Friday, December 1, 2017

The Design Questions We Should Be Asking

The weekend before Thanksgiving I was able to join in two model railroad social events. Saturday evening we had a nice dinner at Grafton Street Pub in Gainesville. Friday night Mat Thompson hosted what seemed to be just over 50,000 model railroaders* at a BBQ buffet at his house – Mat just became Master Model Railroader #595 – so an appropriate cake was on hand to mark the occasion. 
Along with this second cake featuring some of Mat’s scratchbuilt models… (okay, not really!) 
Some folks – the vast majority of the out of town folks who were at these events – hadn’t heard my layout had been torn down. Once they got over the initial shock the inevitable questions about the “next” layout started. 
At dinner I shared a table with a number of well known – some very well known – model railroad authors, operators, and layout owners. The conversation went something like this:

“So Marty, how big is the new basement?” 
Well, the basement is pretty big, but we want to use the space for purposes other than model railroading – but there’s still a decent size layout area. 

“Oh, so how big is this “land grant” that your wife is giving up (wink, wink!)? 
I wouldn’t say “giving up." Chris is perfectly fine with the hobby. But the layout area I’m looking at is about a third of the basement - 16 x 44 feet – completely open on one long side. Seems to be a logical place for the layout that won’t interfere with the other uses for the room.

Oh… Okay, 1/3rd of the basement … so 16 x 44 – guess that’s not too bad.”
While I’m going to come up with a design for the “complete” layout in the entire space I’m seriously considering starting with one “interest area” and completely finishing it before starting the next town. So next time you guys are down here the layout might be no larger than, say, an 8 x 12 foot L-shape in one corner of the room.

Mind you, this was accompanied by a look that made me check the large wall of mirrors on the other side of the room to verify that yes, indeed, a third arm had appeared out the side of my head. 

Yeah, but it will be finished, operational, and completely scenicked. And, if that proves sufficient to meet my needs I may not ever fill the rest of the space with model railroad.

“Oh. I see. Pass the salt.” 

I relay this tale not to single anyone out. In fairness, with one exception, everyone at that table has built one or more large basement filling layouts – and their main interest in the hobby is operating said layouts (after all, they'd braved D. C. traffic to go operating the weekend before Thanksgiving). 

I mention this discussion to illustrate how we, as model railroaders, very often ask the wrong questions – especially in the early stages of designing a new layout. Consider the very first questions most of us often ask: 
  • How big is the space?
  • What are you modeling? (this can be broken down into subcomponents such as era, prototype, etc)
  • How many levels?
  • What locomotives do you need? Who makes them?
  • How many staging tracks will you have?
  • How many operators? 
Some of these are perfectly fine, but it's far too deep of a dive into specifics far too early in the design process. 
Let me suggest the following questions the next time one of your model railroad buddies announces he’s planning a new layout: 
  • How much time, energy, and money do you want to devote to this project?
  • How long will you be living in this house? Really, another way of asking “How long will this layout be around?” 
  • Are you going to have formal op sessions?**

See the difference? 

I plan to offer my answers to the second set of questions on this blog. Frankly, if the other dinner guests had asked those type of questions my planned approach would have made a lot more sense to them. Instead, it came across as I was squandering a wonderful opportunity to fill yet another basement with lumber. 

* The attendance numbers may be off, but there were a lot of people there. Great fun though!
* *I know it's heresy to say so, but there are some model railroaders who simply have no interest in hosting formal, multi-person op sessions. And if that's the case, it can significantly impact the layout design. 


Geof Smith said...

Those are indeed great questions to be asking, and the ones I'm wrestling with right now - especially the how long one. The answers rattling around in my head keep telling me to think smaller.

Phil D said...

That's a great question list. For me, it's not about house or length of stay since my wife and I took the plunge in March of '07 into our 30 year home so we aren't going anywhere, but more about the time to dedicate and what I like in regards to ops. I keep thinking smaller but then I go to an ops session and get assigned the "hot" train and I really like make it move through various towns over the layout getting past locals working, etc.

renegourley said...

Maybe that last question should be, "What do you hope to achieve with the layout?" This would be a more open question, and might lead to somewhere more interesting than yes or no.

CVSNE said...

Excellent point, Rene. So good in fact that I'd like to change it with your okay.
I was trying to drive home the point that not everyone needs to build a layout to host op sessions, or even one based on a prototype, although you'd never know it from reading the leading design annual!

Matthieu Lachance said...

Thanks Marty for sharing (once again) an interesting discussion on fundamentals about such large endeavors. I recall a similar experience when at a diner a few years ago, fellow operators asked me "what's new with the layout". Their interest dwindled dramatically when I replied I tore down a yard and removed half the turnouts by choice. At that time they pitied me, not understanding it wasn't a regression, but a natural process of better focusing the project according to my resources, aspirations and available time. It took them a lot of time to accept that approach but they've come to appreciate it. To each his own goals, but the basement empire is far to the optimal solution for everyone, even when the place is available. Your philosophy is certainly one of self-restrain built upon years of fruitful experience.

Trevor said...

Great post, Marty. I'm reminded that Lance Mindheim's book "How to Design a Small Switching Layout" has a chapter on setting priorities that has nothing - directly - to do with layout design. It's about skills, time, money, goals, and so on. It's the best chapter of the book, in my mind, because it addresses considerations that modelers rarely think about, but should. It also applies to any layout design - not just small switching ones.
Lance isn't the only one to address these points, of course - but good to see that, increasingly, those who write about this hobby (including you) are changing the conversation that we're having.
- Trevor
Port Rowan in 1:64 and Achievable Layouts blogs