Let’s take the words of the article’s title separately to clarify my intent. 

“Design” is the primary function of your design or architectural practice.

“Documentation” is what needs to be done to get the design into the hands of the builder so the building can be built.

“Success” is the value of the end product to the users and the owner, and those people that have had input in the process, from design to building completion.

Your design determines what your documentation will communicate, and documentation is the big one! It consumes the most resources to produce, then everyone follows it to a completed building. Your documentation affects a lot of people and leads to a lot of materials being consumed.

So how do different practices design?

Let’s take two extreme examples to set a benchmark.

The first extreme is a practice that makes each and every project a brand new work of art so extraordinary and unique that the world has never seen anything like it before. The client has been made aware of the extra costs and risks, and each time documentation starts, thus begins a whole new demanding and challenging ‘one-off’ range of problems to be solved by the documentation team: new materials to research, new configurations to join structurally and to waterproof, new warranties to be negotiated with product manufacturers, new this and that, on and on. Members of the contract administration team prepare for what awaits ahead.

The second extreme is a practice that has made the decision to always design to time-tested and well-known methods. The practice can still create great architecture this way. Not only do they predict that the new building will work and perform very well, they have adopted an aesthetic style which produces an attractive architecture that will sit comfortably with the majority of the public. The documentation team gets to work largely unsupervised because they know the drill. Documentation is finished quickly and within budgeted profit margins. The contract administrator calmly goes about his or her day.

Most architectural practices lie somewhere in between these two extremes.

Designers need to fully evaluate the cost of their design complexity in relation to documentation, not only for their own documentation team, but also for the consultants.

Complex design for ‘aesthetic-only’ reasons only can be very risky. Its inventive one-off nature can easily lead to unforeseen blowouts in documentation time. There is also a greatly increased risk regards the new ‘Safety In Design’ laws affecting designers. Then there is the increased chance of unwanted drama during tender and construction due to the unforeseen.

On one architectural project I was associated with in a minor way, a reputable tenderer withdrew on grounds they didn’t know how to build the project due to its aesthetic complexity. How do you explain that to the client?

A little exercise I like to challenge designers and students with, and one which hopefully makes them consider the effects of aesthetic complexity for the sake of aesthetics, is as follows:

Design and document two separate rows of 15-metre length of timber paling fence 1.8 metres high. One row is a straight run with the fence standing vertical, the other is curved to a 12-metre radius with palings all set on a slant 15 degrees off vertical.

Take just a moment to consider this challenge in terms of 1) design, 2) documentation, 3) pricing and 4) construction. After that, imagine transferring that complexity to a whole building. And for the sake of honesty, we have to also gauge the value this ‘aesthetic-complexity’ delivers to users.

We all want to succeed in our design practice. It may be a good thing to consider our design complexities of choice, and how it affects documentation, for it is documentation which brings delivers the design to the world.

It may all come down to our own definition of success and the price of that success.