House Diary #1: The Questionnaire

Our Moss Covered PropertyThis is the first in a series of longish blog posts about the process of building our house on Pender Island. If I’m sufficiently dedicated, one of these should appear every couple of weeks for the next two years. These posts are likely to be longer and more contemplative than the other writing on this site. And, obviously, they’re concerned with the process of building a house on an island. If that doesn’t float your boat, skip ’em.

Before we left for Malta, we had our first meeting with John Gower, our architect. He came highly recommended from a friend, and specializes in building “modestly-sized, comfortable homes, beautifully and simply designed”, often in remote locations. His company, after all, is called “BC Mountain Homes”. Additionally, we liked the aesthetic of a number of his modern house designs. Finally, he’d previously worked on Pender Island, and so was familiar with the local planning process and knew of some options for general contractors

Worryingly Abstract

During that meeting, John gave us a ‘home design questionnaire’. It had twenty questions designed to make us think about what kind of home we wanted. These weren’t, as you might expect, questions like “how do you feel about gabled roofs?” Instead, they were big picture questions like “how can this home enrich your relationship with your community?” There were questions about our relationships to and views on family, food, hobbies, passions, technology and so forth.

As this is the first house I’ve built, I don’t know how common this approach is. Some might find these questions worryingly abstract, but I was actually encouraged. I’d much prefer an architect who considers these issues, and attempts to understand who we are, than one who simply starts sketching.

We had lots of time (a year abroad before anything else was going to happen on the house). We took pains to answer the questions as honestly and thoroughly as we could. After all, they seemed like the foundation (pun probably intended) on which the house design would be based.

We ended up with ten pages of notes and images. John remarked that this was more than most of his clients offered. I was reminded of a technique I learned about in theatre school, and thought it could be applied here. From our answers:

When Darren was taking Directing in theatre school, he learned a technique which may apply here. In early creative meetings, the set, costume and lighting designers would would use visual metaphors from other mediums to express what they thought the play was about. A costume designer might find inspiration for costuming Hamlet from, say, Monet’s Water Lillies. Obviously the designer doesn’t want to cover Hamlet in flowers, but takes something from the mood, tone or colour palette of the artwork.

We intentionally didn’t include any images of houses or architecture. Instead, we picked images that expressed something of how we might want our future house to feel. For example, we included Colville’s “To Prince Edward Island” “its mood, colour palette and the sense of infinity in the horizon and binoculars”. We even linked to a couple bits of video, admiring the sparseness and fluidity of this dance piece by La La La Human Steps (looking at it again, I like the tension between naturalness of the set and lighting, and the kind of rigid formality of the dancers).

In future discussions, these images can hopefully become reference points and litmus tests: “does the shape of this room capture the mood of the Colville painting?”

There were two interesting technology-related tidbits that came out during this first meeting as well:

  • John uses Google SketchUp for the collaborative stages of the design process. This enables clients to get (and presumably sign off on ) a 3-D view of their home before he does the actual drafting.
  • He sometimes exports the house designs into Second Life, enabling future home owners to walk around a virtual version of their future home.

The next House Diary entry will be about our first visit to the property with our architect.


  1. Darren:

    Love your example of how people can’t always explain what they want if you ask straight out. Better to get a good sense of their taste, style, attitudes, etc., than ask “what revolutionary new product would you like us to develop?”

    People don’t know. That’s the professional’s job — to figure it out.

  2. As they say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Good luck in the project. William Hearst, eat your heart out!

  3. For anybody design a house I can whole heartedly recommend Christopher Alexander’s two seminal works “A Pattern language” and the “The Timeless Way of Building”.

    These two books inspired the whole design pattern movement in software design, but are basically a collection of very simple 1-2 page guidelines for doing sensible integrated architecture from room level up.

    Very “dippable into”.

  4. Joe: Indeed, we’ve got “A Pattern Language” on our architect’s recommendation. It’s rather daunting at 1216 pages, but I’ve started to dip into it.

