The projects Eck chose for the book are not ultramodern or hypertraditional in style. Instead, they occupy the vast middle ground between the two. Their common bond is that their architecture derives from the constraints and opportunities of their sites. Eck is adamant that residential architects must abandon the great debate between "modern" and "traditional," which he thinks is alienating the general public. Style begins with the land, not some abstract philosophy or architectural doctrine, he insists. The best houses result from a keen observation of and integration with the site's topography, the track of the sun, the climate, the views.
That's one reason he believes simply improving the quality of stock house plans isn't the panacea for our suburban design crisis. The trouble lies both in bad design and in bad siting--they are enmeshed. You can't untangle one without pulling at the other. He found that out the hard way. He's sold house plans before--through Better Homes and Gardens' plan books and through Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House Web site--and the result was less than satisfying.
He sympathizes with many consumers' need to reduce the overall cost of the house, and using a stock plan is one way to limit expenses, but he doesn't think it can be done properly without adapting the plan specifically to the site. So now when he gets a call asking to buy his plans, he says sure--as long as you pay for its adaptation and six site visits through construction. So far, he's had no takers. "The world might be better if we all sold some plans," he says. He just hasn't figured out how to make it work yet.
art or science?
And thus, the cost-driven end of the home-buying market is fed largely by builders. Meanwhile, Eck struggles to widen the cost-conscious but enlightened segment that he's plumbed over the years. "Our clients are not old money. They're professionals who earn a nice living, but who don't have a bundle to spend," he says. "They come to us with the largest amount of money they'll spend in a lifetime. They throw it on the table and ask us to protect it. It can be a very fearful process for them. That's why building trust is so important."
Still, trust only goes so far. About as far as the contractor's bid, which may not support the architect's project estimate. After all of Eck's years in the business, it's the most galling part of the job. "It never ceases to amaze me how divergent prices can be," he says. "We have the best intentions in the world to protect clients but it's so hard to control. I've struggled with guilt over my inability to predict in a scientific way what something is going to cost."
What Eck can control is his fee. And he's experimented with almost every different way of charging for his services. "I've tried hourly, by square footage, and by percentage of construction. And I've concluded that the fairest way is a percentage of construction. It's the most accurate reflection of the work we put in and it accommodates the additional time and cost of changes to the design."