You’re not supposed to have a satisfying

quarter-inch scale layout in 48 square feet.


Fortunately, I didn’t get that memo.

We in the US have been thoroughly conditioned to believe that anything less than a full basement for a layout is just too terrible a burden to bear. The mantra goes: “Gimme space, I need running room.” And we’re on our way down the well-beaten path.

Our Brains Are in Lockdown
From the first evaluation of a new site, our brains are in lockdown mode from the layout design legacy that says: “This is how you do it.” The process starts with one of the following questions:

What’s the biggest curve radius I can use?
How much track can I fit in here?

Both questions reduce our thinking to an exercise of fitting five quarts of matter into three quarts or less of volume and space. For all of us, including me, it’s a well-worn path. The volume of track desired leads to gross compromises in curve radius, that leads to compromises in the turnout sizes; which impacts the quality of operation and scenery, which detracts from my overall enjoyment, which…well, you get the point. Raise your hand if any of this is too familiar.

There’s a term from mathematics for this called path dependance*. Path dependance is the way we lean on what worked in the past, and believing that it will always work in the future.

Rinse, repeat.
In layout design we follow path dependance by defining the problem in the same way and by looking to the same sources for answers. We analyze those answers in the same way and turn to the same places for help when we’re stuck. Hence we arrive at the same solutions.

Small Places With Big Constraints Call For A Different Mindset
When faced with constraints, especially ones we consider severe, we go through different stages of thought and feelings. The first is a victim mentality. “Oh woe is me. I only have this tiny, minuscule little space for a layout. I’d rather leave the hobby than put up with this injustice!” People remain stuck in victim mode because they can’t deal with the new reality from their well entrenched ways of thinking. (Help me design my layout PLEASE!!!!!!)

The second is a transition stage. “Well maybe this could work, if I compromised on XYZ.” In this stage, we think we are attacking the problem, but are we? More often than not, the answer is no. Here we are trying to fit old solutions onto a different situation. Perhaps the outcome will work or maybe it won’t. In our example of a small space, we resort to tighter curves and shorter turnouts, compressed scenes that look more like DIsneyland than the real world, and employ whatever compromises are required to stuff it all in.

We are still path dependent but we’ll just tweak things as needed, live with the consequences and call it done. Okay, it ain’t perfect but what the hey. In transition stage, our thinking is still closed when it should be open.

The third stage is a transformation. We realize the old ways aren’t applicable in this situation and we begin to see and define the real problem and challenge our old assumptions. Instead of reducing the curve radius, we might ask if curves are even necessary for what I want to do? In this stage, we’ve let go of our path dependance and opened our minds to new solutions we couldn’t see before.

A Different Frame
As I continue to educate myself about design principles, I’ve learned about the power of framing questions properly, which is an underdeveloped skill in this hobby. With the prevalent emphasis on building as big a layout as possible, constraints of any kind are seen from a negative frame of reference that focuses on what one doesn’t have. Such physical constraints aren’t the real problem. The biggest impediment is our own mindset. We need to relentlessly understand where our thinking is closed before we can open it up.

A profound area of closed thinking is that we can apply layout design principles unilaterally. Since much of the layout design literature in North America is geared to HO and N scales, these paradigms cloud our thinking for S or larger scales. In these scales, problems compound at exponential rates because one has to consider volume as well as length and width. This is a trap that catches us all and it takes work to free yourself from it. Each scale has strengths and weaknesses that are unique and it’s important to understand what they are and design accordingly.

Another area of closed thinking centers on how we define the term layout. Regardless of overall size, we default to thinking in terms of multiple towns or other action centers (industries) with as much running space in between as possible. This path dependent definition more than any other is the source of the many gross compromises that characterize this hobby.

To challenge both conventions and the myriad others, requires a different set of questions and new frames of reference. One has to look beyond the conventional sources for understanding. This is why I present ideas from the art and design disciplines and other non-railroad examples of modeling. They allow us to see with fresh eyes.

What Is Abundant?
With only a small space to build in, how could we redefine abundance? If we can’t have as much layout as we think we want, then what else becomes abundant? How would the conversation change if we asked what am I willing to sacrifice in order that I may commit fully to something more meaningful?

If physical space is a limiting constraint, then the opportunity to truly focus becomes an abundant resource. I was happy to sacrifice a longer run in order to focus on a single location. I could have extended the length of run, but the insipid curve radius compromises required in quarter-inch scale were not worth it. I chose to focus on creating a scene that conveyed a sense of place rather than a model railroad. I didn’t start out with such clarity but achieved it over time, as I’ve shared on this blog previously.

A lack of physical space for a layout also changes our relationship with time in a positive way. With a tighter focus, we have more time to go deeper in modeling. Rather than have our resources scattered across many square feet of layout, we can indulge ourselves and learn the craft in ways not possible with an all consuming larger project.

In many ways, the design of a small layout reduces or eliminates the severity of the typical compromises because there simply isn’t room for them. It is the same principle of placing a large piece of furniture in a small room. It seems counterintuitive at first but it is quite easy to pull off, if (and this is the key), you don’t overcrowd the room with other items.

Let the large piece be the focal point of the room and accessorize it accordingly then stop. On a small layout, the same principle of restraint applies. Let one item become the focal point and resist the urge to stuff in competing elements. Less truly does become more.


*Credit where credit is due. Much of this post was inspired by the book A Beautiful Constraint -How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden. It’s a business book that has nothing to do with railroad modeling but I saw the applications to our craft.