Firmness, Commodity and Delight

Architects are responsible for a broad, holistic and comprehensive approach to design. This was brought into sharp focus for me on a recent trip to assess the current condition of four schools, each roughly twenty years old.

One of the fathers of the profession, Vetruvius, said (ca 27 BC), the measure of a successful design is 'firmitas, utilitas, et venustas" or "firmness, commodity and delight." Venustas is one of the things that springs to mind first when many of us think of architecture. Is it pretty, is it pleasing, is it symmetrical, is it engaging' Design often has a major influence on how architects are selected by owners. The schools that I visited were widespread in terms of delight. One school, a two story beast, was ill suited for its neighborhood and unwelcoming to its users. Two schools were attractive in a conventional way, competently designed, but without enthusiasm. The fourth school was unique and different offering engaging spaces with plenty of natural light.

I discovered that twenty years is a good test for these principles. The two conventionally attractive schools had worn their age well; in good shape inside and out with spaces that continued to serve their intended purpose. Two of the four schools were showing not only the effects of twenty years of wear, but also the effect of changing styles. Primary colored cabinets and cylindrical columns were dated making the school feel older than it was. Finally, one school really flunked the 'firmitas' test with a history of leaking windows, doors and walls going back to its dedication date. There was a cotton mop head pushed against the bottom of each single exterior door which remained on rainy days and dry ones as their best strategy for keeping the outside out.

Ours is not a profession where you should be forced to choose just one: firmness, commodity and delight. At a minimum, any competent professional should be able to provide a building that is stable and suits its intended purpose . Too often, though, firms market themselves as 'the design firm,' or the 'practical firm.' These may be adequate distinctions for business and marketing, but they falsely represent complete architectural services.

How do you find a firm that provides firmitas, utilitas et venustas at a high level, project after project' Look for the firm that's put time in; time to learn from mistakes, time to evaluate projects; and time to build a body of satisfied repeat customers.'