  5. Darren — The paragraph before your quote seems to be missing. I think you missed a > on your paragraph marker, as in:

    <p.We ended up with ten pages of notes and images. John remarked that this was more than most of his clients offered. I was reminded of a technique I learned about in theatre school, and thought it could be applied here. From our answers:

  6. It does seem like the architect’s questions, abstract as they might be, relate to the uses to which the home will be put. How do artifacts like a video of La La La Human Steps relate to that?

  7. Mark: The video, as I said, has the characteristics of fluidity and sparseness (there’s more to it than that, but let’s stick with that for now). Those are qualities that we’d like in our house as well.

    You can say to a designer (of any kind) “I want a sparse and fluid design”. Or you can show them this video, and talk about the particular sparseness and fluidity it demonstrates. It’s an application of that old rule of writing, “show, don’t tell”.

    Language can become a hindrance when communicating about aesthetic values. For example, the word “sparse” is in the eye of the beholder, and might bear radically different connotations for different people. A prison cell is sparse, a view of the Atlantic is sparse, an iPod is sparse, and so forth.

    A visual metaphor like the video is far more specific, for it conveys a particular kind (or tone or shading, if you like) of sparseness.

  8. I’m excited about your new home already Darren. I love how the architect is engaging you. Yes you can make a house a home, but to design a home is much more difficult and I would surmise much more rewarding.

  9. Darren: I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but my first reaction to the architect’s questions was that they related to *function*, not aesthetics or form. So is it possible you were answering a question that was not asked?

  10. Mark: I don’t think so. There was a question on ‘beauty’, for example, which definitely applied to aesthetics. I’m afraid I don’t have the questionnaire anymore, or I’d replicate some more questions.

    I may have over-emphasized this visual metaphor technique because it was the most interesting part of our responses. There were plenty of more mundane answers like “we want to be able to control light level in our workspace”.

    In any case, our architect seemed happy with our thinking.

  11. > So is it possible you were answering a question that was not asked?

    I think it doesn’t matter. The WAY that Darren and Julie answered those questions revealed a lot about who they are and how they envision their home on a much deeper level than, say, “We want an open living plan and lots of windows”. Those things will come out of the planning process anyways. But the more subtle feeling of this home? It comes from somewhere else, a more intimate and undefinable place, much like a painting.

    I was watching a home show last night and they featured a beautiful modern home in SF (Casa Verde). In the master bathroom, a long “trough”-like sink. It was all one piece, white I think, and the wall behind it was glass (?), so the light shimmered through. The sink looked like it was floating, a trick of the eye. And absolutely gorgeous. The whole hose had features like this, but very subtle, that produced a sense of infinity and faraway horizons, like being on the ocean. Darren, when you mentioned Colville’s painting, I instantly thought of that house. I can see your house having a similar feeling. You should check out this house:,20633,1666702,00.html

    Doubt you have cable, but the show will be on again this weekend on HGTV (

    Will you be incorporating any eco-friendly features in your house? I’m really looking forward to reading about the whole process.

  12. Julie: Thanks for that article–I’ll check it out.

    As for eco-friendly features, our answer is “as green as we can afford”. So, that definitely means rainwater collection and reclaimed wood. We’ll definitely try to make smart decisions regarding building materials where possible.

    Beyond that, there are things like wind power and living roofs, which may or may not happen depending on budget and viability.

  13. A green roof shouldn’t prove too costly Darren. If you want an unkempt one then AFAIK they are practially maintenance free. A manicured one will prove much more difficult.

  14. Or you could do solar panels as you can afford them.

    One other thing your architect might like is for you to send him some favourite photos you’ve taken of various places, perhaps with explanations of why you like them. He’ll then get a sense of what sort of things you like to see.

    I hope you told him you don’t like wearing slippers.

    And I’m hoping we can show up for a barbecue at your new house someday. 🙂

  15. Derek: My initial research suggests that solar panels will be pretty inefficient, particular on our NE-facing lot. But that science is moving really fast, so it’s worth considering.

    Yeah, we did send our architect some of our favourite travel photos, also in response to a question about beauty.

    Indeed, you’ll be more than welcome. We’re have a big-ass party if and when the place gets built.

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