Details Make the Difference

By Kurt Krasinger

Details make the difference between an exceptional project and a mediocre one. In fact, Charles Eames once said, “The details are not the details, they make the design.”Details take design to an entirely different level. Unless you’re a designer, most individuals don’t notice details. What they notice is how they feel when walk through a project and what flaws stand out. Good design is a like a well-made briefcase–the designer has considered the constructability, the materials, the buckles and how long it will last. And while a buyer may not notice those details, just like a client walking through a project, they can feel them.

What are details? Various trades may define details differently–in the world of landscape architecture, sometimes details reference how different planes converge. For example, how will the stone pool deck come together with the composite decking? Details can also reference how something functions and gets implemented in the field. For example, how deep is a stair tread? If it’s too deep or too shallow, the stair becomes a trip hazard. Details can be considered part of of codes, health, safety and welfare. And finally, sometimes details are the material themselves. For various trades, the materials will be different. For an interior designer, an example of a detail may be an appliance. As a landscape architect, a material detail could be anything from pool coping to fire pit media.

If you’ve read any of my other articles, you know that I believe in a prescribed process. Any truly successful project needs a system of steps and if one is removed, it’s all for naught. Every project should begin with the big picture–we use a master plan to establish a concept. A master plan serves a purpose by outlining the project from conception to completion and programmatically lays out the space. However, a master plan still lacks details. The master plan is a pretty picture but a pretty picture is not enough to make a design come to reality. The next step is to define the details through construction documentation. Construction documentation is a road map for construction and defines materials and finishes, how said materials complement the architecture, how the detail functions, and how materials will merry together. Ultimately, construction documentation refines how the project actually works.

Even with the correct prescribed process, there are many opportunities for missteps or failure. I describe those missteps as interference–all the necessary elements are in place but there is an obstruction. There are many examples of interference but in my personal experience, I boil most obstructions down to disregarding the process without considering final material selections, decisions by committee, and our modern age of mass production.

There’s a sweet spot for material selection. Sometimes clients start too soon without considering an overriding concept. And while it is always good to consider inspiration, it’s best to set the stage with a bigger picture. By contrast, sometimes material selections are considered too late in the game–possibly after construction documents are completed and therefore, construction documents remain nebulous since they don’t include specific thicknesses, finishes and final selections. Additionally, clients don’t always consider the clash of materials or how two surfaces will meld together. One of our clients had a favorite stone and wallpapered every inch of his project with it–it was still a successful project by all standards but his approach was overboard. I consider both horizontal and vertical surfaces and attempt to delineate those planes with different material selections–for example, the vertical planes may echo the same material on the home rather than introduce another material. Ideally, a different material will contrast the ground plane.

The second type of interference is design by committee. A construction project can reflect the truth of the phrase, “Too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the broth.”Sometimes the weakest link is the homeowner, contractor or interior designer–often, it’s the person making decisions regarding final implementation. After creating a master plan and construction documents for a certain client, we gave up even trying to capture the final project with photographs. It was a total disaster! While the overall configuration and flow was a success, the project was a failure because an interior designer made final selection of tile and stone that were incongruent to the overall vision. The final material selections resulted in visual chaos! By contrast, my company has repeatedly been approached by potential clients who reference a particular project in our portfolio as their source of inspiration. I inform them that the success of that project was a result of the client completely yielding to our professional judgment. We have the experience and are able to make decisions that are in line with the ultimate concept. Historically, before modern construction, all decisions came back to the designer or architect and that’s part of why cathedrals in Europe take our breath away: by sticking to the original design intent, a project is successful. After all, would Frank Lloyd Wright (or any architect or designer, for that matter) be successful if he didn’t insist on carrying out design to the nth degree?

The third type of interference is even harder to control: our modern age of mass production. In the past, we didn’t separate a custom job from a standard job because every project was custom. Ordering items out of a catalogue wasn’t an option! Every trade had a skill set and details weren’t expected to be done quickly. Today, there are a few products where buyers have realistic expectations. If I order a Lamborghini, I expect to wait while it’s being built. However, for most other purchases, customers expect immediate satisfaction. After the Industrial Revolution, individuals are accustomed to purchasing items off a shelf and experiencing instant gratification. The downside of such speed is that details don’t have as much thought poured into them–most clients would rather have their handrail off the shelf rather than wait weeks (and pay more) for a metalsmith to craft one to their specifications. We frequently have clients ask us to recreate spaces they’ve seen in Morocco, Tuscany or their other travels. When I hear that request, I’m able to interpret what they mean: they’re ultimately asking for a well-thought out project, done right with special details to create a truly custom space that feels like it belongs. That type of project simply cannot be completed hastily. The United States, in its emphasis on speed, has a hard time waiting for that type of perfection.Details are what set a project apart–if we have awareness of common interferences (in regard to determining final material selection at the correct time, avoiding decisions by committee and not succumbing to the modern age of speed-at-all-costs), then we can truly create custom projects reminiscent of different time. And even if our clients can’t name the perfect details and don’t understand what is required to make their request become a reality, like a well-made briefcase or jacket, they can feel the difference.

--Kurt Kraisinger / Lorax Design Group