Your House, Your Sandwich
An Architectural Drama in Five Parts
In architecture school, I was taught all kinds of things about buildings, but I learned very little about people. Now that I have been practicing architecture for nearly 20 years, I find myself increasingly drawn to the human drama that accompanies an architectural commission. I have come to realize that, for me, the real varsity-level action—especially in residential architecture—resides not in the bricks and mortar, but in the metaphoric sweat lodge of the architect-client relationship. Although each project is different, I have begun to recognize the same universal human themes over and over again: Exhilaration. Fear. Envy. Empathy. Betrayal. With each project I find my clients and myself starring in site-specific versions of the same high-budget, convincingly acted reality show.
There are five episodes in a typical show. I’ll capitalize them so they sound official: Programming, Design, Documentation, Bidding, and Construction. If you’ve worked with an architect before, you might recognize some of these terms. Even if you haven’t worked with one and the biggest project you’ve ever completed is a ham sandwich, the concepts behind the episodes are probably familiar. The difference between architecture and a ham sandwich is that architecture is a far bigger sandwich—so big, in fact, that you need a sandwich specialist like me to help you make it. Architecture is unlike making a ham sandwich in that you don’t succumb to a psychic meltdown when you feel your ham sandwich is a wee bit different from what you ordered. And when making a ham sandwich, I don’t stare in the mirror in the morning and ask myself, Why are these nice people paying me to make them a ham sandwich when I can’t even make a ham sandwich for myself?
Let me illustrate my point with a simple role-playing exercise. I’m the architect and you’re the client. Your name is Marla. You need to renovate your house. You give me a call, and we go have coffee, and after sufficient schmoozing you decide to hire my firm to help you renovate your house and add on a 600-square-foot master bedroom and bathroom. Your husband’s name is Earle, and you have two boys, JoJo and Ben.
And you get mad. You inform me in a terse email that the design I sent along with the bill (which you felt was surprisingly high) was not what we talked about on the phone. Not at all. It just doesn’t seem that I’m listening to you and Earle as much as I did at first. Where is this hostility coming from, Marla? I want to disagree with you, but I realize I’m guilty as charged. I’m not listening. (I mean, I still am, but not as much. It’s true.) I’m trying to get a basic design buttoned down. I think I understand what you need pretty well, and I’m trying to get the thing figured out so you can move in by Christmas, which is the new deadline that Earle sprung on me Saturday morning, out of the clear blue sky. (And I think, but don’t say to you, This is our ham sandwich, Marla. You, me, Earle, and the boys—we’re in this together, and our ham sandwich is going to be a tidily crafted sandwich and not some Cajun pork wrap.) I realize again that I need to do a better job of communicating that design is an inexact process, and that missteps are an important part of the process. In not carefully walking you through the design I came up with in my ghost journey, it’s true—I do suck. But give me another chance. Marla, for the love of God, let me into your life again. I send a calming email to you, ramp up the charm to initial chit-chat levels, and then call you a few hours later and set up a time to get another cup of coffee.
Later, as we have coffee, I listen to you, Marla. For the first time, you allow me into the complex reality of your life. Some of the things you never told me in our Programming episode: JoJo’s exploring new types of jam. You think Ben might be addicted to, you know, showering or something. On top of that, it seems like Earle’s been cracking open an extra Mike’s Hard Lemonade every night—he wasn’t like that before the boys. Disarmed by your honesty, I open up about my insecurities as a designer and a communicator. As we become human in each other’s eyes, we realize that this isn’t even about your house—that your house is just a physical expression of your life and your relationships. I relearn (for the hundredth time since my career started) that as an architect, I can only really be of value if I truly understand your life. We get more coffee, and start sketching over the renderings I brought. It’s a very special episode, this one…and it ends there on the street in front of the coffee shop, maybe with a little hug. As the music wells up, the camera pans to me waving goodbye to you, Marla, with a roll of red-marked drawings under my arm.
Marla. Am I upset that you keep changing your mind? That you want polished-concrete vanity tops in your bathroom, even though you initially wanted the iffy resinous translucent slabs you saw in Toronto, which I subsequently drew in about 23 details against my better judgment? No, I don’t get mad. Do I get mad that you want to go back to a separate laundry area pocketed away in JoJo’s closet, which we’ll have to enlarge somehow, even though we just made this same closet smaller last week because Earle thinks he needs to learn how to organize his jam-encrusted toys? Am I mad, Marla? Of course not, because I’m a professional, and because you’re human and I’m human and this is our sandwich. So I make the changes. I find a stackable washer/dryer that fits nicely. I give JoJo an elevated bed that I would have killed for when I was six and that he probably won’t fully appreciate, and figure out a way to cram all his toys into a built-in storage unit. We give Ben an upgraded lock on his room, and a bell, so he can alert you when he is done showering and needs to be fed. During this episode, you definitely get your money’s worth. I come over quite a bit and ask a lot of questions and show you lots of drawings and specifications that look complex and official, and you and Earle both feel a sense of calm inevitability about your future house, which is good. If this episode were associated with a season it would be autumn: stormy, windy, smoky, beautiful. When it’s over, I rake up all the sheets of drawings into a nice tidy pile.
And Dub puts on the Sheetrock later in the week. And it’s fine, indeed. And the rest of construction plays out in a similar manner: Something sucks when it’s getting built, and then it doesn’t suck at all once it all comes together. Once in a while something actually does suck and we need to fix it. And then you’re mad at me. And I’m sorry, Marla. And then it’s done. Your house is done, and you’re happy. Earle and the boys are happy. And I’m glad, too. Sort of.
Our season is over. It’s hard to quit you, Marla. I’ve spent so many hours dedicated to you and your family—to our sandwich, sweating out the details, projecting you and your family into all the spaces. I feel an ownership of sorts in what we created. There’s even a wee bit of resentment in my subconscious as I imagine you abandoning me like an old popsicle wrapper after you’ve mined my creative soul and glued the golden nuggets onto the paper plate of your life. Of course, you’ve handed over a stack of money. But what is money? It’s paper. It smells of desperation and service and it gets wet in the shower. I have paper, and you have Earle and JoJo and Ben and your new house and your great life.
And you never call me anymore, Marla.
And when I call you, you don’t really seem to be quite as interested in what I have to say.
And we drift apart, your nice family and me. Me: a clown-faced helium balloon, let go and floating skyward as you move inside. You: a pile of bricks and people, shaped like a house.