Last week I revisited the concept of Freedom Layouts. In this post I want to continue that theme by exploring the architectural design process and the insights it holds for layout design.

In high school, I had ideas of becoming an architect.That didn’t work out but I never lost interest in houses or residential design. This came in handy when, in the late 1990s, Susan and I started a complete remodel of our home. As we considered our wish list of desirable features and directions to pursue, I discovered the work and writing of architect Sarah Susanka and as a result, our remodeling plans changed overnight. Fortunately, we hadn’t started the actual work, so the change in plan wasn’t a setback. To the contrary, her design principles enabled me to see and appreciate the diamond in the rough that our house already was and saved us from making some very expensive mistakes.

Ms. Susanka is best known for a concept she calls The Not So Big House, which she has outlined in a series of books under the same title. She advocates that people build only the amount of space they actually need, and that every space built is used in day-to-day living. In other words, no rooms that are seldom, if ever, used. Over the years she has refined her ideas and her books are filled with examples drawn from houses large and small, showing how the application of simple design principles can greatly impact the livability of a space. It was, let’s say, a revelation for me.

Finally, the connection you’ve been waiting for
Architectural and model railroad design practices have much in common. Both involve finding creative solutions to problems driven by outside and often fixed criteria. Both involve efficient space planning around a wish list of desirable features that are influenced by the triangle of quality versus quantity versus cost. Both also have a set of standard practices and an established language.

Language illuminates or obscures
How we define ideas greatly determines our understanding and acceptance of them. The language of residential design articulates the key principles involved and terms such as layering, sight lines, and borrowed space are easier to understand once you know what they mean and how they influence your perception of a room. Layout design has a language that revolves around curve radii, turnout size, scene composition, layout height and so on. Where the two practices differ is in the broad knowledge of multiple disciplines that architects bring to a project, as opposed to that of a typical modeler.

To build even a modest layout, people inexperienced in the practice of design are expected to clarify their desired outcomes and embrace planning concepts they may never fully understand. Whereas architects bring outside objectivity to projects and are fluent in the language of design.

It’s my understanding that a huge part of an architect’s initial work is helping clients define what they want from a design. The greatest gift a skilled architect can give a client is clarity about what she really wants from a house instead of her preconceived ideas. Model railroaders by contrast are left to fend for themselves and are often handicapped by their marriage to conventional ideas.


A frame of reference
Speaking from experience, it is hard to be objective about what you want from a layout. On the surface it seems easy enough, but all the internet bandwidth devoted to the topic draws a different picture.

What concepts like The Not So Big House provide is an easier to understand frame of reference for lay people to grasp advanced design principles without the arcane minutia of the process. In model railroading we have the conventions of point-to-point, continuous run, multi-deck and so on; however, these are merely broad categories comparable to building styles like Early American, Tudor or Victorian, and are just terms that give no clue to the wide range of choices available within each form. Here’s an example.

In planning a home, people often express a desire for a space where the family can gather and a dedicated family room is often the first solution considered. But a family can also gather around a big table where games are played, meals shared and family bonds are strengthened. An architect may explore questions about the intended activities envisioned for the space to determine the best solution among a range of design options. Such questions may open the homeowners’ eyes to possibilities they hadn’t thought of. So is a dedicated room actually the best solution or will an alcove off the kitchen sized for a generous table do better? Do you see how the way you frame your thinking about a problem influences the solution?

Layout design bogs down for many because people can’t separate the form (point-to-point) from the intended function (realistic operations). As fledgling designers, we’re not trained to make these distinctions or to see how the intended function can be achieved beyond the conventional solution. So we default to the popular magazines or the opinions of others, rather than doing the critical thinking needed to clarify our real wants. For me, such clarity is the heart of a Freedom Layout. Clarity is the result of understanding one’s true goals.

What do you really want?
Just saying you want realistic operations is too ambiguous. What does realistic operations mean to you: mainline running, working a yard, industry switching, something else? Once defined, will you actually need other elements that don’t directly contribute to the main objective? If industry switching is the true goal, do you really need an around-the-room mainline with a yard (the family room in the example above) or will faithfully modeling a single industry on a larger scale that is fed by staging serve you better (the big family table)? As modelers, we’re not encouraged to think of such solutions because we’ve been conditioned for decades to believe we have to represent the whole railroad in model form.

Admittedly, this subject is too big to cover in a single blog post or even a series of posts but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The discussion continues next week with making choices around that quality, quantity, cost triangle mentioned earlier. We’ll also discover that for us, it’s actually a square instead of a triangle.



  1. downeast

    After four years of prep on my current railroad, I think I can answer your last question, “What do you really want?” At first I knew I wanted to model a small branch that had appeal to me in terms of equipment, area, and structures, and do it to higher standards than I had done before. That led me to P48, not only for the track and wheel specifications, but everything else that spoke about accuracy to the prototype.. As I did the research I began to discover how the branch really worked and what its purpose was. This led me to discover what exactly was in the various cars that I had photos of. That became very interesting. Now my model developed a specific purpose as did the prototype. I did not have to design the track plan because I followed the prototype. I just simply duplicated what the Sanborn Insurance maps and photos told me about track position. The real challenge with the track became making it an accurate representation of the prototype in its waning years. That meant wandering rails and ties over grown with weeds and tall grass. I had never done anything like that before, so the challenge was fresh and exhilarating. Knowing how the prototype worked and its reason for existence made the project very real and transcended just being satisfied with a good model. Now my goal of duplication has been expanded into operating which gives me a solid reason to finish. I’m probably only about 20% finished if that, but my goal is solid and has been realized toward achieving my desire to be faithful to the prototype. Four years have been spent on this learning curve and I have been very fortunate to have found a few folks whose memories go back more than thirty years to help me.
    I too, have limited space and therefore have chosen signature scenes which identify the railroad for what it is. I am dismayed that I cannot model certain sections, but these are practical tradeoffs in the arena of 1:48 modeling. Of course with HO I could pack a lot more in, but I am firmly in the camp of “less is more” Besides, nothing can beat Proto48!.

  2. mike

    Hi Ben,

    It sounds like you are enjoying the fruits of your research labors and, thanks to your own blog, we can too.