In our last issue, I wrote about the divide between commercial architects and residential practitioners—about how the former sometimes regard the latter as the lesser professionals. Well, I'm afraid there's also a schism within the residential practice itself—between the custom architect and the production architect. This rift is even sharper, because it's a brother-against-brother conflict. Here, the custom folk discount the abilities and achievements of the mass market specialists.
Certainly I've railed against the state of mainstream residential design. But I've never attached the blame to the production practitioner. There's a tremendous amount of talent, knowledge, and good common sense within their ranks. You should see the houses they design for themselves; the work stands up with the best. But who couldn't do their best work for themselves—unedited, uncompromised, unadulterated?
The next best scenario for creative success is a single client with a single lot who's chosen you based on your portfolio of work. They've prescreened themselves to like what you do. And only they need to enjoy your aesthetic sensibility—and perhaps their banker. The stakes are relatively low—just a few of you shimmying out on that limb. Still, even under the best of circumstances, few custom homes emerge intact from the head of the architect. Budgets, client tastes, limitations of the builder always drive changes. The outcome is never as perfect as you envision it. There are simply too many stars to align. So you make peace with yourself, and you take pleasure in the good work you managed to shepherd from start to finish. You hope your clients will live happily in their houses. And you're reasonably sure they're better off than if you hadn't guided them home.
This is exactly the journey of the production architect. Except the risks and the handicaps are exponentially greater. Their clients are building companies traded on the stock exchange. (When was the last time a custom-home client had to make a short-term profit on your design?) Their projects require the buy-in of the local public and officials. They must prioritize the housing on the land above the house on the site, designing neighborhoods and communities. They work largely within the builder's spec book, turning sows' ears into silk purses. And then they watch as the least skilled labor in the home building industry assembles it all. Value engineering drains charm all along the way. Then you drive by and disparage what you see. But you should see the house as it was originally conceived, and you should imagine what would have happened if this architect had not been involved at all. I think we can be reasonably sure we're better off than if he hadn't guided this project home.
Production architects achieve against great odds; the progress is incremental and sometimes invisible to the outsider. We don't know they convinced the builder to do 14 houses to the acre instead of 18, or to align those interior site lines. Working from within and chipping away at the status quo aren't the easiest ways to do architecture. Sometimes the biggest success isn't making a house more beautiful, it's making a house more livable. But many times production architects prevail in doing both, there in the trenches, fighting the real enemy.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.