Living with mistakes, mistakes as a resource

This post continues my sequence of contrarian topics about working in the STEM fields.  The first post suggests that shopping is an under-appreciated skill for successful STEM projects, and yet the topic is rarely even mentioned in education or job descriptions.    The second post presents mistakes as a consequence of bad shopping skills but where the project takes on a new requirement of living with the earlier mistake.   A large part of day-to-day STEM labor may be attributed to additional effort required to make earlier mistakes work.    In that second post, I did mention that the STEM fields have an ideal that mistakes will never be made, or if made the second best thing is to find mistakes and replace them with non-mistakes.     This is the training of the STEM practitioner.   In practice, we often don’t have the choice of undoing a mistake.   We charge ahead with our plans modified to incorporate the mistake.

In this post, I want to suggest that the mistake becomes a resource for a project.   In some of the examples I mentioned about mistakes being due to incompetent shopping skills, the mistakes may never be recognized as mistakes: without shopping no one would even discover that there might have been a better option.    In other cases, it is simply impractical to go back and correct the mistake.   There is a unique quality of humans to be very clever about making things work so that we quickly forget that there was a mistake at all.

This cleverness for transforming mistakes into successful outcomes is probably a trait inherited from ancestors, going back to the earliest life forms.    I’d say that a defining characteristic of life is its ability to exploit the opportunities that mistakes present.    This is how mutations can find new niches, or how a creature in a new environment can discover new sources of nourishment and shelter.   A core concept of biology is to marvel at the exquisite capabilities of species where every such capability started a DNA code transcription mistake.    Non-life would fail to exploit the opportunities made possible by a mistake.

Humans are very good about adapting plans around the mistakes often in ways that exploit the opportunities that mistakes make available.   A lot of innovation of successful projects might be traced to someone somewhere making some mistake.    Without that mistake, the company might have had a product sooner or at lower costs, but they may have lacked the distinguishing advantage provided by the opportunity presented by that mistake.

The problem of identifying examples is that the feature becomes so valued that it is controversial to claim it was an work-around for a mistake.   In my last post, I suggested that the introduction of anti-lock brakes on cars was in part an answer to a mistake in policy that permitted licensing drivers who were not well trained in effective emergency braking techniques.   Even if that training were politically feasible to require, creating the right conditions would be very expensive and possibly dangerous.   Adding the technology to stutter the brakes only in emergency conditions provided the benefit of proper braking without requiring the operator to have that skill.   Today it is controversial to claim that the feature was a work-around for the mistake of not requiring better certification of driver skills.    Perhaps some evidence of the work-around status of the technology persists in arguments by highly capable drivers who insist that they are better off without the technology.

In many cases, features are so well received that any claim that the feature started as a work-around for mistake would result in angry denials.   A reasonable counter to my work-around theory for anti-lock brakes is that it is an example of the expected practice of STEM to find and replace the earlier mistake of not including the feature in the first place.

In my own experience, I’ve encountered mistakes that required additional effort to find some way to make it work.   Sometimes only a few people would recognize the condition as a mistake that could have been avoided.  The condition was simply part of the description of the job that needed to be done.    I can think of many cases where the work that was required for a fixing a mistake could have been avoided but that the result of working around the problem provided unexpected benefits.

In my work with difficult to understand data required building a solution before I fully understood all the ways that the could surprise or disappoint me.   Because I was not confident in the solution’s adequacy to address every variation of data information or quality, I invested a lot of work into building my own reports that I specifically intended to use to track down and explain any unexpected results.    Although the original task was satisfied by delivering the final report, the client found the most value in those drill-down reports even when there was no mistake in handling the data.   The same reports (or new reports modeled after the original ones) provided valued insights into the domain information summarized the final reports.

I thought it would be more illustrative to describe my experiences as a home owner.   Nearly two decades ago I bought a house in a neighborhood I liked.   The house was small but when it was built 55 years earlier, it was probably meant for an upper income family.    The house was constructed with similar craftsman materials and skills used to build centuries older houses still standing in older neighborhoods.   The house was designed very carefully for the floor plan and for the arrangement of other closely-spaced houses in the neighborhood.   For example the original placement of windows considered the problem of avoiding adjacent houses having windows facing each other.

This house is a small house by contemporary standards.   The overall foot print of the house interior is about 19 feet on the side by 24 feet across the front.   It is two floors divided by a supporting wall dividing the 24 foot span into two rooms with the right side being somewhat larger than the left.    The larger right side was open front-to-back except for a stairwell to get upstairs and this defined the living room and master bedroom.   The left side was divided again to allow space for a small kitchen on first floor and bathroom on second floor with the remaining space for the dining room and second bedroom.   The divided floor plan was carefully supported by choice of placement of a middle block wall in the cellar and double-joists for the additional division of the left side of the house.

