The Intimate Work of Designing a Home

Designing a home is no mean feat. It is a project of intimate importance to the client, and one small enough in which each seemingly minor decision can have a significant experiential impact. But when clients are willing to take part in a collaborative process, it is possible to create magic. Architect and author Duo Dickinson describes in this op-ed his experience with such a project, looking back at the work with clear eyes and a vision to the future. This article was originally published by Dickinson on his blog Saved by Design. 

In designing a place, perhaps eight years ago, I had brought my client through a number of built projects that I had designed. He is a very thoughtful human: decisions are not reactions to him, they are reflections and deductions. After seeing these various projects he responded with great enthusiasm that one had an interior that he, and subsequently his partner, loved.

We pushed forward with the design -  it took a year of back and forth - but all was right with the world and building began. The exterior retained its magic, despite my intimacy with its essence.

But the interior had to wait a planned one year absence by the builder. I visited this remote place, and, at my request was left alone on the site, walking through the raw, untouched, interior. The hours were spent reviewing the drawings I had brought with the rough-framed insides. I was in the glow of an exterior that seemed to have a life of its own, beyond my hard understanding.

And I knew I had made a series of errors in judgments on the yet unfinished interior design. Not the layout: it was right there. But in the fealty to the love of the other project I had designed in full accord with my loved clients – that my client had loved.

But in following that aesthetic model, I had lost the magic. The proposed interior was a creative, crafty homage to the house he had seen, that was a retrofit into the house I was in. That home has a life of active grace in terms of shape, site, it’s spaces, inside and out, and I had done the completely wrong projection of what he had seen. That model interior design was pretty damn nice, and I simply, professionally, adapted that, wiped my hands after a few months of careful detailing and walked away.

Until I saw, in real time, what those realities would have meant to this house.

It, the original design, was the right thing to do: they saw, they liked, I did too. It was defendable. They liked what I had done after all, it was not imitating someone else. It was me imitating me - a mistake.

My error was obvious in the silence of my confrontation with what was. I had to offer to fix it. I offered, on me, to show my client, and now friend, what the interior could be – to me, should be. He agreed. And then, upon seeing what I knew was gist of the house nurtured and birthed in its interior, they agreed to spend the extra money to redesign the interior detailing.

And it worked.

The mistake defined the beauty of the house that I had already designed. The mistake, uncorrected, would have been throughly defendable, nice, to some not that much different. But is was wrong. It was wrong the way I am often wrong. Doing the right thing, ignorant of why I am doing it. Silence revealed that mistake. Because I think that silence offers truth.

I could see, more, I could feel, the reality that was obvious, always in me, that the beauty of the outside filled my eyes with. I could not rationalize my earlier effort. I could not justify it to my client, because it was, indeed, justifiable. It was right and good.

But it was wrong. But it was not the magic and beauty of the place I had defined that perched and glistened upon a site. I am wrong daily. You are too, I would guess. But the beauty of life is, for me, having what is around us, what we do, revealed to us as not just justifiable or defendable, but revealed to us as beautiful.

The exhausted frustration of dealing with a baby is so mistaken and impossible to avoid. Now, here, 25 years after we had babies I see that, in the silence of our home. It’s only in the silence can I see the exquisite power of infants that I saw briefly, intermittently, while I was in the midstream of raging parenthood.

I was wrong not to see it. But I could not see it. That does not mean that I should not have seen it – I regret that now with each insanely beautiful child I see. But I could not see that beauty until I got away from it a bit.

It is often just harder to know that you are wrong rather than just defend it. It’s more expensive when the basis of my life is doing things the best I can, but that does not mean making money. Or defining success as some professional social swirl. It is harder to know that silence is inevitable.

And that I will have to listen to it.

About this author
Cite: Duo Dickinson. "The Intimate Work of Designing a Home" 23 Sep 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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