So Many Buildings, So Little Design
Architects only design about 65% of commercial buildings and 2% of houses in the U.S. The 65% includes all the building types -- hospitals, museums, universities -- that require Architects, both by law and by their complexity. The 2% of houses just contain all the rich people. The rest of the world's buildings are designed by engineers or builders. Nothing against those them, but you shouldn't ask an engineer or a carpenter to design a building any more than you should hire an Architect to size steel beams or hang a door.
Why Don't Architects Design More of Our Buildings?
The easy answer it that Architects are too snotty to design strip malls and warehouses and tract houses. There's a lot of truth to this. My own website recently featured a reel of my work lovingly set to cello music. What's snottier than Bach for cello? But the bigger issue is simply money.
I'd Love to Design Your Restaurant, But I Can't Afford To
Design services are structured for large, complex buildings. Our standard AIA agreement is for the production of dozens of sheets of drawings, hundreds of pages of specifications, and a contract that will choke a lawyer. Consequently, it takes a lot of time to produce all this stuff, which means a lot of money. Throw liability insurance and consulting fees for engineering on top and the margins in Architecture, even on a good project, are lousy. I will typically spend two years designing and overseeing the construction of a building, employing ten years of training, fifteen of experience, and assuming unlimited legal liability for the outcome for rest of my life. Then realtor steps in and spends two months selling the thing and we walk away with roughly the same amount of money.
Good Design is Not Commonplace
The result of all of this is that expensive, specialized buildings get quality design and commonplace buildings don't. Sadly, as the word makes plain, commonplace buildings are the most common places. So, we have the least design where we spend the most time. Places like our homes and offices and restaurants and stores are often poorly designed and punish us in ways large and small. I saw this in action last week.
A House with No Rooms
I happened to be in the truck with my buddy Brian when he stopped at a small residential renovation he was doing. From a purely functional standpoint, this house was a hot mess. Doors everywhere, rooms that are impossible to furnish. Everything was a hallway. The whole thing gave me the yips. But at issue this day was the kitchen, or the place in the house they called "the kitchen". It contained no wall cabinets and had weirdly shallow countertops, leaving the front halves of the appliances out in the floor area and providing no place to put anything down. There was an island, but it was too close to the stove, leaving nowhere to stand. Above the island was area’s lone upper cabinet, a ceiling-mounted unit open on both sides. It was empty, they said, because when you put things in one side, you invariably shoved something out the other side. This whole situation caused no small amount of daily frustration and, I gathered, some degree of disagreement. Heck, I had only been there ten minutes and my eye was starting to twitch.
The Answer is Often Simple, Even if it Isn't Obvious
As they tried to sort it out, I listened and watched and squirmed until I just couldn’t take it. "You don't know where to put things in your kitchen," I blurted out, "because you don’t have a kitchen." It was true. And they didn’t have a kitchen simply because they didn’t have a wall. I begged them to let me do some sketches.
I went back to my office and drew up the least special, least design-y, least expensive kitchen ever committed to paper. The ‘drawing set’ consisted of four little cartoony hand sketches on trace paper. I spent a total of four hours on it, including the time spent measuring the room with my shoes because we didn’t have a tape measure.
Crappy Little Drawings Are fine - See Below
The drawings were actually a little embarrassing to show, being cartoons. But they worked. One week later, for the price of four linear feet of interior wall and some very nice used cabinets, they have a kitchen. They’re thrilled.
The Road Less Snotty
Architects are taught that success is measured in exquisite-ness Exquisite details, exquisite materials, exquisite taste. But that, as sure as anything, takes 80% of the world of buildings out of our hands. I want to shove my license and my modeling software and my consultants aside and get my hands on all of these houses and warehouses and strip-malls and office buildings that people suffer in, not knowing exactly why things don’t work, why rooms can’t be furnished, why the place seems so small, why spaces aren't enjoyable, why they're uncomfortable, and why they struggle to get things done. There are often simple fixes that can make a place drastically more comfortable, more efficient, and more valuable. How great would it be if that was commonplace?