The Glory of Constraints

Julie Stalin's 339 W. Main St - where a necessary rear exit turned into a lovely back stoop.

For me, the very definition of design is working within boundaries.  To solve a problem creatively while playing within the rules is much more challenging and exciting than starting with a blank page and filling it up with all kinds of imagining – and that is the root of why I am in historic preservation and not straight-up architecture.  Because I love the problem-solving of trying to make an old house do what a new family wants, finding the balance of needs, wants, and possible.

In fact, I’d say that the most creative and pleasing results come when there are constraints around a design that really push the solution in a new direction.  Finding an example of this kind of problem-solving is challenging –  because the best ones you never know are there once the project is built – but an odd setback on this house meant we had to jog in where the former back wall of the house once sat.  How on earth could a kitchen wall jog in two feet along its span? By making it the origin of the peninsula.  The constraint gave us a framework for the new addition, provided the larger kitchen the owners’ wanted, and allowed the old house to be what it was at the same time.

the back corner jog provides an anchor point for the peninsula – and allows the addition to meet necessary set-backs. (Trinity Design/Build – by permission)

I have been mulling this over ever since I attended a local historic preservation commission meeting where each of the applicants is getting exactly what they want from their project while following all the rules – a combination that some seem to believe is impossible in an historic district.  While there are a few things that are indeed inappropriate in a district (if you want a modern house, go buy a modern house, don’t try to strong-arm a sweet little victorian into the wrong size shoes, ok?  it’s like taking your great-aunt to the biker bar, and no one will be comfortable), the vast majority of that is about style and now about function.  We can always find a way to incorporate a purpose or a space in a way that is good for the house and good for the family at the same time.

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One response to “The Glory of Constraints

  1. Interesting post! I actually do academic research on how constraints aid in shaping creativity and design. I’d love to hear about more examples, and why you think constraints work better than a blank page in more detail. Thanks for writing about your creative process and for this insightful blog.

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