When I was a child, one of my joys was to explore partially constructed houses. Sneaking across a plank between firm ground and the new foundation, I would imagine the rooms yet to be fully realized and wonder at this new object in the neighborhood.
Back then, the relatively few houses that were built were generally constructed on lots in or near the center of town by small contractors we all knew. I would pore over the drawings but seldom saw the name of an architect.
Such market-driven houses, built with simple drawings, have always been around in one form or another. Like the houses in my neighborhood, they were most often part of a controlled, gradually evolving environment.
How times have changed! In the last 30 years, the scope and scale of their construction has dramatically altered our landscapes, and the chasm between these so-called "builder" or "production" houses and custom, architect-designed houses is now vast. The questions I keep asking myself are: "Why aren't architects more involved in production houses?" and its corollary: "Why aren't owners, builders, or developers asking architects to be involved?"
Each year, more than a million single-family homes are built in this country. Last year, the number was close to a million and a half. It comes as no surprise to architects that only a very small percentage of those homes are products of the design process that they were trained for--houses of good design and high-quality construction that are responsive to the site and environment and unique to their owners. The issue of sprawl, now on all our minds, is as much about these houses as it is about planning.
The architect and planner Andres Duany identifies four potential roles for owners in their relationship with architects: patron, client, consumer, and victim. I find these categories useful, as I suspect one of the reasons architects aren't involved in designing more single-family houses is that they tend to think of themselves as providing services to either patrons or clients. Thinking of their clients as consumers runs counter to their sense of professional and, perhaps, ethical standards.
There are other reasons, too. Designing a truly "custom" house is not easy. It is often subject to the whims of owners, mothers-in-law, builders--the list could go on. A good house also takes more time. As an owner, why should you spend a year or longer with an architect in design and construction when you could find most of what you want "off the shelf" through a builder right now, or in a few months? Who needs an architect to design a house, anyway?
And then there is the money. Why pay 10 percent to 15 percent--sometimes even more--of the cost of construction to an architect? The builder or developer throws in the design essentially for free, and will even customize the kitchen cabinets. I'm being facetious, but you get the point.
The truth is that bankers, brokers, builders, and borrowers don't see the value in working with architects on most single-family homes, and most architects don't know how to provide the services they need.
So how do we get the two sides together? One could easily say the solution is too complicated--wrapped up, as the single-family home is, in economics and taste. But I'd like to suggest a few possibilities.
First, we need more early art education, not just for architects but for all of us. When you produce art, you construct an object with admirable shape, proportion, color. That's a right-brain experience. Once you've done it yourself, you're more likely to appreciate the process of making beautiful objects (yes, I used the word "beautiful") and you'll appreciate better houses. Without such an education, you will come to rely on advertising slogans and images to make up your vision of a house.
At upper levels of education, it's time for students of architecture to study the single-family house again. I was encouraged to hear that three such studios were recently offered at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. For many years, this had not been the case.
It's also time for practicing architects to offer various kinds of residential architectural services with a variety of fee structures, not just for clients who want a custom, one-of-a-kind house, but also for clients who will be satisfied with a more generic house--the "consumer" clients. This is not a new idea in the Boston area. Some of the early houses of Carl Koch, Hugh Stubbins, and Royal Barry Wills are models of good design easily adapted to a range of client needs.
Architects are professionals trained to examine changing demographics and to respond with an appropriate physical design. Often people don't know what they want until they see an interesting alternative; the introduction of foreign automobiles into the American market is one good example.
I've sold a few plans of houses, designed for individual clients, that had more universal appeal. I struggled with that issue for years but decided that the quality of most stock plans is so low that any contribution I could make to the single-family house market was better than sitting on the sidelines.
Architects have not emphasized their talent at controlling the quality/cost equation. As unresponsive design and poor construction in the suburbs become more evident, value--in both good design and good construction--is of increasing concern to consumers. I renovate a lot of older, well-designed houses. But can anyone really imagine renovating today's disposable houses 20 or 30 years from now?
Finally, it is time for all of us--planners, architects, owners, builders, bankers, and brokers--to reconsider our relationships, recognizing that we all have talents that can be brought to the mix. My dream house may not be yours, but quality is recognizable in many forms.
Like all good investments, this approach will require sensible reflection by all of us and, naturally, time. An alternative house --better sited, designed, and constructed--could be the result.
Our environment and our health depend on it.
Jeremiah Eck, FAIA, a principal of Jeremiah Eck Architects, in Boston, specializes in residential and academic work. This article is reprinted by permission from Architecture Boston, Winter 1999.