This time of year I tend to get a little frustrated. The streets and shops are full of people running around frantically purchasing this gift or that, this shiny new thing or do-dad; all losing focus on what is truly important – family, friends, coworkers, bosses, the relationships in our life that need repair, or building up. Remember that gifts are temporary (don’t even get me started on the returns line at best buy and walmart this time of year) and the things that really matter can’t be bought, sold, returned, exchanged or bargained with. Spread some real joy this year by doing something meaningful for the ones you love in life and save the gifts for birthdays.
This go around we’re talking about cost versus value. And in this discussion we’re pitting the “DIY” generation against those who recognize the value of specialized services and are willing to pay for it. Do I even have to suggest how this might tie into the architectural profession? I didn’t think so.
Now, I’ve talked long and hard about the integrity of architects and the need for education and reaching out to a broader client base in order to push the profession forward into this new century. But, especially in economic times like we’re currently living in, there is still a large segment of people out there who see architects as a luxury expense. And this is where a discussion on cost versus value really begins.
But first, how do we define cost and value? My good friends over at Webster define them as follows:
cost: a : the amount or equivalent paid or charged for something b : the outlay or expenditure (as of effort or sacrifice) made to achieve an object
value: a: a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged b: the monetary worth of something : market price c: relative worth, utility, or importance
The two key phrases here for me are sacrifice and utility. In other words how much are you willing to sacrifice upfront for the long term utility of something? This applies to almost everything in life, and least of all architects and architecture as a profession. Building a home, even a vacation home/second home/country cabin/whatever is a monumental expense. Most of us will never spend as much for anything else in life as we do for our homes. And with that in mind why would you NOT want to spend a little more in the beginning to make sure that you are getting the highest utility, the highest value for your money?
Topics like this, for me, invariably lead back to a lack of understanding and education about what exactly it is that architects bring to the table for even a small residential project like an addition or renovation. Because many still see architects as a luxury expense, we are therefore seen as a unnecessary expense. And so potential clients will ask themselves “what value would the added expense of an architect on my project bring?” And THIS is an excellent question, one that should be shared, asked out loud and talked about WITH an architect.
Architects are borne with a unique way of looking at the world. We see things that most people would never notice or care about. Like, that ceiling has a slight bow to it because the drywall contractor didn’t use furring strips under the floor joists in order to flatten out irregularities, or the contractor forgot to install corner bead on this wall so over time wear and tear is going to erode that corner and will need repairing, or the foundation crew did not properly install a waterproof membrane or drainage system for the stem wall, which means over time water will infiltrate the basement, most likely settle underneath the house causing structural instability in the home and possibly collapse. All of this, and more, is where an architect brings value to a project – any project. We are the client’s first line of defense to either preempt or correct construction errors before they become problems or even catastrophes.
Other examples can be things like, a contractor calls the client and suggests an “alternate” material that will save X-dollars, blah blah blah. The architect, if involved in the construction process, would be required to review that material and offer a clear determination to the client on whether or not that material is of similar quality as the previously specified material and offer guidance on whether the substitution is worth the savings quoted.
The bottom line is, when you factor the actual cost of an architect’s services, typically between 1 and 3% of the construction cost of a home, that upfront cost for services is far outweighed by the long term benefit in design and construction, and ultimately the safety, security and enjoyment of your family.
As many in the architectural profession, I can be conflicted in my opinions about LEED and “green” design in general. These terms are thrown around too often to have any real affect and in my opinion sometimes create problems where previously there were none. Speaking just of what these two principals are trying to accomplish, I often take the approach that “green” design is nothing more than a minimum that architects should be designing to 100% of the time. I even touched on this in a previous post in which I describe a legacy that we are leaving for future generations to deal with.
But, there are also those out there who will tell you flat out that LEED and by extension the USGBC are the most vile and reviled organizations that are after nothing more than your money. They’ll even go so far as to say that “green design” is a total waste of time and effort.
Some people are really friggin nuts. Often the truth of the matter is they simply have no clear understanding of what it is that the whole “green design” movement is trying to accomplish and therefore seek to vilify and destroy that which they have no comprehension of. This is not an uncommon thread in human behavior. Been to D.C. lately?
So, let’s get down to “brass tax”, as it were. Why aren’t LEED and “green design” the enemy? Why should I care? In the words of Eddie Murphy, “what have [they] done for me lately?” Throwing out the “why” questions is really more a matter of laziness and frustration than a legitimate grievance against the systems in place. And I know we’ve all heard about the projects that shuffle points around to get a “rating” without really adding any ecological benefit to the building. The truth there is that any system will never be perfect. And, for better or worse, there are always going to be kinks in that system, places of exploitation. But that’s not what this is about. This is about a holistic approach to building, or building “green”.
LEED is a system that tries to offer a framework within which to do that. And it’s not the only one. There are many other systems out there that are just as good or even better at helping architects and builders accomplish sustainable building and design. And here in lies the moral of our little tale. It is not the system that is the enemy. The tool is never to blame because the worker screws up. The tool is just that – a tool. It has no more malice than a tube of toothpaste. But we’re human and we all want a scape goat, so we go after the easy target not realizing that it’s our own ignorance and fear of a little hard work that keeps us from understanding that real architecture is about responsibility, respect and an understanding of the materials and methods available to create a lasting piece of art. Something that future generations can be proud of, that will work with its environment and perhaps even contribute to it.
