The Trouble with Empathy

Go forth with gusto and big ideas — design your clients the house of their dreams to make up for the pain and work of getting it built. This idealistic tenure is what defines us — “si se puede” — but it often gets us into trouble.

Case in point – about four years ago, we designed a simple house-addition and an elaborate garden/outdoor room for a family in Irvine, CA.  But before we were even able to get started on our gorgeous make-over, the existing house began to crack-up due to poor soil conditions.  Our lovely project was put on hold while the engineers and the lawyers figured out what went wrong with this 1962 Irvine Company tract home’s slab on grade foundation.

Here we are years later and the dust (and soil) has settled and it is time to move on.  There was a settlement, the City took some blame, but provided only about 1/2 of the cash required to re-build.

And in comes empathy. They deserve a new house after what they’ve been through, right? Not just any house, but a dream house (HGTV is partially to blame).

I think architects play a critical role in imagining the future, in envisioning the world in new ways, in enriching the lived experience of everyday life through design. But when does our “visioning” get in the way of the realities of budget. All the time. In this case we didn’t back down; there was too much riding on the promise of a new life and it wasn’t going to get there on the cheap.

The final budget has yet to come in — we predict it will be a bit over — and construction starts in late July 2010. We hope to report back in nine months that the trouble with empathy was worth it.