I just attended another meeting where custom architects disparaged the design quality of merchant housing. I, too, would like to see better and more diverse mass-market housing available to those who can't afford a custom home. But first, I think we all have to face some important facts. Architects need to stop hiding behind the erroneous notion that they design only “2 percent” of all houses built today. Now, I wouldn't be surprised if only 2 percent of the houses built are truly custom homes—one-of-a-kind creations conceived and executed for a specific client and site. But the rest of the houses we see spread across our suburbs, for the most part, originated with architecture firms. Like it or not, there it is.
The relative success of those architect-designed production houses has to do with a number of factors. And the trouble is, most of them remain out of the control of architects. Will the builder choose an appropriate site for the house? Will he follow the spec sheets? Will he tinker with the plan to please a prospective buyer? Will he knock out crucial design elements if his margins tighten?
How do architects get more of that control back? Well, they can stop selling plans to builders without insisting upon construction observation. But who's going to foot the bill for that? And if architects don't provide the plans, surely someone less qualified will step in to fill the void. Perhaps architects could sell their plans only to enlightened builders who care more about design quality than the bottom line. Certainly there are a few of those folks out there, for as long as they can stay afloat financially.
If we can't rely on architects or builders to ensure the design integrity of the mass-market houses they make, maybe we can find someone else to do the job. Planning commissions, architectural review boards, and the like can exert authority over what gets built. Unfortunately, those entities are usually staffed by almost everyone but those who know how to make good houses.
So how do we see more housing like we have here in our annual Design Awards pages? Architects must grab a larger stake in the game. Instead of taking a fee for those plans, how about bartering with your builder client for a percentage of the profits and a role in the process? Why not get yourself on one of those planning commissions or review boards? Heck, you could even run for mayor.
Or, simply start small by designing and building your own house. When your money is on the line, you get very smart, very quickly about budget realities. This fiscal rigor applied to your design work will make you a better architect for any client. And it's an essential tool for a developer, which is the role that can have the biggest impact on our built environment. Hint, hint.
It's all about control. And as long as the ultimate outcome of design work rests entirely with someone other than the design expert, we will not see any substantial improvement in the quality of our mass-market houses. There are levels of risk and involvement to suit almost any temperament. I encourage you to choose one just a little beyond your current threshold.
Comments? Call: 202.736.3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: email@example.com.