Creativity: It only happens at the concept stage, right?

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in  The Fountainhead

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

Popular culture tends to rely on a few stereotypical images of architects.

There is the architect as hero and master of everything and everyone in his domain (it’s usually a man). There is the lone genius, sketching away late at night under the light of a single desk lamp. And there is the client-architect meeting taking place over a restaurant meal at which an amazing edifice is cooked up on a paper napkin.

These images tend to reinforce the idea that the creative part of any project happens right at the beginning.

Architects can be guilty of perpetuating this myth when they present their ‘early' free-hand concept sketch as the thing that led inevitably to the final solution. Spoiler alert: the reason these sketches seem to so perfectly capture the design, is because they’re often produced after the design has been developed!

It is true that architects are excited by the prospect of a new project and a design that is yet to emerge. It is also true that, occasionally, the chosen solution emerges very quickly, leading to the conclusion that the architect must therefore be brilliant, as opposed to just plain lucky.

But most projects are a complex mix of interactions between the aspirations of the personalities involved, the brief, the context of the site or existing building and a range of external influences that are particular to the project. This often means that the development of a design takes place over an extended period of time and involves many more people than those popular images would have you believe. There will also be a host of unforeseen obstacles and setbacks that will need to be overcome as the design process unfolds.

In reality, opportunities for creativity exist throughout a project. Here are five short accounts of some everyday recent examples:

Planning officer’s design idea
A planning officer confirmed that they were happy in principle with a proposed new house design but that they felt some tweaks should be made to the roof. They suggested that a certain gabled roof should become a hipped roof.

The design was relatively simple and we felt that the various gables provided the design with some understated elegance. It would have been very easy to be dismissive of the officer’s suggestion but we drew it and we thought about it. We still didn’t want to adopt their hipped solution but it led to us having ideas about other improvements. We responded with drawings of the planning officer’s idea and also our preferred improvements that their idea had led us to. They agreed with us.

You could call this negotiation but I would argue that all successful negotiations involve some creativity.

‘Building Over’ agreement

Construction work on a new project was imminent when, out of the blue, Building Control forwarded an extract of a letter from a utility company’s solicitor. The letter stated that there were ‘underground assets’ within 3m of our proposal and that we would therefore need a ‘Building Over’ agreement. This could have potentially delayed the project by several weeks.

The Building Control officer informed me that she couldn’t forward the utility company’s asset drawing and then she went on holiday. I had no means of contacting the solicitor.

I acquired the relevant drawing via a friendly utilities consultant and established that there were no assets within 3m of the proposal. I then set about tracking down the solicitor within her large organisation. I made contact, agreed that the issue was important but that their drawing appeared to show no assets within 3m. She concurred and the issue went away.

You could call this tenacity but I would argue that successfully combating the intransigence of large bureaucracies involves some creativity.

Speeding up a tender process

As a result of delays through planning, there was not enough time left to complete the technical design of a project and competitively tender it before the client’s preferred start on site date. So we agreed to tender the project based on 80% of the information with stated omissions. While the project was out to tender we carried on working to complete the documentation and then negotiated the cost of the omissions with the preferred builder, while they were still in a competitive situation.

You could call this expediency but I would argue that successfully amending a standard process involving numerous other people involves some creativity

Staircase price

We designed a contemporary staircase with steel stringers, oak-faced open treads and frameless glass balustrades. The prices from specialist staircase companies were in the region of £15,000, which was way over budget.

So we re-designed it so that each of the components could be supplied and installed separately. The steel was from a local fabricator, the treads were made by the builder’s talented joiner and the glass was from a specialist supplier. The resulting stair was just as good as before but the price was in the region of £6,000.

You could call this a cost-cutting exercise but I would argue that to maintain design quality and reduce cost involves some creativity.

Architecture student question

Millie, our new architectural assistant, asked how an architect designs for other people. As a student she had designed plenty of buildings but always on the basis of what she wanted and not what someone else wanted.

I said that different architects would have different answers to this question. In my opinion, clients implicitly ask two contradictory things of their architect. They want their architect to do precisely what they’ve asked for but they also want to be delighted by something that they hadn’t thought of. A successful approach addresses both of these aspirations. I then went on to describe several real-life projects where this had clearly happened.

You could call this storytelling but I would argue that good storytelling involves some creativity.

The purpose of this article is not just to demonstrate ways in which architects continue to be creative throughout the design process. It’s also to demonstrate that creative opportunities exist for everyone, identifying them is just a matter of shifting your perspective.

You may not be an architect or a designer or a worker in the so called ‘creative industries’. Your role may not require you to draw or design or create new things. But this does not mean that you are not, or cannot be, creative. Creativity is a choice open to all of us, in everything that we do, at any time.

We can choose to do something in a conventional, ordinary way. Or we can use the inherent creativity we all possess, and choose to do it beautifully.

‘None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it.’

Laurie Anderson quoted in Keep Going by Austin Kleon