Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Unexpected Consequences of Ideas

We found this link to a brief write-up for the "honorable mention for innovation" of a recent playground design competition (click on its image below to be taken to this write-up).

As a landscape architect, I completely understand the concept of ideas and innovation when it comes to competitions. Without stretching boundaries, we don't move forward. But, I am also a very practical person and when I look at this and read about it, I feel a bit disappointed (but, please realize that design competitions can generally be a great source of disappointment). One of the important things that we are taught as landscape architects is that the imagery we present needs to reflect a possible reality. Otherwise, we are misleading our clients. The intent for this design entry was to use tires on a bamboo frame. In looking at the model they presented, let alone the recognized issue that bamboo wouldn't work for this... it does not reflect the true nature of tires.

I change the tires on my car. Tires are incredibly beefy things. They need to be since they support our vehicles. The first issue I saw with the model is where they are showing radii bends. It would be incredibly difficult to get tires under enough compression that the inner part of the tire would compress enough to allow the outer part to be snug against its neighbor. If you didn't do that, you would create a risk for entrapment for fingers, arms and legs. So, while captivating and beautiful... and as a starting point for a more successful version... this idea has some fairly obvious concerns.

Now... there's nothing wrong with flaws since they can lead to beautiful new solutions. But... this is a design meant for children in another country. If that country didn't have safety codes for playground equipment, it might be possible that this would be installed with those potential safety flaws. BUT... maybe there's nothing wrong with that!? I also believe that we need to find a healthier balance between the concepts of risk and hazard. Risk is healthy... hazard is not.

The idea as presented is a beautiful idea, and illustrates what I would call good and clever design for a play area. What I am theorizing on is the transition from good idea to good reality. Bamboo structure with tires on it is a great idea... but, would not work for the design they have shown. In our world... this is what would happen if we took this to a client:
  1. Month 1 - Us: Here's this fabulous idea! We can use local tires, with local materials for the structure. We don't think we need any complex fabrications, and can probably use local labor for it. Client: Awesome! This is great... the kids will love it.
  2. Month 2 - Us: We looked into it more, and we'll need to use a metal structure for it... but we've figured out how we can still have volunteers put the tires on. It will double the cost though. Client: Hmmm... well, it's still within our original budget... okay.
  3. Month 3 - Us: We just did a mock-up, and we can't get the tires on in a way that will preclude potential arm and leg entrapments. We have a way to fabricate the structure and modify the tires to achieve this though, but it will need to be professionally installed. It will double the cost again though. Client: Are you joking? Why didn't you do your research before we approved the idea? This will make us look like fools in front of our community advisory group? We can't take the risk or pay that much money.
  4. Month 4 - Client: We looked into it some more, and this playground manufacturer can sell and install a piece of composite play equipment for our original budget. We don't need your services any more.
While a dramatization... this is what can happen when we don't think ahead far enough to anticipate unexpected consequences (and/or partner with the experts who can help us do this). When we make mistakes as 'nature play' and 'adventure play' cheerleaders, it leads people back to the 'tried and true' world.

But... with that said, playground manufacturers have woken up and are developing better and better options for creating active and creative playspaces... but, that's for another post.

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