I used to think the biggest challenge facing residential architects was their reputation for arrogance. I thought people shied away from hiring architects because they were afraid they'd get a domineering Frank Lloyd Wright type—all swirling cape, budget-busting aesthetics, and dubious engineering. I still think that's a big difficulty, but now I believe the profession has an even larger, more insidious problem: invisibility.
What brought this to my attention was the "Today" show's recent special, "Today Builds a House." Between February 14 and May 2, the most popular morning TV show in America invited its viewers to participate in building "the ultimate dream home" in a subdivision outside of Tampa, Fla. Each week viewers were asked to make a design choice. By the end of the program, their "design choices" consisted of the Bordeaux model home, the Westchase kitchen layout, the Cozumel bath, the Tradewinds dining room, the American Review master bedroom, and the Summerdale landscape plan. Sounds more like a travelogue than a house.
The partners in this media event were NBC, home builder David Weekley Homes, OurHouse.com, and a number of home furnishings manufacturers and distributors. "Today" show co-hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer presided over the coverage by "regular contributor" Lou Manfredini of OurHouse.com., a home-improvement and products Web site. Manfredini, a former contractor, goes by the on-air moniker Mr. Fix-It. During the series, his Web-site colleague, Christine Dimmick, a "home decor advisor," chimed in periodically about furniture and accessories. The series culminated in a Web auction on uBid.com, with proceeds to benefit Habitat for Humanity.
A very worthy cause, a great idea for a series, and terrific press for all the participants. Guess who didn't get invited to this party?
missing in action
There is something seriously amiss when a hugely popular TV show doesn't feel compelled to include an architect in its 12-week series about building a house. What's even more alarming, most Americans don't see it as an important omission either. To them, new house doesn't equal architect, it equals builder. Design decisions have nothing to do with architecture, they're about builder options. After they've checked off their menu of selections, buyers feel they've designed their own custom home. Because they can walk through model homes and touch and see what they're getting, the whole experience is much less frightening than designing from scratch. Builders have made the process so comfortable, easy, and telegenic. Mr. Build-It, Mr. Fix-It sound so guy-next-door. Mr. Design-It just doesn't have the same folksy ring.
Residential architects have a huge public relations problem. And it's not so much that you have bad PR—you have no PR. Where is your home show on PBS or HGTV? Where are your newspaper design columns? Why don't we have a Bob Vila of architecture?
It's really up to you to mobilize, as individuals and as a group. Demystify what you do, make it more accessible, get the word out. Contractors and even interior designers are so far ahead of you, you ll have to sprint to catch up.
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