A drawing of a house.

Somewhere in the clutter of my home office I have a beautiful design packet from a local architect. In big full color pictures it depicts my house with a wonderful modern roofline. Jutting points and angled planes, high windows and slabby overhangs. I love that roofline.

When I engaged the architect, I had already sketched about 12 floorplans for the addition we hoped to build. They were based on daily usage and known pain points. I knew exactly what spaces our house most needed: a mud room, a garage, and a new entryway. I also knew every constraint by heart: how far to the edge of the buildable lot, where the water lines ran, how many additional circuits our electric box could accommodate, which floor joist held the nearest hot air duct. My floorplans were optimized for utility, for ease of implementation. For us.

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The architect took a look at my drawings and smiled. “They look good,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter right now. If you get the roofline right, the floorplans will fall into place.” Well, I thought this was very wise advice. And, sure enough, when the architect delivered the designs, the floorplans fell right into place underneath that wonderful roofline. His pictures resembled my sketches but had more light, more windows, more style. Beautiful!

Six years later, we still haven’t built that addition. A roofline like that with the high windows, the slabby overhangs, the complex angles — well, it doubles the cost of building. There was no way we could afford to build the house in those pictures. We didn’t. And we probably won’t. We paid a good architect for nice drawings of a handsome house that may never exist.

rooflineA couple times a year, I think about that wonderful modern roofline, and how it would look from the street. But you know what? I miss having a mud room and a garage far more often — almost every day, in fact.

The architect emails sometimes to ask whether we’ve made any progress. He hopes we will, because he would like to see that roofline soar just as much as I would like to fill the garage full of bikes. Nobody, even the guy who got paid for it, wants to see good work languish.

I’m sure this tale sounds quite familiar to most web designers, web developers and web project managers. Anyone who’s done a few web development projects knows what it feels like to realize, deep into a project, that it isn’t working. The product can’t be built as designed; maybe it can’t even be explained.

Excepting the anecdote above, house design and construction are usually terrible metaphors for web design and development. The apparent similarities simply don’t hold up under close scrutiny. We’ve been building structures for a few thousand years and most of us have lived in one before, and we are all beneficiaries of this vast experience. Even someone who has never considered how a house is built might anticipate that a waterproof roof should precede interior finish work, for example.

The same is not true for web development. There is almost no state of the art: We are making it up as we go, and we are going very quickly. To date, practitioners have made very few cultural agreements that are as obvious as “countertops on cabinets” or “closets in bedrooms”. The trade is young. We build web sites like people without nails and lumber and other standard components build homes: We take whatever materials we have at hand and stack them on top of each other until it resembles a structure.

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There is another similarity between custom home design and custom web development that I would like to point out before leaving this particular metaphor behind: In both disciplines, establishing a shared definition of success is the greatest challenge and the most likely point of project failure.

The architect in my tale thought success meant delivering beautiful designs within a budget. In retrospect it is clear that success meant helping me figure out how to build a garage within a budget. Neither of us was insistent enough about establishing this definition. Neither of us knew we had different understandings until the drawings were printed.

In upcoming posts I will suggest some simple practices that can make web development projects work better. I’ll describe common features of web development projects that transcend the methodology à la mode. And I’ll talk about various ways to integrate design and development activities.

I will know I have succeeded if just one person says it has helped.