Atomic Ranch, choosing your weapons carefully and window snobbery.
Alistair McLean
Category: Books, From the Studio

Alistair: Posted on Saturday, 12 May 2012 1:51 PM

Not all Secret Design Studio’s engagements go as smoothly as planned, but we always aim to get a good result at the end of the day. As for any small boutique design based business referrals from past clients are always cheaper and more powerful than advertising.


This particular job had hit a few rocky patches, and both the clients and Secret Design Studio had had moments of frustration and despair.  The engagement was for a new home on a very steep site, that required town planning with a council that had a notorious reputation.  Secret Design Studio took on the job as the clients are lovely people, and I was confident that the work of Secret Design Studio could help them over their difficulties.

Secret Design Studio was not the first consultancy to assist these clients.  The first, as a friend, had completed some beautiful sketches on yellow trace, with a home with many levels, terracing down the hill.  It was romantic and evocative, but lacked detail, and due to the generous size and complex structure, would have been well above their budget.

Using yellow trace to design is a wonderful way to work, and is rapidly becoming a lost art.  Due to the sketchy nature of the media, and its artistic quality, the details don’t need to be resolved, unlike CAD, which requires more precision and decision at an earlier stage of the design process.  I could see why these clients fell in love with this early concept as it was beautifully executed, and nicely proportioned. With his yellow trace concept clutched closely to the clients hearts, the architect moved on to other endeavours, and we wish him well.

Secret Design Studio suspects that there may have been others involved after the stage, but it is ancient history now, and when approached the job was being looked after by a local draftsman with a good relationship with the challenging council.  Unfortunately his translation of the yellow trace into town planning drawings just wasn’t working for his clients.   Secret Design Studio suspects that part of the problem was his weapon of choice – a state of the art 3D CAD package.


This particular software is a great package for 3D modelling, Secret Design Studio has used it, as well as others, which are similar.  However he was relying a lot on standard objects and textures that weren’t expressing the concept as imagined by the clients, the subtlety of the design was being lost in the elevations.  This was not the fault of the draftsman, rather his experience and limitations of the 3D CAD package, and the lack of time that was available to him to create customised elements.  Despite the clients wishes it was looking a little like many other houses in the area, possibly because our man had drafted them!

Fortunately the clients realized the limitations and approached Secret Design Studio to assist.  The arrangement was to maintain the engagement with the local draftsman, as he was competent, and had the inside local knowledge of the issues.  Secret Design Studio was engaged to provide the design input and help guide the draftsman into getting the details right.

After reviewing the floor plan, and discussing how they proposed to use the rooms, Secret Design Studio was also engaged to conduct a small floor plan review.  The issues were that the plan was a bit rabbit-warren like in some aspects with quite a few smallish single function rooms split over three levels.  The clients had never had a furniture plan completed, so when Secret Design Studio started sketching some scaled furniture.(with yellow trace) it soon became obvious that the myriad of smaller rooms were not going to work as intended.

As a result Secret Design Studio did a little redesign of the rooms and managed to lose two single function rooms, and added some of the saved space into other rooms.  For the style of home it was better to have fewer rooms, that were larger, and that would work properly with their intended uses, while reducing total area and cost.  For instance we now had an appropriate space for a piano, there was enough room for an 8 seater dining table, there was no dead, floating space that didn’t have a function, and the internal changes of level were removed losing the internal stairs which ate up more valuable space.


After the floorplan tweaking, as well as reviewing various options such as relocating the front door, and then returning to the original concept, Secret Design Studio started looking at windows and elevations.  The window design is a crucial element of this design due to the climate, the BAL fire rating and the nature of the concept.  The clients are particularly discerning about the window design, even down to the latching mechanism operation, and it is great to have a client that appreciates this level of detail.  However for this level of refinement there is a cost, and the premium architectural window makers were bringing in ball park figures that were eating up a lot of the budget.  Once when the client was complaining to me about these costs, and we were both lamenting how it so unfair how well designed items often cost more, I laughingly called her a windows snob, and she laughed and agreed!

Secret Design Studio completed some preliminary elevations, without a lot of detail to try and get the proportions right, and from here the project went downhill.  It is always challenging to gauge the level of understanding a particular client has when reading drawings, which is why I prefer to present them and see if there is any difficulty, so that I can sketch elements in 3D.  Most clients can read a floor plan, however when there is a complex sloping site, that does not run parallel with the house, and the house has reasonably complex shape, and a more complex sub-floor it is difficult to read and understand how it all hangs together, especially when it is depicted as a 2 dimensional representation of a complex 3-dimensional house and landscape.

Our draftsman had a good go at converting my 2D AutoCAD elevations into his 3D model, but his 2d elevations that were taken from his 3D model did not show the refinement needed to convey clearly what was happening. We all had a short period of frustration and despair.  I had designed the elevations in 2D on yellow trace, which were rough and conveyed the concept, which the clients had approved.  From these yellow trace concepts I had completed some simple 2d AutoCAD elevations.  The draftsman had used these for his 3d model, and from them then generated 2d elevations – which looked wrong, but from a technical point of view weren’t wrong, but needed a bit of refinement.  The client couldn’t read the 3 dimensional aspect of the draftsmans 2d elevations, due to line weight etc.   It was like an architectural version of Chinese whispers, and nobody was happy.


Secret Design Studio liked the clients and the house, and could see where the problem was in the communication.  The only way out was to complete the time consuming job and draw all of the elevations in 2D in a fair amount of detail at 1:50 using every trick in the book to convey the textures, materials and life of the four elevations.  This would make it easier to communicate the subtleties, without the clunkiness of the 2D elevations from the 3D drafting package.

It was with a little bit of trepidation that Secret Design Studio approached our elevation review meeting.  As the client had recently reminded me that the successful resolution of all four elevations were the reason why Secret Design Studio had been engaged.  Secret Design Studio was engaged to provide the design input to get the elevations to convey the qualities of the original yellow trace design by the original architect.

It had been a rocky road to get to this stage, with a deviation to reduce the floor plan area (and reduce costs), and the architectural Chinese whispers between the media – yellow trace, AutoCad, and the 3d CAD system.

We had our elevation review meeting in the client’s dining room.  I walked in and the table was bare apart from a beautiful book called “Atomic Ranch – midcentury interiors”.  The client said “We would like to give you this book, as we really appreciate the work that Secret Design Studio has done.  We love the elevations, and for the first time in three and a half years since the project has started,  you have been the first to show us what our house will actually look like.”

It was a very generous and gracious present, and the book was on my Amazon wish-list, so I was very touched.  I just hope that the local council like the elevations as much as the clients and Secret Design Studio.


Design Studio would like to note that all of these images are taken form the Amazon website for “Atomic Ranch – midcentury interiors” by Michelle Gringeri-Brown, with photos by Jim Brown, and as displayed on each photo is copyrighted material. To see further images, more information or to purchase through Amazon please use this link:

Secret Design Studio will be doing a review of this book in a future blog, so please keep an eye out for it.

“Atomic Ranch Midcentury Interiors” by Michelle Gringeri-Brown, photos by Jim Brown, Gibbs Smith, ISBN 978-1-4236-1931-4″

Alistair at Secret Design Studio