Possibility thinking


Do you ever get fixated on an idea or plan? And then realize you can’t let go of it for something better? This happens to me.Check with my family members, and they’ll tell you I have a bit of a stubborn streak. (Okay, maybe it’s a mile-wide stubborn streak, but hey.) Suppose I’ve got a problem to solve: I’ll do my thinking and get hooked – sometimes too quickly – into a solution. Then, like a terrier with a toy, I’ve got my teeth sunk so deep into my plan, I have trouble envisioning other possibilities.

We see this phenomenon sometimes with home owners.  I’m sympathetic to their plight.


Once, many years ago, I planned a kitchen remodel in my home. Oh, boy, I knew exactly what I wanted. I had it all worked out in my head. I sketched it up on graph paper. I was so clever. Except that when I sat down with my builder, there were – ahem -- problems with my scheme. There was the need for a supporting beam, for example. Oh. And there was my clumsy attempt to solve a storage problem. Not to mention expensive plumbing and electrical issues, and my goofy notions about spatial relationships. My remodeling contractor was kind and patient. He pushed my plan aside and walked me backwards: What exactly was I trying to achieve? What were my goals? What did I need? How much did I want to spend? After much discovery and discussion, the final plan solved my problems in ways that surprised and delighted me, while still incorporating some of my ideas.

Here’s four things I know now about planning a new home or remodel:

1.  Let the experts work for you.

I’m good at a lot of things, but I am neither a construction expert (that would be Wayne) nor an architect. My misguided attempt back then to do their jobs for them left me both humbled by my naivety and grateful for their expertise and skill.

2.  It’s great to know what you want.

Do your homework:

  • Be prepared to articulate your problems.
  • Make lists and goals, and prioritize them.
  • Cut out photos.
  • Bookmark web pages.
  • Draw sketches.
  • Know what you can afford to spend.

The more details you can provide and the better you communicate them to your design/build team, the greater the opportunity for a superb result, whether it’s for a new home or a remodel.

For example, recently some new clients handed us a rough, hand-drawn conceptual sketch of the home they want to build. Not so much a layout as an idea about how they wanted to live in the home. It was a good start. It gave us a grasp of their concept, and it really helped to facilitate discussion and jump start their project.

Another example. One day last week, Wayne and I were enjoying dinner with a former client. We were reminiscing about her home remodel and, specifically, about her kitchen. “All I knew was that I wanted a laundry room nearby, and I had 37 baking sheets and all this stuff I needed to store. I didn’t know how to make that happen,” she said to Wayne, “but you did.”

3.  Stay open to possibilities.

While it’s great to know what you want, take care you don’t rush to answers and then dictate them to your design/build team.  In your haste, you could miss the opportunity to explore possibilities and, perhaps, to discover better, more cost effective ways to achieve your goals.

This is especially true when it comes to green building and energy efficiency. For example, suppose you want to reduce the cost to operate your home by reducing energy costs, and you’ve decided – woo-hoo -- you want solar panels. Well, okay, but hang on a minute. First, let’s make sure you’ve done everything you can to get the best bang for your buck by sealing leaks, improving the efficiency of your air conditioning system, and insulating properly. Otherwise, you could end up with another leaky, inefficient house with a solar photovoltaic system.  Kind of counterproductive.  Sorry to say, but some improvements you make to a home are decidedly unglamorous yet practical in terms of longevity and payback, sort of like investing in new tires or buying socks.

Another example of staying open to possibility: In a design meeting last week, several optional floor plans were spread out on the table. The client said to me, “I’ve been walking around with a vision in my head of how things might look. Now that I see these plans of what’s actually possible, they’re great. But I’m having to reset my thinking so I can wrap my head around these ideas.”

And one more example. Often, home owners get excited when they decide to build a green, energy-efficient home. They get busy reading and doing research. This is great. Once in a while, someone thinks they’ve found the one best answer, and they show up at our door with a fixed idea about particular way to build, or a particular product or material they want to use. Sometimes what they have in mind makes sense.  Sometimes it doesn’t. With green building, it’s not just one thing, it’s how all the pieces fit together. Plus, as my grandma used to say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. So during discussions, Wayne walks these folks backwards: "What is it you’re trying to achieve with that particular method or product? What do you want your home to do? How do you want to live in your home?  Let's talk about different ways to meet your goals."

4.  Take your time.

Whether it's a new home or a remodel, take your time to get all your goals, requirements, and priorities out on the table. Then you can work with your design/build team to sort through them, examine different ways to achieve your goals, and come up with a great plan that will produce superb results.