• Harry Campbell
    Harry Campbell

the giveaway

As a marketing tool, social media is a mixed bag. With the saturation of the Internet comes the expectation that everything online is free, and architects struggle with how much intellectual content to provide gratis. Treff LaFleche, AIA, LEED AP, principal of LDa Architects, Cambridge, Mass., created a Houzz account two years ago. He recalls the Seattle woman who emailed for help solving a design problem. LaFleche took 10 minutes to respond, but after four more email exchanges he politely advised her to hire an architect.

Simmons has had a similar experience. He says he gets “goofy” emails from homeowners every day asking for the source of a sofa or wall color they’ve seen in his portfolio—even requesting the plans for a particular house. “It’s dumbfounding that I spend a year creating this house for a client, and others expect to get it for free,” he says. Still, the effort has helped him broaden his reach beyond the local area. Recently he landed work on a new house in Boulder, Colo., and a remodel in Los Angeles.

It’s the architect’s responsibility not to enable people who abuse the situation, perhaps innocently, by squeezing out information, LaFleche says. “Our marketing person monitors the account, and if a question involves a five-minute response, we’re OK with that because it builds our brand, and we try to keep the conversation within Houzz because it benefits other people, too,” he says. “Architects don’t fight for our rights the way musicians have, but collaboration is in our nature. The Internet is just a more sophisticated version of a lifestyle magazine.”

LaFleche joined Houzz to draw traffic to the firm’s website. “It’s all part of establishing ourselves as thought leaders,” he adds. “We’re willing to shoulder the risk of people ripping us off, because the upside is that we get good feedback on our work.”

Mark English, AIA, principal of Mark English Architects, San Francisco, also answers three or four questions a day from homeowners on Houzz and says the flow to his website from there has doubled in the past nine months, to 28 percent of all traffic. (The number of photos circulating, the number of questions professionals answer, and the number of recommendations they give or get are part of the algorithm that determines visibility.) In fact, one client hired him after checking out his work and the way he answered questions from others. “It gave her a sense of my personality and that I’m helpful,” he says.

the vision thing

House plans are easy to rip off, architectural ideas less so. In an era when information is at our instantaneous disposal, architects will always own the alchemy that materializes on individual projects. That became clear when Taylor defended his house plans at the Signature Homes trial. “They kept saying, our kitchen is different, our great room is different,” he says. “I didn’t create all those elements, but it’s the way I arranged them that’s unique to me. There are little tells. In one of my designs I said to myself later, ‘I shouldn’t have done it that way,’ and they copied it. I recognized my thought process, why the walls were lined up a certain way.”

As Simmons, too, discovered, details can be copied, but vision cannot. Inspired by some of his work on Houzz, the two out-of-state clients Simmons recently acquired had asked local architects to adapt his ideas. When both failed, Simmons was asked to pick up the slack. “My first year in architecture school, I was told, `If you think opening an architecture book is going to make you a good architect, quit now,’” he says. “You have to diagnose and create; architecture is art.”

It’s probably a given that others will abuse your copyright. But rather than overreact and lose the advantages of connecting widely with potential clients, many architects are treading carefully and learning to live with it. Jonathan Junker, Assoc. AIA, principal of Graypants, an architecture and product design firm in Seattle, says that as much work as he and his partner have put into copyrights and trademarks, what’s most important at the end of the day is building a strong brand.

“I think it’s still worth it to share ideas that are good,” Junker says. “If anyone tries to copy our work, we’ll still do a better job. We never want to stop innovating, pushing ideas farther, and trying to lead the way.”