The Lean Building Blog: Nothing left to take away?

November 8, 2011

If asked, I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite author, but if forced to choose just one I would go with Antoine St. Exupery.

St. Ex, as he is often called, was a pilot, a writer, Renaissance man, freedom fighter (against the Nazis), and philosopher, among other things. He wrote beautifully and insightfully about life, often told through first person accounts of usually dangerous flights in locales around the world. Then there was his all-time children’s classic, "The Little Prince," which had an even greater message for adults. It reads as well today as it did 70 years ago, and his message for governments and politicians is just as valid.

St. Ex provided one of the most provocative quotes of all time, so much that it stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it. And it has a great deal to say to architects, homebuilders and designers of any stripe.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add,
but when there is nothing left to take away”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Nothing left to take away? Doesn’t it seem that the game in design these days is to keep adding stuff – more and more and more – both interior and exterior? Faux gables, faux vents, non-functioning corbels and keystones, massive frieze boards, roof lines upon rooflines, and my personal pet peeve: undersized, oversized, or just plain useless shutters. Well, at least we can be glad that faux Tudor has fallen out of favor.

Try this. Go to Google and enter “Frank Lloyd Wright Houses.” Now click “images,” then spend five or 10 minutes looking and pondering. Enlarge at least four or five of the houses to full size. Try Robie House in Chicago, one of my personal favorites. What makes Wright’s stuff so good? Will you find something that is not purely functional now and then? Occasionally.

Wright had his whims, too, and remember that even Wright, especially in his younger hungrier years, had to put some things on houses he’d rather not have, to make the customer happy and get his commission. Yet, when you gaze on his designs, don’t they make you feel ... hmmmm … how do you describe it? They just feel right. They make you feel good to look at them – and I challenge you to find a single shutter or fake gable vent. (I’ll be honored if a reader proves me wrong on this, I surely cannot find one.)

Now, go back to Google and enter “Plano Texas Houses.” Yuk. Now try “Atlanta Houses.” Yeeeeech! (That’s a level up from merely yuk.) Are you getting the sense that something is wrong here? Has one of the magazines started an annual competition for “roof lines per square foot” and we missed it?

I think St. Exupery’s quote should be plastered above the desk and sun visor of every designer, architect, purchasing manager – everyone who gets involved in design, especially if it’s the boss’s spouse. Making your mark on a plan does not have to mean adding something to the elevation or complicating the plan. Maybe it means simplifying something, making it cleaner, less cluttered. Maybe it means taking something away.

So for that next new model, challenge yourself. Is there anything we can take away and in the process not just save money, but make the house more pleasing to the eye? Try it on your current plans. Make it a contest for your team and you’ll be surprised what you find. Put everything you need in a house, but nothing the customer doesn’t need. That is good design. That is Lean. St. Ex would approve.



Scott Sedam is president of TrueNorth Development, a consulting and training firm that works with builders to improve products, process, and profits. A senior contributing editor to Pro Builder, Scott writes about all aspects of the home building business and won the 2015 Jesse H. Neal Award, business journalism's most prestigious prize, for his commentary in Pro Builder. Scott invites you to join TrueNorth's Lean Building Group on LinkedIn and welcomes your feedback at or 248.446.1275.


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