Minding the Details

Back when I worked in a big architectural office, I was generally relied upon to generate details for whatever section of the project was my responsibility. Inevitably, when I would bring some suggested details to the Project Manager’s attention for discussion, someone would repeat the old axiom the devil is in the details. In the course of my 20+ years in the architectural field I have heard it quite a few times. Most of my co-workers hated detailing. It’s slow work when done right; and if the detail doesn’t work, you can guess who gets the blame.

The Austin Garden Center

While I’ve heard the devil is in the details thousands of times, I’ve always had a different view of the problem than most people who utter it. The prestigious parts of a project’s design (exterior and interior appearance) are generally either fought over by the team leadership, or handed to some design guru to give his special flourish to. The rest of the tasks are handed out to the team, usually with some grumbling about who ends up with what, and most of them look forward to the day when they can paint with broad strokes and not have to worry about the details anymore. No one wants them except people like me. Design is design, and the joy of creation is in the details as much as it is in generating a building exterior that has street appeal, whatever that is.

The wife’s quilt pattern inspired VCT artwork – from the AGC AutoCAD files.

It’s a lot like writing in a way. There is something I need to say, how to say it? There’s something this widget needs to do, how do I make it work? Sit there and puzzle over it, lay out designs and discard them one after another. Consult some references, lay out more designs, and sit and puzzle some more. Finally in the end it all comes together in a flash of inspiration, and voila, there it is. The joy of creation, doing work that the average clock-puncher looks down on as beneath them.

µstation details from a current project

The old axiom does carry a grain of truth. If you don’t mind the details, if you don’t sort them all out for yourself, then you leave that part of creation to chance. Murphy is a hard task master, and gremlins don’t have a bad rep because they fix things when you aren’t looking. Chances are, if you leave the details to chance, you won’t be pleased with the outcome.


I had some piecework that needed doing for a friend of mine when I wrote this article. I was very proud of the details that I came up with as a solution to the problem, even if I was doing the work pro bono. I have no idea if the project that I was trying to solve the detail problem for was ever built, I just know that it was a particularly difficult puzzle to solve and that it took a lot longer for me to solve than I thought was reasonable.

It reminded me of the the Austin Garden Center remodel that I had done for Architecture Plus back in 1997, the last thing I worked on in the architecture field that I could truly say I was proud of. Which is why I put pictures of that project in the article as well as one of the details that I had come up with for the project that inspired the article.

The Garden Center project was pretty typical, from a big picture perspective. We were to design an update to the facilities to allow for handicap access. We were to include some new functions in the building’s now expanded footprint. Before we had even gotten out of the design phase, the budget for the project had been overrun and the client was still asking for more stuff to be shoehorned into it.

We managed to somehow cover all the bases, but the budget was now so thin that we were going to have to go cheap on finishes inside the facility. What had once been budgeted as a terrazzo floor was now to be downgraded to the workhorse of commercial flooring, vinyl composite tile (VCT) which meant we had to do something interesting, but cheap, with the VCT.

During the due diligence phase of the design process we discovered that one of the major events that occurred in the attached auditorium for the Garden Center was an annual quilt show. This gave me an idea. The Wife is a quilter after all. Using only standard colors of common VCT tile, could we create a quilt pattern that was attractive and cheap to install. A quilt pattern that was also a flower pattern? Something that would relieve the monotony of the now-bland flooring of the center. I think we came up with a reasonable solution.

Author: RAnthony

I'm a freethinking, unapologetic liberal. I'm a former CAD guru with an architectural fetish. I'm a happily married father. I'm also a disabled Meniere's sufferer.

Attacks on arguments offered are appreciated and awaited. Attacks on the author will be deleted.

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