With the holidays here, I was tasked with assembling the gifts for my 2-1/2 year old daughter. This is an occupational hazard of every architect and contractor I know. Let’s see: five years of undergrad, three years of internship and two in graduate school, and architects stand out as the best in the family at putting large toys together. (I also get asked by friends to assemble Ikea furniture in exchange for pizza.)
My mother-in-law, in her infinite wisdom, gave my daughter a mini kitchen. Perhaps you have seen these in the stores: half-scale kitchenettes complete with integrated drainage board, undermount sink and cabinet lighting. The box features a young girl happily playing in her kitchen, demonstrating that toy companies may still get their marketing from the sexist Seventies. Despite the anachronism, they know their toys. My daughter, still yet unaware of the feminist movement, screamed in delight at seeing her new kitchen. The gift was, by far, the biggest hit of the holiday. She wanted to sleep in it last night.
Assembly of the kitchen was assigned to me, of course. Opening the large box revealed the same components you’d expect in unpacking a real kitchen: two large slabs of countertop, base cabinet and upper cabinets. The plastic oven, microwave and refrigerator snapped easily into their assigned spaces. Subtle design “features,” such as accent tiles, crown molding and drawer pulls were added with stickers or snap in handles. All of it was rendered in lightweight plastic, so structural ribs were integrated into the monolithic shapes to add rigidity. As I stepped back and inspected the assembled unit, I found myself admiring the thought that went into the design of the assembly.
From the graphical layout of the numbered instructions, to the predrilled holes provided for the screws, the entire act of putting this thing together was deliberately designed to be easy to understand, affordable to produce and to minimize the chance of poor craftsmanship. Nothing was left to chance and it was all by design.
If only our real kitchens could be so simple.
The irony is that the price to have this simplicity at the end requires a vast amount of design complexity at the upfront. Consider the following lessons from my daughter’s toy kitchen:
Design for assembly: Since we know our kitchens have to be put together and we may not be present when that happens, we should design and document the sequence of events. A great exercise may be for you to imagine you have to create an instruction manual for your client to assemble the kitchen.
Design for shipping: The various components of the kitchen must be delivered from some place, so we could reduce cost and unpacking labor by better understanding the constraints and size limitations in the shipping. After all, have you ever worked on a project where the cabinets were unable to fit through the front door? (I know it happened to me once…)
Eliminate any decisions that need to be made by a contractor: Most of the stress and worry during a project comes from when the realities of construction meet the abstract nature of the design drawings. Architects and designers should anticipate the decision points a contractor would have to make and eliminate them. Better drawings, better design could do this and reduce headaches at the end of the project.
Prefabrication: Entire chunks of the kitchen could be prefabricated in the controlled conditions of a factory rather than the unpredictable ones on a job site. Prefabrication speeds up construction, improves quality and lowers cost. These benefits would overcome the additional cost of shipping. Pre-approved assemblies could also avoid the need for on-site inspections.
Computer milling and cutting: Product and toy designers have been taking advantage of computer milling and rapid prototyping machines for years. The building industry could fabricate entire portions of their kitchens with such devices. Imagine how a 3D printer could produce a cabinet, counter, backsplash and sink all in one, solid piece. Such forms could allow you to tighten and improve design tolerances down to near zero.
Embrace appliances as components: Although appliances come in standard sizes (i.e.: dishwashers are typically 24 in.), their installation is overly complicated and prone to contractor error. Appliance manufacturers could take a cue from computers or car stereos and create a standard for installation. A standardized sleeve could be part of every kitchen into which your oven or dishwasher would snap into place. Connections to water, gas and electric would also snap into place. Installing a cooktop could take 2 minutes.
Mass production: Toy manufactures benefit from the economy of scale of the mass production of their products. It would not be cost-effective to produce customized molds for a kitchen you would only create once. Instead, we should mass produce our designs. Envision the design as a product to be marketed to everyone and design it. The idea of creating every kitchen as a one-off, customized creation is expensive, time-consuming and, frankly, narcissistic. Design entire sections of the kitchen to be recreated for other clients.
Mass customization: All of these tools can combine to allow for an infinite number of possibilities. Digital CNC milling machines could give each project a customized cabinet door or insignia. They can change the colors, but not the arrangement.
In a real kitchen environment, such ideas could transform the construction industry and return architects and designers back to their rightful role as the masters of design.
While this added upfront work would have numerous benefits to the quality, cost and sustainability of the finished design, only a handful of experimenting designers have even tried it. Sadly, most architects and designers have avoided, ignored or passed off such responsibilities. Reduced fees, bargain hunting clients and the litigious nature of the construction industry have all pushed this trend of reduced design responsibility for decades.
But the unforeseen result of this trend has been to make us into glorified specifiers. The real opportunities to improve the quality, craftsmanship, usability and sustainability of our designs is missing. The mechanized world of digital technology could, ironically, spur a return to warm craftsmanship. As designers, we could prove our value by designing projects that are more beautiful, less expensive and of higher quality. All just by learning some lessons from our toys.