So the next time you want to rail at the fences about the evils of LEED and green/sustainable design, instead look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re really railing against.
“This LetsBlogOff theme is about taking a deeper second look at what appears to be an everyday common object or occurrence where something happens that makes you look at it in a different light. It could be an object, person or place. Or something entirely different.” – LetsBlogOff Team
When I first read through the latest Lets Blog Off topic, I had visions in my mind of all the funny, ironic and generally laughable things I could have talked about in relation to architecture and professional practice. I’m sure even you have a few in mind right now, don’t you?
Instead I want to take a step back and talk about something a little more serious. Something that, upon closer examination, continues to change my life and my perspective almost daily. And, yes, even impacts how and what I design as an architect – my children. And to quote a famous cliche, children are our future.
It sounds trite I know, but it’s true nonetheless. The success or failure of our future depends on our children and the foundations and framework we set for them today. In my life B.C. (Before Children) this was only a conceptual notion, a passing fancy to want to change the world and make it better through the power of architecture. My more immediate goals and aspirations lay with the day to day. Am I making money, when will my boss see I can do more than just redlines, when will someone take notice of my great genius, etc etc. I, and my architecture, were very internally focused. And this is fine if you’re not planning much further ahead than Happy Hour.
But when you set about thinking in more far reaching societal terms towards a future past your short life cycle, there is a shift in the “how”, “why”, “what” and most importantly “who”. Children, I’ve found, have this really annoying “hopeful” effect on people.
What does any of this have to do with architecture? Simply put, when you begin to think outside of what is immediately around you, you’re forced to think about the inevitable cause and effect of all things. That strip mall you’ve spent the last 3 weeks detailing – what effect will it have on the surrounding neighborhood? What happens to it when it’s no longer a strip mall? Could it be converted to office space or live/work lofts? Is it near mass transit? Could it be incorporated into a larger transit plan like a TOD? Are the materials easily recycled or repurposed? Can the building itself be disassembled and made into a completely new structure? Is it modular? Could you unplug portions of the building to make way for a new partial development?
These are the types of questions that I’m led to simply by looking at the faces of my children. And your children, and kids at the park (even the one that stole some other kids’ snack and just wiped snot all over the slide that my son is climbing on right now….). The point is, I no longer think in terms of my limited experiences. I think in terms of the legacy that I’m leaving behind and how that will effect generations to come. In short (too late) the common everyday occurrence of children has forever altered the reality of my architecture, because I now understand that it’s not my architecture. It’s theirs. And it must respond to changes in time, culture, function and perhaps even one day disappear altogether to make way for something better.
In our modern times where it seems every convention we’ve ever been comfortable with is in complete upheaval, it’s no wonder that our architecture, especially residential architecture, is changing as well. But what is it changing in to? Looking around we still see the same old bland McMansion monstrosities dotting our suburban landscape, billboards crying out for us to come tour the latest “model home” in the newest and most shiny development – deals deals deals. Just sign on the doted line.
Then you’ve got the whole “green” craze that is still chugging strong. “Energy Star” or LEED or “green building” or “recycled content”. It’s everywhere, but do any of us really know what it means? Is there any real value in these buzz word slogans? Is that 2500 sf suburban “energy star” rated home really going to save you any money in the life of it’s use? Is any of that “post consumer content” really making your life better enough to justify the extra 10 or 20 percent in price? I’m thinking it’s just more of the same with new packaging.
But if you look closer there is something new happening in modern and contemporary architecture and not just in the flashy custom market either. For years architects, and thereby clients, have subscribed to the “bigger is better” philosophy because for so long we simply had it really good. There were some bumps in the road, but for the most part land, material and labor costs were low and so we had a building boom that lasted more than 2 generations. Which is astounding. Times, though, have and are changing.
What are the times changing into, you ask? That is a simply not-so-simple answer. The basics are quality over quantity, substance over style, performance over panache. In short, there is a whole generation of client realizing that an architect is their friend, their advocate and a resource instead of a “legal necessity”. Homeowners and would-be homeowners are seeking out the advice and services of architects to build homes that are modest, efficient, responsible and, yes, even beautiful for a manageable price. Open up the latest architectural trade magazine and I bet you’ll stumble across more than a few homes recently designed and built well under the $250/sf range. Some maybe even closer to the $100/sf range that still offer quality, substance, performance and a little style as well.
Architects should be embracing this trend with both arms, chaining themselves to it, never to let go. Finally we’re waking up to the mistakes of our past – the complete wasteful abandon of consequence to our actions and the effect had on our cities, towns and natural surroundings. This is an exciting time in architecture where the typical methods of the past (like working WITH your environment rather than against it) are being utilized once again as basic design and building practice.
To sum up, we are reducing the amount of raw square footage once thought necessary in a typical living space; we are reusing more of our current building stock in more innovative ways; and we’ve developed strategies and techniques to recycle those buildings and materials that have outlived their usefulness. This is the heart and soul of a responsible architectural expression.