We live in a design economy encompassing everything from the iPod to Ikea. Investment in, awareness of, and appreciation for design are at an all-time high. So why, according to Bryan Bell's Good Deeds, Good Design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), do only 2 percent of new home buyers work directly with an architect? How did this profession evolve into a mere luxury?
In the world of home building, every profession, trade, and specialist is commonly integrated into a form of financing, except one: the architect. As a result, everyone but the architect is popularly understood to be necessary to the building process, from the general contractor, plumber, electrician, and cabinetmaker to the mortgage broker, underwriter, appraiser, and real estate agent. How did this happen?
Quite simply, the architecture profession has failed to create a way to deliver design that's accessible to the other 98 percent. According to RSMeans cost data, the average residential architect charges about 10 percent of the construction cost for design. Standard practices place the bulk of this payment before bidding. If bids come back over budget, the typical contract deflects any responsibility from the architect and gives the owner three options: Get more money, redesign (and pay more in design fees), or abandon the project.
So, if I hire an architect to design my $300,000 house, I would have to shell out an additional $30,000 up front without any guarantee that what's designed will meet my budget. If it doesn't, I either need to beg for more money or throw my $30K in a recycling bin. How many people can afford to take that kind of risk? My guess is about 2 percent.
Whether we like it or not, the building industry has been left to figure out how to deliver design to the other 98 percent. And lending agents, forced to respond to the market, have to create financing options around the builders' solutions.
What they've developed as a delivery system is a beautiful dance of disciplines. Owners stroll into a model home on a Saturday, make their choices, and head to their lender with plans and bids in tow. The lender ships it straight to the appraiser, then the underwriter. The loan is closed and construction begins. Often, this process can happen in less than a week, without a single dollar coming out of the owner's pocket. It's simple, easy, fast, and flawless—almost.
We are currently undergoing major global change—economically, environmentally, and culturally. We are at the brink of an affordable housing crisis. We're running out of oil, and January 2007 was the warmest month on record (worldwide). We're desperately in need of a better way of living: one we can afford, one that makes us fundamentally happier, and one that helps the rest of the world. This is a design problem, and the one design profession perfectly poised to bring these disparate pieces into a mutually reinforcing whole is architecture. It is imperative, right now, that we develop a way to deliver design to the other 98 percent.