"Decaff or straight?"
"Espresso, cappuccino or filter?"
"Latte or black? Milk or cream? Cinnamon twist, chocolate sprinkles or nutmeg shavings?"
These days, it seems impossible to make a simple choice. There are eight different coffees for sale at the Cappuccino Cart in Waterloo Station and three different types of tea. And that's just take-away.
How often have you arrived at a restaurant to be confronted by an A3 menu bursting with tempting possibilities, all described in flowing eight-point script? This multiplicity of choice makes it so much harder to choose a single starter and main course.
So imagine how hard it is for an architect to make a colour choice when faced with the 1024 possibilities offered by the standard RAL colour chart. There is usually a gradual narrowing of focus: "Yes, I think we're going for white"; but this needs to be followed with a more specific choice: "Mmm, should that be Arctic White or Alpine White?" Even when that tricky decision is made, there are further nuances to be considered: "An 80% gloss may be too shiny – we'll go for 50% gloss." And that's just the walls in the toilets. The same process has to be slogged through for every space in the building.
I am not advocating limiting an architect's colour palette (heaven knows, the dome would be a different space without the imaginative use of colour inside), but this scenario illustrates how much time can be spent making decisions when there are too many choices.
I suppose the biggest sufferers of this "option paralysis" are the design team in the early stages of a construction project. It is entirely understandable that, in an attempt to give the client the best possible solution to its building needs, a number of options are considered. But do these all need to be worked up through scheme design and presented to the client? Probably not.
Will the client understand the nuances between a propped cantilever solution and a simply supported solution? Unlikely. So why bother? Of course, within the design team, various possibilities are going to be considered – a single central services core or a pair; longer structural spans but much deeper beams; chilled water fan coils or a variable refrigerant volume system – but these are all decisions that can be made within the design team, rather than being presented in fastidiously drawn, time-consuming form to the client.
“Optioneering” must be limited, not just for the good of the poor designers, but for the sake of clients who want a single solution
I heard of one well-known engineering company (which shall remain nameless) that had just won a prestigious job with a US client.
In a fit of enthusiasm and an attempt to impress its new patron, the engineering company presented no fewer than six structural schemes for an apartment block. Mid-way through a very slick presentation, complete with models of all six schemes, the client, visibly restless by this point, stood up to stop the presentation.
"Wait a minute, guys. I'm not paying you for all this; I'm paying you for solutions. So, give me a solution. One solution." With that, he left the meeting, and the structural engineer left the job.
Of course, there's always the exception to the rule, and some clients will actually want to be involved in this level of decision-making detail (particularly those which have spent years commissioning similar buildings, and therefore know exactly what they want from the outset), but even they can have too much of a good thing.
So, "optioneering", as it has been called, needs to be limited, not just for the good of the poor designers who are trying to do four designs for the price of one, but for the sake of the clients which want a single solution to their building needs, rather than a whole raft of possibilities.
This does mean, however, that every member of the design team needs a certain level of experience in order to establish the "right" solution. An experienced team will save many weeks of value analysis.
A good structural engineer will know intuitively the optimum solution on any given site (given half a chance to think about it and work out what the ground conditions are like), and any architect will tell you that the "right" solution is usually the simple, obvious one to each set of site constraints.
Decisiveness is the order of the day. Make the decision and give the client the solution. Don't be tempted by artificial extras – stick to the simple answer.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold and is project manager at the Millennium Dome