Designing With First Principles in Mind


de Reus Architects - luxury resort Tropical Craftsman Residence Design Principals

Author: Mark de Reus, Partner


Why do so many residences — and resorts, too, for that matter — look alike?

Often, it’s the fault of both architect and client. And the architect is more to blame than the client, in my opinion.

A pattern of copycat thinking

Many architects encourage their clients to bring in pictures of what they like that they’ve seen elsewhere. Along with interior designers, they often create “mood boards” that are comprised of images of other people’s work. This leads to iterative designs that are copies of predecessors, resulting in a series of barely distinguishable projects, one from another.

This is particularly ironic, especially in the realm of hospitality design, where virtually all developers claim to want to do something out of the ordinary, to have a compelling wow factor, to differentiate their resort from their competitors.

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, refers to doing things that are the same as what others are doing (or have done) as “reasoning by analogy.” Instead, he has focused his entrepreneurial energies on “boiling things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reasoning up from there.” Such an approach has enabled him to do unprecedented things.

Elon Musk is following a rich tradition of problem solving that can be traced back to Aristotle, who said over 2,000 years ago that identifying first principles is the key to doing systematic inquiry.

We agree with our man Aristotle.

Designing with first principles in mind

First-principles design thinking is what allows us to innovate. The first question we ask ourselves when embarking on a project is “What are we trying to do?” And then, together with the client, we set about doing it.

Sure, we look at historical references and comparable properties, as well as available technologies and building materials; but our intent is always to create something unique.

Here’s how we approach a project:

We toss away existing solutions and instead solve the problem in a way that best suits the unique issues of the particular situation.

Our search is always to create a place that feels appropriate, timeless and in harmony with the surroundings.

The first principles of design at the scale of a residence are brought into focus quite succinctly:

  • The client’s expectations, wishes and goals
  • The circumstances (including the site)
  • The tradition that will inform the architecture
  • The materials and craftsmanship

Designing with first principles in mind means focusing on the big-picture goals rather than what the finished product should look like.

Other limitations, constraints or circumstances then get factored in. These can include such considerations as building and fire codes, community design guidelines, climatic conditions, and budgetary realities.

The importance of the locale

The degree to which architects let site circumstances — the land and surrounding landscape — inform their design is directly related to the search for creating a unique sense of place.

For instance, a goal is always to anchor the project to the lay of the land.  With first-principles problem solving, we use this goal to explore subtle influences such as materiality and nuance of detail to make a connection to the setting. In the case of the Kaupulehu residence, the sinuous curves of the lanai eaves create an intimate connection to the waves as they roll across the ocean in front of the home. In the same residence, we used curved roofs on outdoor pavilions to create uniquely designed shade structures. These were innovative solutions developed from first-principle level thinking that became signature design elements of this residence.

Invariably, each design is different, because of the unique individual circumstances of a site, such as topography, view planes, soil conditions and vegetation. The nature of the land is pivotal to revealing distinct design opportunities and inspiration.

When all is said and done, by respecting the locale, listening to the land and not applying analogical thinking, we can arrive at the best possible solution.


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