Small, Big, Really Small, and Just Right

During construction, on every single project of my career, there is a conversation that I have with my clients … and it has to do with the size of the rooms. At very predictable times during construction, I know that the clients will think a room is going to be too small. Fast forward a few weeks and now we are looking at the same space and the size feels pretty good … but just give it some time and the room goes back to feeling too small. We go back and forth on this at least 4 times before everybody finally settles down and comes to realize that the room is the expected size and everything is going to be okay.

This is something that I’ve been meaning to point out for years but it wasn’t until this last weekend, after I had indulged myself by not working all weekend, that I found myself thinking about this scale phenomenon and I finally decided to write about it. I would safely venture a guess that if you do what I do for a living, you already understand this back-and-forth room size conversation, but I am going to put it out there just in case this is new for you.

Scale during construction - a wide open job site prior to the start of construction

I am working on a shared co-working project in Dallas and I’ve decided to use job site photos from this project to help illustrate my point. If you are wondering if I had this conversation with the client during construction, the answer is “yes”.

It’s always “yes”.

For this project, our client bought an existing building that had previously been a beehive of weird rooms, where “Escape Room” logic must have been the driving design force behind the layout. We decided that it would be beneficial to go ahead and demolish the interiors prior to the start of design so that we would have a clean and accurate space plan in which to work and prepare our existing as-built documents. The image above was taken just after everything was removed and this gives you the first inkling that the room might not be as big as you thought it was going to be. With everything being wide open, it is hard to put any sort of scale to this area – it certainly doesn’t seem large enough to accommodate the 12 private offices we are placing along that window wall … but it is.

An empty job site prior to the start of construction

For most people, especially those who don’t layout 3-dimensional spaces for a living, determining how big something is typically happens as a comparison against some other items within the same room that are of a known scale. Basically, it helps to have small things in a large room just to help people understand how big that room is … and if you don’t those sorts of things, it’s difficult to visualize the scale. I bet that at least half of the people who read that last sentence are already looking at things in this picture that will help them understand the scale of this image. For me, I would look at the distance from the floor to the bottom of the window, and since I would guess this to be around 30″ I could use this information to set my internal scale.

metal stud framing starts to give scale to the tenant space

The next step in this process typically happens during the framing period. Now that there are studs in place helping to define the eventual walls that will contain a room, the room starts to feel a lot bigger … bigger than it actually is really. Now when the clients are standing in a room, they can see where the walls will be but since the walls are open (i.e. not covered in gypsum board) they visually steal some additional space from the adjacent area, thereby making the room feel larger than it really is.

Drywall being installed to stud framing

The third step in our “First it’s too small, but now it’s big” is the addition of the gypsum board. Now that the rooms are exactly defined in terms of their size (and you aren’t visually stealing space any longer) everything has become small again … and frequently people think these rooms are now too small again. Basically, all we have are white boxes without anything present to help define and scale the room. Things like doors, base molding, light switches, electrical outlets, etc. all help provide scale a room.

Details start to be added to provide scale

Even in this picture, the ceiling grid is starting to help break this room down to its correct scale. You can simply look at the grid, and with some easy counting, determine that this room is approximately 16′ wide. Even without the grid, the items in this room like the buckets, or the can of paint, the leftover window blinds, even the electrical outlets, all provide visual clues that help you understand exactly how big this room is – an more importantly, how it feels.

Every project goes through these phases – small, big, really small, and then just right – and letting people know what to expect is something that I do on every project.

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