed in several typical positions, for example, everyone would be in bed during the sleep phase. You could game it further by mapping the transitions. How will grandma get to her bedroom? Perhaps that would have revealed the need for a chair lift on the stairs.

    It would be a hell of a lot of work, and perhaps a company would need to be formed, but some sort of online model of the home could be built with the four (or whatever) modes illustrated. Every user gets a login. The architect can tell who has logged in, what rooms they have ‘visited’ and what modes they have exercised without needing to pester the client. When the architect does call the client, the interaction would be more focused. “I noticed that your children have been all over the house several times, that you and your wife visited the ‘life’ phase last week, and that Grandma and Grandpa have not visited at all.” This would also break down the information exchange into smaller chunks and spread it out over more minds and more experiences and needs. The need of the client to learn to ‘read’ blueprints, itself taxing of working memory, would be reduced.

    I am not sure if an online model is worth the effort to build it. That is a software architecture project in itself. These exist already, so it’s not like beginning from scratch. It may have its place, But being more in touch with, and working with, the client’s needs and very human limitations is my point here.

    In the end it comes down to a choice. As an architect, do you want to complain about the limitations your clients have, or do you want to find a way to serve the clients you have?

    Thanks for reading this.

  3. Excellent. The allegorical whatsit is beautifully observed. 😀

  4. rpg says:

    Mark, thanks for dropping by.

    I’m not entirely sure it’s a case of working memory. That’s why we have minuted meetings and email chains (in real life. Allegory is different, of course).

    We love our clients. And we continue to amaze them. We’re partly a victim of our own success.

    But a blog is a place to entertain and let off steam. Rest assured that I am already working on implementing processes so that the client will know exactly what we expect from them, and when, when we get the contract to build the next house.

  5. I couldn’t help but giggle while reading this. It is all very, very familiar.

    Get everything in writing – that’s what I’ve learned.

  6. By the way, can you move the house 10 feet to the left? Auntie Mabel wants to leave room for a rose garden. Ta.

  7. rpg says:

    That. Exactly that.

  8. rpg says:

    Oh, and Cath–even getting everything in writing doesn’t help, except when we turn round and say “NO!”.

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Did I say house? I wanted a houseboat.

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