Is John Arthur Morefield's farmers' market booth, posted with a sign reading "Architecture 5¢," simply another depressing sign of the nation's economic troubles? Perhaps. Seen one way it's a reflection of the plight of design professionals around the country, but it's really more than that.
For Morefield, setting up a booth once a week in his Seattle neighborhood's farmers' market and charging 5 cents for an design consult is a way to meet people, to bring design services to those who might never consider consulting an architect, to start a conversation, and to get leads on projects. It was an idea he says he had been thinking about since graduating with a bachelor's degree in architecture in 2005 and while working for a few small architecture firms. A farmers' market seemed an ideal place to make contacts. "I feel that they're the real pulse of every community, and I always wanted to be a part of that," Morefield says.
When design jobs began to dry up in 2008, Morefield was laid off—first by one firm, then by a second. He decided to start his own firm, J Arthur Design, and picked up several clients almost immediately, he says. But at the beginning of November 2008, when the economic slump was beginning to hit hard, every single client called to cancel.
"Most architecture firms have years' worth of clients they can tap into for resources and referrals," he notes. "But being new and on my own I didn't have that." He needed a way to generate leads and market his services. It seemed like a good time to test his farmers' market booth idea—a riff on "Peanuts" comic character Lucy's "Psychiatric Help 5¢" booth. On Dec. 14, 2008, Morefield opened his booth in the Ballard Sunday Farmers' Market. "It was a shot in the dark to see if it would work out," he says. "And it did. I made $2.35 and I had [the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of] five people who wanted to follow up with me on questions. That was day one." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a news story about Morefield and his booth a few weeks later (here).
Booth conversations run the gamut from sinking foundations to home additions to kitchen remodels, with Morefield offering his opinions or suggestions for improving a project. He says most booth visitors seem satisfied when they walk away. "Sometimes they call back, and sometimes they don't. It has resulted in some jobs for me," he says.
It has also resulted in more attention from the local news media. Recently, the local ABC affiliate KOMO News showed a segment on Morefield and the booth (here), and several blogs have picked up the story.
Morefield attributes the booth's success to its—and his—approachability. Homeowners who might think of architects as unattainable or out of their price range seem to feel comfortable talking about their design issues in a farmers' market booth. His Web site, www.architecture5cents.com, merely substitutes e-mail for a face-to-face conversation, making him available seven days a week to take questions.
Morefield's booth isn't just attracting homeowners. "I've had a couple architects come up and say they've gotten laid off and are working at Starbucks, offering to help if I need it," he says. He is hoping to act as a conduit to the local design and construction industry for his booth visitors, and vice versa.
"I've always said I'm collecting a co-op of architects, designers, landscape architects—anyone in the design trades feeling the pinch. I refer clients to contractors who are local and needing work," Morefield says. "I truly believe that in these tough economic times we have to band together and ... do what we can to help each other out."
He thinks of the "Architecture 5¢" booth as a way to start a ripple effect locally. "One local nickel turns into one conversation, which turns into a design job, which leads to local contractors getting hired and buying materials from local suppliers." Incidentally, Morefield donates the proceeds from his booth to the Ballard Food Bank.
Morefield quickly took on a partner to volunteer at the "Architecture 5¢" booth. The new recruit, architect Andrew Russin, was laid off from Seattle firm Johnston Architects in 2008. Morefield says he expected some resistance from the architectural community. "I anticipated people thinking I was diluting architectural practice down to the value of a nickel," he says. But so far, he has found the response to be overwhelmingly positive from architects and homeowners alike.
He credits the Seattle chapter of The American Institute of Architects for its support and legal advice. He's not yet a registered architect (though he is working toward it), but that doesn't bar him from practicing certain types of residential architecture in the state of Washington. His partnership with Russin, who is registered with the state, allows the use of "architecture" in their booth sign.
Morefield has great plans for the "Architecture 5¢" booth and Web site. In addition to blogging regularly with Russin, he'll soon be adding a professional conduit to www.architecture5cents.com to allow design and construction pros from around the country to submit their questions, join the co-op, and report on the state of their local economies. "I'd like to collect these people nationwide and either help them start their own booth or help them spur on their local economy," he says. "I don't know where that's going to lead, but I'm going to try and accommodate professional interest as much as I can."