Do you drive by the latest suburban housing development near your town and wonder who's responsible for this pox on the land? You probably think you could design something better with your good hand tied behind your back. Well, why don't you? For so long, talented residential architects have shunned builder housing in favor of custom home commissions. Why do you suppose that is? Some claim the seeds of that choice take root in architecture school, where an insidious hierarchy of architectural specialties emerges. Commercial and institutional work carry the most prestige. If you simply must practice residential architecture, then high-end private homes are the only acceptable expression of your talent. But what is the rest of the world to live in? A builder box with a Palladian window?

Out In The Cold

When architect Barry A. Berkus, AIA, began designing production housing in the late 1950s, he felt a little lonely and, frankly, a tad ostracized by his peers. "When we started, housing was looked down upon," he recalls. "I lead a design panel at the National Association of Home Builders, but I couldn't do one at the American Institute of Architects."

Builders clamored for his services, discovering their houses sold faster and for more money when they came off his boards. He and a handful of other forward-thinking architects brought "big lifestyle" to production homes. They opened up floor plans, enlarged master bedrooms, and added luxurious touches found only in the custom realm.

For Berkus, residential design has always started with people. "Houses are not just shelter, they're stages for people to grow from, to interact with family and friends," he says. "I like doing commercial architecture, but you don't get to know anyone. With houses, life is woven into the building."

Berkus, who wove cutting-edge ideas about how people live into in his houses, became an icon among builders. And yet architects barely knew his name. "Not until Sea Ranch, Reston, Columbia, Irvine, Hilton Head did people become interested in housing," he says. "They became interested in making a place."

Your Place Or Theirs?

At the turn of the century, we've come to a critical juncture. Fueled by a booming economy, we're "making places" all over the place. Without talented architects skilled in design and land planning involved in builder housing, we'll have a huge fabric of mediocre housing to un-weave in the next century.

Michael Medick, Looney Ricks Kiss Architects' director of town planning and the AIA's housing committee chair, wrote, "It's unfortunate the architectural profession has missed out on the opportunity to define good neighborhoods and places to live. Architects have ignored the merchant-built housing market. It's time we as residential architects and planners work with home builders and developers to take a hard look at the places that have been created. We should be determined to do better than propagate sprawl."

Who doesn't love a beautifully designed custom home? We'd all choose to live in one if we could. But most people need the economy and convenience of a production house. Don't they deserve good design, too?