Home & Garden Columns

About the House: The Skill of Visualization and Getting into Trouble

By Matt Cantor
Friday November 23, 2007

I’m learning the guitar at the advanced age of 49 (don’t laugh, it feels old to me) and it’s mighty slow going. My friend and teacher, Scott, plays like the Almighty and it’s unimaginable to me that I’ll ever be able to play well enough to be heard in public. It seems an awfully steep slope between the novice and the expert, filled with layers of past experience and the gradual honing of our senses and practices. Further, there seem to be inherent advantages that some have over others. Gifts, we might call them, and it’s damn sure that the gift of guitar isn’t in me. Oh well, I’m having a good time and it’s an excuse to belt out a song. 

Visualizing construction is a lot like this. There appear to be some natural inclinations toward or against this skill, but I would argue that it’s mostly a great deal of learned experience that separates the nascent from the master. 

This leads to some strained (at very least) interactions between parties at either end of the chain of command when construction is under way. 

Contractors, when they’re good, are exceptionally skilled at visualizing a completed project before a single piece of plaster has been bashed from the old walls. Actually, I would argue that this is the central skill in the art of construction. A contractor does not need to be particularly strong, as there are tools and leverage to provide for that (although it can help), and this is why women are just as able to be great contractors.  

Business skills are important but this is true in any trade. It’s the ability to visualize how things come apart and go together that makes a contractor special. This IS, of course, also the skill of the architect, engineer and inspectors too. They must be able to see through the built environment and imagine things they cannot actually see. They must also be able to look at a set of plans and transfer these images (or mentally apply them) to the actual space. It’s sort of a 3-D mapping skill.  

Home or building owners run the full range when it comes to this skill. It’s common for a homeowner to have little skill in looking at a set of plans or in imagining what will happen to the kitchen when it gets remodeled. Naturally, this leads to a certain amount of mayhem in the construction process, and it starts the first time an architect or contractor meets with a client. A client may merely have wanted to create a bit more space for themselves in one end of the house and ended up with an addition on the back end, when all they really needed was to have a wall moved.  

Sadly, this bit of wisdom is often beyond the visualizing skill of the client and it falls to the designer or trade professional to explore what the client really wanted and to demonstrate how this might be accomplished. It’s a bit like translating a language. Most people, if walked through this process can be shown things that they just didn’t see on their own.  

Aside from the skill to see through walls and imagine a space in a new way (or a whole new building), design professionals and builders also have tools including drawing and modeling to show what their ideas will look like once completed. Any client of even a fairly small project (e.g., bath remodel) should avail themselves of these tools (although models are usually reserved for whole buildings).  

You might need to demand (STOP, I need to see a drawing before we move forward) some visual aids so that you can better participate in the process and get the product you’d hoped for. Don’t get pushed into a job that you don’t understand. 

Now, construction is often quite amorphous and things don’t end up exactly as we had planned. That’s O.K., it’s not a fixed target and there’s more than a little serendipity in it, gifting us with little (and large) marvels we didn’t bank on. If all goes well, it’s like a Christmas present that just keeps opening and revealing itself day after day until the day they carry their tools away. But, the more we are able to translate on a day-to-day basis, the closer we can get to having the project emulate our internal image.  

One of the things you, as a customer of this process, can do is to start a “phrase-book” for your meeting with the professional. Buy a stack of those magazines of houses or baths and start cutting out pictures of what you like. When you paste them in, jot a note about what you liked beside it. It need not be the right cabinet or flooring or trim style. It might have just been the light in the room or the color combination. It might have been the way the furniture all fits together in the space. Cut out pictures of the kinds of lighting you like, even if the fixture is different. 

You might like a picture that shows wall sconces or hidden, indirect lighting or a particular kind of touch-dimmer. When you sit with your contractor or architect, it will do wonders to be able to show them these pictures and say, “What I liked in this image was the way the wall curved” or “I don’t like these cabinets, but I like the way they pull out.” You’re speaking their language (and perhaps teaching them as well) and moving much more directly and quickly toward your goal.  

Ask the contractor or designer to provide you with drawings and samples or pictures to show you what you’re getting and then expect things to go, at least a little, awry. Remember that there’s magic in the deviations, like a road trip in the country (think Bridges of Madison County, not Blair Witch Project). 

If your visualizing skills are a little lean, remember to compensate through more active participation. While contractors do need to get their work done, it’s O.K. and actually essential to check in on what’s happening on a daily basis, showing what you like or don’t like and asking questions to help better understand what’s happening. There are few things in life more frustrating for a contractor than to have a client ask for a change a week later than necessary when so much more has been done to embed that work in place.  

Construction, like cooking or quilting, is a layering process, building one thing upon another. If the framing of a wall seems poorly placed, it may be quite easy to change after one day. A week later, that same wall may contain wiring, plumbing and wallboard. The client has a responsibility to speak up in a timely fashion when things are not coming out as they wished or imagined and to realise that the cost of these changes may reasonably rest at their doorstep when they don’t.  

Now, this isn’t to say that a failure to follow the plans on the part of the contractor is the client’s responsibility. It’s not. But understanding precisely what those plans will create is no small task for the contractor and frequently beyond the ken of the client. So it makes sense for you to keep your eyes peeled as drawings manifest as reality, so that, IF you come to realize that the plan isn’t quite what you wanted (or a paint color, or a trim style), you won’t have a lot of backtracking to do (or pay for).  

By the way, it is normal and fair for contractors to charge for any change that’s requested once construction has begun, and what you couldn’t visualize becomes your cross to bear, not theirs. Do the right thing and offer to pay for changes as you realize they’re needed and not strain the relationship by asking the contractor to make costly (yes, everything is costly) changes that come out of their profits. 

This is why good communication with your design and trade professionals is so vital from the very start. If you don’t feel as though you can chat and muse with them, it’s a good idea to change partners. Remember this: No matter how cordial it may be when you first meet, it’s going to be less so as time goes by. The best contractors won’t keep the process from being frustrating, at least part of the time. SO, be sure that you’re starting out with trust and a sense that this person (or people) will go the distance and represent your vision and wishes well.  

Lastly, after all the admonitions, let me say that this can be, and often is, a very exciting process and a lot of fun. Not as much as learning guitar but ... pretty close.