The house was specifically designed and structurally engineered for a very specific floor plan.

I moved into the house from a one bedroom plus den apartment in a recently built high-rise.   Roughly, the square footage of the house matched that of the apartment, but the apartment has noticeably larger rooms.    For example, the kitchen of the apartment had space for a refrigerator and microwave.    In contrast, this house’s kitchen sat the refrigerator in the middle of floor space so that you had to squeeze your shoulders a bit to get past it to get to the back door.     The house’s kitchen had two equal sized work counter surfaces where one was just the right size for a counter-top microwave.

I as a single person bought this house from the previous owners consisting of a couple with with a young child.   This kitchen seemed nearly impossible to use for me but they had been using it for a few years.   I do note that they sold to buy a house several states away where the house was several times larger than this one.   I don’t think they were any more pleased with the space than I was.

The reason why the refrigerator was in the way is because they bought a newer more modern-sized frost-free unit.   The original frost-prone refrigerator was in the basement and they used it for additional storage.   The original version as much smaller in all dimensions.  It probably worked perfectly for the space available,  but it would not be able to hold as much.

One of my first priorities was to have the kitchen remodeled.   I immediately noticed a coat closet on the dining room side was just wide enough that if it were opened the other way it would accommodate a nook more than sufficient to place the refrigerator.

However, there was this very curious problem of the horizontal run of the furnace vent to the living room: that run was built up from the floor so that the floor of the coat closet was about a foot from the regular floor.   It was not a big problem to re-route the vent.   Curiously, there was a similar design of the upstairs linen closet (in very short hallway) that also had a raise floor to accommodate vents that seemed to me could have been arranged to avoid that loss of convenient floor-level space.

My kitchen remodeling project was a great success in getting a work area that roughly matched what I had in the recently built apartment building.   The nice sized refrigerator set in the space formerly offered as a coat closet, and I had enough extra room to fit a narrow cabinet that could accommodate a coffee maker (if I drank coffee).

I continued my remodeling spree with a redesign of a similarly disappointing bathroom with a very short bath tub arranged to run along the exterior wall that happened to be just big enough to accommodate a 4.5 foot tub.    I noted that the second room closet occupied an adjacent space that was exactly the right size to accommodate a modern standard sized built-in tub projecting perpendicularly from the exterior wall (parallel with the joists).    Again, the result was a satisfying approximation to what I learned to expect from a bathroom.

The second room became closet-less but as I mentioned I had moved from a one bedroom plus den so I didn’t see a problem calling it a den.  Eventually, I remodeled the rest of the top floor to strip out all of the interior walls to create what approximates a modern loft style.   I added some windows to bring in more light.   At least from the inside there at least a hint of a modern feel.

I never was able to solve the fundamental problem of small dining room and living room.   Even my apartment furniture when placed in these rooms left virtually no room for walking around.   I attempted to visit furniture show rooms to find something more appropriate but it turned out that my existing furniture was smaller than virtually anything they offered.   I recall one time I described my desired dining room table and got the response that I should look for a breakfast table instead.

I tolerated dodging my original furniture until finally I gave up on the concept entirely.

Up to this point in my narrative, I had already made a lot of mistakes imposing a floor plan on the house that it wasn’t designed to handle.    The first regret came with the project I will describe next.

I wanted a fire place.  First of all, the house had very uneven heat in the winter.   Because of the arrangements of the vents the warmest rooms in the house were the bathroom and kitchen (even when not using the original gas range).   The heated air was delivered most effectively to these rooms.   As an aside, one contractor told me a story that the houses were designed for over-sized furnaces with the intention of heating the house with open windows so as to reduce the chance of catching the flu.    I am not sure it was true but a similar misunderstanding may explain their choice for distributing heat: the kitchen and bathrooms in particular were expected to have open windows.

Secondly of course, I just wanted to have a fire.  I picked out a sealed unit that drew in outside air to burn and as a result it is very efficient heater.   I picked out the smallest one available because I wanted to set it in place of the side window of the dining room.

Oh, I forgot to mention the third reason.  In the original neighborhood plan, that window would face a bare wall of the neighboring house but a later owner build an addition that placed two huge picture windows so I would like directly into their living space at a time the house was rented to a half-dozen adults.     The problem only worsened later when the latest owners removed the original exterior wall (with a steel beam supporting the floor above) so now I can see clear across their entire floor if that side window still existed.     I guess I could claim a mistake for boarding off that window because it encouraged the later owners to open their space up so much because now I didn’t have a window that would be able to look in.

