The “O” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Own it. Share it.
As it relates to design, ownership is about an emotional or intellectual relationship.
It is incumbent upon designers to engage all project participants along the way, enabling them to invest in the outcome of the project, and in so doing, share ownership.
It’s mine, all mine
In the world of business, people often use phrases like “holding an interest” or “having a stake” or “being invested” in a particular venture. Each is referring to the idea of ownership. But what is ownership? Most people think of ownership rather narrowly – in a legal or financial sense. If someone owns property, they must have the title to it or have paid someone else to possess it.
The kind of ownership I’m talking about isn’t that literal. Ownership, as it refers to design, is about one’s emotional or intellectual relationship to the design process and/or product – hopefully both.
Ownership means possessing a sense of responsibility for: a) shaping an outcome and/or b) maintaining the value it holds. For someone to really own something, an individual must value it for what it specifically means to them. Ownership needs to be personal.
As architects or designers who work with their clients, we shape not only the final physical artifact, but the process of designing as well. Ownership in a project is primarily about being emotionally and intellectually engaged; having participants who feel empowered and effectual in shaping the final outcome. This sense of ownership therefore must be cultivated and achieved as an essential part of the process of design.
By implementing practices that help consultants, clients and contractors feel confident, capable, and in control of the outcome of the project they are working on, they feel empowered to do their work effectively. Ideally, this ensures commitment to the project vision, which results in greater creativity and thoughtfulness about how to enhance that vision over the course of the project.
In terms of the completed project, people with ownership, those who have participated in the process and understand and value the decisions needed to get to the end product – share in the pride of authorship, and as a result, hold the results in higher esteem than their unengaged peers. The happiest of clients by the end of any project are the ones who have been in the trenches with you and faced the realities of the process.
Learning to share
In retrospect, looking back on my own maturation as an architect, it seems to have been analogous to how one thinks of a kid in a sandbox. I started out playing solo in the box – learning the potential of each toy and keeping them to myself. I sought to build the perfect castle or fort. Over time I gained confidence and delighted in mastery. Soon I wanted to share what I’d learned, and as a result, unexpectedly became exposed to new ideas of other playmates. Ultimately, the process of learning and sharing itself became as important as the results.
While our culture idealizes the solo genius artist, our day-to-day sustenance is found in sharing and learning from one another – engaging our humanity. As we gain experience, there comes a shift from the impetuous, narrow, idealistic intensity of youth, to a broader, more nuanced embrace of wholeness in maturity.
Architecture indeed is a social practice. This is perhaps the biggest lesson not taught in schools.
An example from design practice
My own lifelong apprenticeship to architecture mirrors my maturation as a person. Even before reaching my teens I started by designing houses. I imagined places I wanted to live in. So, design began as an extension of self.
Emerging from architecture school I was drawn to designing for institutions – not specific institutions mind you, but to the ideals represented by institutions. (Louis I. Kahn was a huge inspiration in this regard.) Accordingly, I sought out opportunities to design museums, places of education, and churches.
Having worked as a design principal in my own practices for well over a decade now, I have come to delight in working closely with home and business owners – creating places that they truly own for themselves, not with their wallets but with their hearts. Some times this is achieved by discovering new ways for them to see the world, and sometimes it is achieved by bringing along connective tissue from other parts of their lives.
An example of how ownership can be achieved in the smallest of details comes from a recent vacation house project. One doesn’t often think of driveways as an opportunity for reflection and ownership. In this case, I had designed the driveway as a series of concrete pads separated by river-washed stone bands (for storm water penetration). As a link for the owner, I collected leaves from the vegetation of their permanent residence and pressed them into the wet concrete of the driveway pads at their new vacation home. The leaves are impressed into memory for all to see – a bridge between their two homes.
In shaping things for ourselves and others it is essential that we involve others in the journey, not simply as witnesses, but as authors – cultivating a shared ownership.
Remember, Own it. Share it.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic feature the letter O, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Olive and Orange, and a photo of Owner hugging his tree.