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. All the rest of the world's buildings are designed by builders, owners, or engineers. Nothing against 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 is that Architects are too snotty. And there's a lot of truth to that. My own website once featured a reel of my work lovingly set to cello music. What's snottier than Bach for cello? But the real answer is money.
I Can't Afford To Take That Job
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 invested. Throw liability insurance and consulting fees 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 I will assume unlimited legal liability for the thing for rest of my life. Then realtor the will step in, spend a few weeks selling it and walk away with roughly the same amount of money I did. So smaller jobs with few economies of scale simply don't pay enough for Architects to want to take on. And yet, the need is everywhere.
Good Design is Not Commonplace
The result of all of this is that expensive and/or specialized buildings get quality design and commonplace buildings don't. And, 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 a contractor buddy when he stopped at a small residential renovation he was doing. This house, from a purely functional standpoint, 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 the 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. I had only been there ten minutes and my eye was starting to twitch.
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 two 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. This is not AIA approved behavior.
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 a huge percentage of the world's buildings out of our hands. Many days I want to shove my license and my 3D modeling software and my consultants aside and abandon all interest in fancy commercial buildings and modernist residential gems. I love that stuff, but I want also to get my hands on all the developer houses and warehouses and strip-malls and office buildings that people suffer in every day, not knowing exactly why things don’t work, why rooms can’t be furnished, why the place seems so small, why there's no light, why spaces aren't enjoyable, why people are uncomfortable, and why they struggle to get things done. There are often simple fixes that can make a place drastically more comfortable, more efficient, more valuable, and often, just more wonderful. That ought to be more commonplace.
Chris Poché is an Architect and Filmmaker based in New Orleans.