Initially I was satisfied with the new fireplace and I was very happy with its supply of very welcome spot heat during the winter.    My regret cam when I realized that operating the fireplace as intended with dining guests would be extremely uncomfortable for half of those guests.    The fireplace destroyed the concept of using the space as a dining room.   By this time I realized I wasn’t entertaining guests much any way so I didn’t mind.    Eventually, with the most recent renovation I redefined the space to accommodate a small bar table placed the perfect position from the heat.   The work around to my mistake was to give up on having a dining room and end up with a more pleasing layout for someone living alone.

That work around also presented a new opportunity.   I reasoned that because I don’t need a dining room, I don’t need a living room.   I got rid of all of the living room furniture.   The entire first floor was a single space with bar table and two stools near but not too close to the fireplace.

The open area in the other half of the floor doesn’t seem empty because of it doesn’t really look that big.  It is about the space you’d find in an entrance area for a modern house.   I would be happy with the visual appeal of leaving the floor open.   I chose to fill the space with a grand piano.   The entire space of the first floor is perfectly furnished with these few items.   I suppose I could get some more furniture but it would quickly feel very cramped.

So here is this house with a completely different floor plan and weight distribution than anticipated by the original builders.

One consequence of the original design of raised floors of the closets was to discourage placing much weight there.   One could try to put a heavy item there but they would need to be able to lift it up at least a foot from the floor to get it in.

The floor was naturally weaker at that point.   The air vents from the furnace prevented the joists from spanning across both support walls.   The original builders did the best they could with double joists.  I am not sure, but I suspect they chose the venting routes to discourage placing too much weight above this weak point.   The revised plans disobeyed their intentions.

Likewise the piano was positioned in the middle of the longer span of joists.  These are strong and large oak joists that could support a piano.  Certainly many homes of this style have pianos.  The main difference is that replaced the original hardwood flooring with much heavier ceramic tile.   The combined weight of tile and piano was enough to at least keep me up at night.

Things probably would have been ok until the 2011 earthquake hit.   What probably made the experience more unsettling was the fact that I was in the house when it hit.  The house made some very unpleasant sounds.

By this time all of my mistakes were in place.   I now drew my attention to the structure.   The weak spot over the furnace vents had definitely shifted about a half inch.   Some of the joists showed some signs of fresh cracks.   These observations probably could have merited a cautionary wait and see approach but for peace of mind, I had the weak spots reinforced with new supporting structures that took up floor space in the cellar.   The cellar is not tall enough to be a true basement so I don’t regret the lost floor space there.   But I do have a deeper appreciation of the thinking by the original builders.

This house was not designed to do what I did with it and I had to work around mistakes of my own doing.   Despite that, I’m actually very happy with the result of making mistakes work.  I don’t miss the concept of a dining room, a living room, or even a bedroom (the loft has a wall bed so there is no bed visible unless I’m lying on it).   The space is very visually appealing.   Even the additional reinforcing members of the basement seems to conform to its original concept as a cellar instead of a basement.

One final mistake was my deliberately mischievous choice of painting the interior walls a dark shade of green.   I was so proud of this being so different until recently recently when a contracted plaster craftsman remarked that green was the most common interior color after the war because of cheap surplus army paint and because it was a sign of patriotism so have a home with army green.   I’m not sure it was as popular as he says, but it clearly wasn’t unheard of.   I can’t even try to make a mistake without it becoming a feature.

So here I am with surrounded by features that were almost all mistakes of some form or another.   Although many of the mistakes could be attributed to failure to research, there were also a failure to shop.   I didn’t even consider looking at the benefits offered by a smaller refrigerator, a lighter fiberglass tub, a less-hot firelog insert fireplace: their benefits could have resulted in a very different evolution of the remodeling and intended purpose of the house.

If I had better appreciated the structural customization to a precise floor plan, I might have been sufficiently discouraged from making the sequence of changes that I did.   I would not have ended up with what I have now, a place that is working out very well for me with a modern feel and some really neat sight lines.   I certainly would not have brought an acoustic piano, opting instead for a more practical and lighter electronic piano.

The mistakes converted a house into a perfect piano studio even for a far more accomplished student of piano.   Now I have to become a student of piano worthy for such a studio.

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One thought on “Living with mistakes, mistakes as a resource

  1. The above personal narrative was partially fictionalized out of laziness to correct some of the details. The details don’t change the conclusion that the features would never have been realized if I hadn’t first made mistakes.

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