Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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Consensus Design– socially inclusive process – Christopher Day (2003)

**Consensus Design – socially inclusive process. Christopher Day. Architectural Press. (2003)**


I am always astonished when I speak to people who have hired an architect to design them a house, a task which is then duly completed without a single visit to the site. I also see plans for houses which have no relationship at all to the site, the views, the sun, the seasons or even the inhabitants. Modern architecture has much to answer for in its attitude that we, the consumer, aren’t sufficiently well versed in design to be able to have any input into the process. One of the most common complaints I hear from people is that they felt excluded from the design process, that their ideas weren’t sufficiently considered, and, subsequently they feel disconnected with and disappointed by the results. On a larger scale of group housing, this combination of professional exclusivity and lack of user inclusion have led to much of the disastrous social housing of the 1960s and 1970s.

The work of architect Christopher Day is a gentle revolution in the world of architecture. This, his latest book, sets out in detail a process he has developed over many years, and which he calls ‘consensus design’. The problem he sets out to address is this. If a professional sets out to design a house for a client he/she often fails to meet either the needs of the client or the need of the site. If he designs with a client, or a group of clients (as in a larger project), each individual comes to the table with their ideas of how the building should be, and the resultant design is a compromise between all of them, as in the old saying about a camel being a horse designed by a committee…

Chris starts with the basics – what does the site want? In order to discover this, he takes all those involved through a process of reading the landscape at deepening degrees of subtlety. First you look at what is there physically, then examine the site in the context of time, looking backwards then forwards, then identifying the moods of the place, and then finally the spirit of the place, if this place were to speak, what would it say? This process reveals a wealth of information about a site, information upon which all those involved agree. I now teach this process on permaculture courses as an essential tool for landscape evaluation and client participation. Chris then gets the clients to work with clay models, which allows those involved to shape the forms of the buildings. He, as the architect, doesn’t start actually making drawings until late in the process.
In ‘Consensus Design’ Chris sets out this whole process and then demonstrates how it can be applied to a variety of projects, from individual homes to eco-villages and is honest about what worked and what didn’t.

I feel this is one of the most important books on architecture ever published. It is such profound common sense that once read, the conventional approach appears to be woefully inadequate. Putting a building on a piece of land profoundly affects that site forever. The results of ignoring a place’s spirit are all too obvious around us. The results Chris has achieved in the buildings he has ‘co-designed’ by listening to this spirit and by using this inclusive process have produced buildings with a quality very rarely found in modern architecture.

The implications of ‘Consensus Design’ are profound. We desperately need buildings with soul, buildings in which we feel alive, creative, at peace. The process Chris offers us here asks much of us; for the client, that we take a degree of responsibility for the design of our spaces and insist on our creative input. For the architect, a degree of humility uncommon for a professional, listening to the site, its spirit as well as to the client’s dreams and hopes. This has to be the future of architecture and should be taught to every architecture student, now.