If you are thinking about a building or remodeling project, you may have started by scanning home furnishing magazines, catalogs and the web for ideas and pictures that you like. House plans are for sale in magazines and on line and most of us have noticed something in the home of a friend or on TV that looks attractive. A common result of this kind of research is a file folder full of clippings, sketches and print outs that, when laid out together, look more like a ransom note than a design. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Chances are excellent that your pile of paper includes several messages from you to yourself about things that you find important in a home. Here's how to break the code.
First, if your ideas are varied and come from many sources, prepare to let some of them go, at least in the form that you first found them. Successful architecture, like all design, requires that every plan have an intrinsic integrity. This means that some things you might include will contribute and some will detract. This is especially true if you are remodeling and are constrained by an existing building.
Second, look over your collection for things that keep coming up (or do not). Here are a few questions that you can ask to help you benefit from your research.
* Do the things you like to imagine a large space or a small one? If a large one, do you really have the room?
* How does daylight figure in the pictures that take your fancy? Often interior design photographers stage a scene to pretend a certain time of day and even a certain kind of view through the window. If that's a big part of why something appeals to you, think about how close you can really come to that on your own site.
* If you consistently choose designs of a particular "style," what are the characteristics of that style? Are the materials close to their natural state like rough wood or stone or are they more refined and synthetic like painted wallboard and polished metal? Do the details tend to look hand made, a carved wood banister, for instance, or machine made, like a smooth metal pipe rail? Architects call this the "vocabulary" of a design.
* Is there a consistent geometric quality to the things that you chose? Do you find yourself favoring graceful curves, or disciplined right angles? Do you tend towards regular shapes like squares and circles or do more complex polygons and irregular shapes seem to dominate?
Once you start to look at the pieces of the puzzle this way, you can to identify what your own vocabulary of design bought to be. The goal is to draw out and use characteristics that are appealing and meaningful to you without being knocked off the beam by someone else 's ideas coming from a different context.
The next step is to set out your scrapbook and think about exactly what you want your design to do (or what you want to do in it). In the case of a single room remodeling, this may be a reliably simple question, if you are thinking of adding several rooms or building a whole house, the answers get more complicated. It helps to write down your thoughts both as a list of things that you want and as a narrative describing the kind of place you want those things to create. Architects call these notes a "program."
The last part of your preparation is to take a thoughtful look at your site. It may be one room, a vacant lot or a large piece of undeveloped land, but every project has a site and almost every site has some special characteristics. Elements to consider include orientation to the sun, views and privacy, access, the slope of the land and how it drains, where the wind and weather come from, and, in the case of an addition or renovation, how it relates to the building that you already have and expect to keep. This is where your cloud of ideas can fog you in, particularly if you are trying to use or adapt a preconceived plan. Prototype house plans are almost always designed with a non-specific, flat, suburban site assumed. If that's not what you have, strive valiantly to keep an open mind about whether the packaged plan real ly works in the place where you plan to build.
Finally, if the magic is working, you'll have the tools you need to start designing-a site, a program and a design vocabulary derived from your own response to the things around you, not just a pastiche of other people's ideas.