Home for memory loss patients, site plan. Two buildings

The Gestation Period for an Elephant is 617 Days

Give the Design Some Time

After a six-year capital campaign, a client of ours called us up to say they were ready to start their project. This was very good news. We had designed a phase one project for them in 2010. At that time, we also took the design of phase two from conceptual design to design development. We then put our figurative pencils down, knowing several years would pass before they would be able to fund the second phase. Anticipating program changes, it was better not to complete the design work.

At our recent kick-off meeting, they did indeed provide us with a laundry list of changes they wished to see. Some were minor, others were fairly large departures. The conversation was productive. As I drove back to the office, I thought about that six-year hiatus. After six years of thinking about a building, chances were good you knew exactly what you wanted.

On all our projects we recommend clients move through the design process in as unhurried a pace as possible. Six years is very long, but even a few weeks of thought between design meetings can be helpful in providing opportunities for reflection. Down times between design phases become moments for reflection. The world is not perfect, and sometimes time is of the essence, but the design process is like cooking. It becomes obvious when the process is rushed.

The real purpose of conceptual design prior to fundraising should be to clarify the true needs of the organization in order to fulfill its mission.

Many of our non-profit clients ask us for conceptual, or preliminary designs to help them kick off a capital campaign. The down and dirty version of a conceptual design is targeted to provide compelling visuals for use in fundraising. However, this type of eye candy- directed design is unhelpful. The real purpose of conceptual design prior to fundraising should be to clarify the true needs of the organization in order to fulfill its mission. There will naturally be a building design that comes from that process, along with plans and renderings. But, those renderings need to pass a test that the organization will face each time it meets with a potential donor: ‘What will this project allow you to do that you cannot do now? Did you think about doing X instead of the Y that you are pitching?’ A design process that includes asking these questions will produce a successful design, that will lead to a successful capital campaign, a successful project, and success in carrying out the mission.

Reflection is part of Conceptual Design

On two recent projects, we worked with clients for months developing conceptual designs for capital campaigns. These were small projects: less than $500,000. Our effort was not constant. We would spend a day or two collecting information, then have a building committee meeting. We would then spend a day or two sketching potential diagrams. At the next meeting, we would listen to feedback about the diagrams, and recognize some course adjustments were necessary. Perhaps a few weeks would go by before the client had time to meet again. During this time, the project was in the back of our minds, and in the back of theirs. More meetings would lead to more diagrams, and more discussion.

However laborious this process might seem, the result is almost always the right design, at an agreeable budget. Part of the success of an unhurried project is that the clients understand how changes in a building’s design can influence how they operate in the building. They have seen several diagrams, and imagined themselves in each one. As architects, we use the time to really get to know our clients. We see what issues keep returning to the discussion.

The gestation period for an Asian elephant is 617 days. The design phase of a project does not need to last that long. But great designs come not to those who wait. It comes to those who use the passage of time to bring clarity to what they need from a building.

Interested in discussing how we can help you realize a great design? Contact Mike Sealander, AIA at 207.266.5822 or email me.

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:


Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.