Designing for Two: How to Bring a Couple Under One Roof

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

If you’ve been following our work, you’ll be familiar with our goal of creating dream homes. To me, this is far more than a self-aggrandizing tagline, it’s an incredibly complicated and personal concept, one that takes into account the past, present and future lives of my clients.

When working with a couple – as we usually are – all the above considerations are doubled and then multiplied again by the unique dynamics of their relationship.

I could just leave my clients to work out their issues by themselves and deliver whatever brief they give me. Professionally, I’d be well within my rights to do so. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. After cooperating with my wife on multiple self builds, I know how essential it is that if we’re sharing a home, we share in its creation as well.

But that’s not what would happen if I left it entirely up to my clients. Nine times out of ten, one partner will take a more active interest in the process or one will stay in the background – not because they don’t have ideas – but because they haven’t found the means to express themselves. Often, it’s the quiet types that are hoarding the most creative treasures.

If I was to let the more interested or more expressive partner dominate the project, the other would have to spend years of their life in a home that isn’t a reflection of their identity and their lifestyle. In simple terms, I would have failed in my role.

Many couples I work with come from very different backgrounds. When creating a home, we often draw from the warm, familiar environments of our childhood to create a new safe space – a physical reflection of our psyche. Different upbringings and nationalities can have disparate views on the ideal home.

The examples are infinite: someone who grew up in a rural setting may crave a more rustic, quaint aesthetic than someone from the city; the modern, sun-filled, breezy home design of Australia would seem alien to an Austrian who grew up surrounded by thick, timber walls and pitched roofs; a client keen to escape their past may go more contemporary than one who wants to relive it.

It’s clear that home design is a deeply personal and intimate process, during which even long established couples will learn something new about each other. I need to tease as many details out of my clients as possible so that they can be properly represented in the finished product.

Communicating and presenting information in multiple ways is key here. Everyone has their own way of expressing themselves and finding the right method can be the difference between someone feeling left out or feeling in control.

It’s a subject I wrote on back in October, when I attended a talk by Paul McKenna:

“He explained that everyone has a communication method that works best for them: some are visual, preferring images and diagrams; others are auditory and will understand through listening intently; then there’s kinaesthetic, people who like to touch and explore spaces.

By recognising which method our clients are most responsive to, we can present our information in a way that will achieve clear and heartfelt understanding in them. Some will have their eureka moment by pouring over diagrams, while others could be inspired by being hands on with materials and buildings.”

Once I know what a dream home truly means to each of them, my role becomes mediating the process of finding a middle ground. Some couples will cooperate easily and enter into an excited back and forth while others may become defensive and put up walls – metaphorically and physically.

It’s important not to create an adversarial dialogue. Once it becomes more about “winning” and “losing” than the end result, the design will suffer. Both parties need to honestly examine what’s most important to them and why, so that the other can empathise and compromise.

Most clients also simply don’t have the architectural know how to prioritise features fairly. It’s not just about designing for both partners but budgeting as well: a mundane but expensive feature one side insists on shouldn’t be equal to a more substantial, cheaper suggestion from the other. The list of wants and needs changes shape very quickly when price tags are attached.

Once everything’s on the table and everyone’s sure they’re happy, I can combine their two identities to create one unique home that is a true reflection of their relationship. Then every day they wake up in that home, they’ll see something they created together and far more precious than if they had done so apart.

From personal and professional experience I know this isn’t always easy, but imagine the alternative and you’ll see why there’s no other way.

To start your journey together today, contact us now.

By John Dyer-Grimes