Good Design Requires Patience

I've ended up in a lot of conversations lately about the house work and landscaping, and they seem to revolve around the idea that we are incredibly patient. This has come up lately in reference to my possession of a three-inch seedling for a slow-growing garden tree that will end up twelve feet tall. But it also has been said of our ability to deal with delays in the stair work because of weather, delays in plaster repairs because I've been away at school, and so on.

I'd love to say that we're so patient because we have some kind of unnatural ability to hold in our glee or repress our natural urge to do it all NOW, but for the most part, we are patient because we simply do not have the kind of money it would require to do everything right now. Hand me a few million dollars (I mean, this is the Bay Area) and I would spend every penny fixing up everything in the house right now, without a question.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for taking your time. For one thing, a healthy dose of patience will make your home renovation project much less stressful. One of the reactions to my post on red flags was a note from a reader saying that all that back-and-forth with the contract would take forever, and it would be impossible to get a project done when you wanted it done. That is certainly true. However, I have some excellent real-life experience showing me the value of a well-written contract in renovations.

In project management, there's this old chestnut: "Fast, Cheap, Good: choose two." Sometimes, it's worth it to spend extra money to get a product on the market fast. Sometimes, it's worth putting out something cheap and not so good just to get it out fast. On the other hand, we're not talking about software here, and we're not talking about manufacturing products. We're talking about the place where you will be living. We may be talking about more money than you've spent on anything other than the house before.

When you're in a hurry to get things done, especially in a contractor market like we have now, you will end up paying more and getting the contractors who don't have a full schedule, which means they are bad contractors. So fast almost always means both bad and expensive.

To clarify, there are only two reasons why you need to get a contractor to work on a job right now:

  1. Situation creates a possible mortal threat (the furnace is broken in a freezing climate, or the roof is in fact collapsing, and not just sagging perceptibly)
  2. Raw sewage in living space (no explanation necessary)

Other than that, it's bad, but you can live with it while you find the right person to do the job, write a good contract, and schedule the work to be done.

But more important, I think, is that time gives you all kinds of gifts.

When we started working on the house renovation right after we moved in, we went under the assumption that all the rooms would basically stay with their original use. Then one day Noel asked me how hard it would be to swap the kitchen and dining room, because frankly our dining room is so ridiculously oversized that it was getting hard to figure out how to furnish it, while the kitchen is small and dark (perfect for a dining room). And suddenly the whole first floor fell into shape, with a long series of rooms opening into one another and finally into the back yard.

A chance discussion with a neighbor about wanting fruit trees led to the discovery of high-intensity orchards, and completely changed the design for the garden.

A series of fun evenings hanging out with the neighbors in the middle of the street led to the design of a front patio for us to sit in and enjoy living in such a great neighborhood, and the addition of a rose hedge for scent and separation from the sidewalk.

A pleasant afternoon spent sitting on the retaining wall in my backyard in SLO made me redesign the dog pond to have a wall that was high and wide enough to act as a bench.

Another pleasant afternoon sitting out on the side porch with a friend led to the decision to turn it into a little conservatory for enjoying sunlight on cold days, with a nice view to the street and side garden.

The misfortune of copious water in the basement sump gave us the ability to irrigate more than would ordinarily be possible in this climate, leading to a much more lush garden plan and also the need to design in a space for a water tank.

Visits to botanical gardens, friends' houses, furniture stores, and just plain leafing through magazines has helped clarify design elements and bring into focus what we need to do to get each room together.

All of this is a gift from time. If you give your house or garden time to tell you what it should be, the rewards will be far greater than having the perfect garden RIGHT NOW, or the entirely renovated house TODAY. Let the house and the landscape evolve around you, form them slowly, and they will not only save you some money (though not, honestly, very much), but they will be far better than whatever you could come up with today. In school we call this "four-dimensional design": designing with time in mind. That fourth dimension makes the overall result fuller and rounder.

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posted by ayse on 05/05/06


I like your philosophy. It suits us too since we don't have the cash to do everything at once either. I agree that time and thought and planning can make the house better and more unique than it would have been otherwise.

We planned our kitchen for a few years before we did it and we are doing the same thing with the backyard- doing some things ourselves until we go all out and change the configuration of the yard/patio etc... It makes it alot less stressful making decisions when you can take your time. When we have the money, we know what we want and are ready to go.

And I agree with interviewing contractors too and taking time there if possible. Nice post!

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