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Saturday, August 27, 2011

who should design houses

So, the thing is there is this whole profession out there. Men and women who have studied for years how to put buildings together. They have served apprenticeships to get hands on experience mastering their profession in all its various aspects. They then study for and take an arduous and expensive battery of tests to confirm their learning and experience has truly equipped them with the "right stuff" to design the structures we inhabit. Why is it that so few of these individuals are involved with home design?

This discussion ranges far and wide across the forums on-line where various practitioners weigh in with their own take on the state of affairs. The discussions can be simplified into two camps. On the one hand are the architects who feel as if unlicensed designers are shirkers and scoundrels who have lazily neglected the required training and now just rip off the public with their hack designs at low cost and in effect are devaluing the profession. The other camp is the designers, most of whom spent the intervening years gaining valuable knowledge in other allied fields. Most have found a way to offer a service consumers appreciate and happily pay for, while exploiting their special skills for profit. Many are home design experts who have spent their entire careers specializing in home design and construction. These two camps often clash, where the one tries to put the other out of business by lobbying for government to regulate the profession by requiring the architect's license. The other camp wants the licensed group to just go back to their commercial and industrial work, putting their well earned knowledge of public health, safety, and welfare to good use. Just leave home design alone.

Back and forth it goes. Nothing resolved, nothing defined. Each side convinced of their own argument, and no one ever switching sides. Some call for a separate license, a separate profession where the skills involved in housing are specifically tested, and requirements for taking the test scaled to appropriate tasks for that enterprise. Others think the generalists architect title is the correct way to proceed, but change requirements for taking the test to something more affordable and less exclusionary. The goal here is to improve the quality of the built environment by publicly vetting those who are allowed to participate. Where do I stand in this sea of controversy?

To me, the whole discussion is beside the point. Having worked in housing as long as I have, especially from the builder/developer side, I understand how closely the economics of affordability controls the design process. There is really very little money available to pay for good design. Besides which there are 100 clamoring little hands wanting to glom any extra money that dares to rear its head. Everyone thinks more of the pie should be spread to their little specialty, from the farmer selling the land to the title clerk searching the deed history, to the framer banging the nails, to the painter touching up the trim, all the way up and down the line. No one in the process is going to reap a sudden windfall and start re-making things.

The second thing is that most people do not want their houses to be designed by someone else. They think it is their God given right to do so. And if the people (the customer) doesn't, then I can guarantee you that the builder or developer does. They don't want the design genius telling them what to do. They want to pick out what they like and put it together (or have it put together) the way they want. In this environment, there is no way a designer or architect is going to get a bigger slice of the pie to spend the time to develop things the way they think they should be at the builder's or customer's expense. It's just not the way this game is played. Even when the designer or architect is given the leeway to work things out, once they leave the playing field, the other characters always adjust things however they want, usually glad to get the design official off the field so they can scrum in their own way.

My feeling is that this is not a bad thing. The house is a place where people can make some personal expression. They exhibit their taste. They communicate to their friends and neighbors who they are and what they value. We don't need to take this away - to homogenize the built environment to some artificial standard of "what ought to be." We ought to embrace this opportunity and let it play out however it may. It is all good.

So having said that, what is the role of the designer or architect in the process? It is whatever you want it to be. There will always be people doing exquisite work. People with taste will recognize it, realize it is much better than they could do themselves, and pay for it. Likewise, there will be cheapskates, unwilling to pay for any quality, design things on their own and pay only the least expensive labor to put it up. It will be an atrocity, it will hurt the eyes of all who see it, but the good news is it will likely fall down before very long. In the middle will be the compromise. People who pay a little bit for better design and want to ensure someone is watching the store when it comes to quality of construction. There is room for all. The cheap guy doesn't devalue the expensive guy. If anything, he only underlines how much value the quality work has. My belief is that there is room for all. If I want a homogenized level of quality in my built environment, then I'll go to Disneyworld.

My photos in this post are examples of the way designs get morphed once they are past my sphere of influence. It happens all the time. Dormers where the sill was defined at 6" got moved front with a consequently taller reveal than desired, a decorative window lowered so the gutter line is interrupted. A chimney deleted and a dormer clad with sticky stone and foyer window changed. A front door reduced a foot in height, garage windows lowered a foot, and expensive chimney shroud deleted. Portico detailing sometime followed, sometimes not. Stone put on a fireplace bump out. Grading changed by a wing wall, the list is endless. All last minute modifications either by wicked intent (saving money) or unavoidable circumstance. It doesn't really matter why. All that counts is the owner is happy, loves his house, and the story gets told with a few additional character marks. I think we can just leave this designer-architect furor alone. Things are pretty good as they are, and will only get better as people become more educated and design conscious. The cream will always rise to the top. I don't think trying to use government regulation to "help" the process will do much good. I'm willing to bet that some unintended consequence will wind up only making it worse. These are all recently completed homes in a variety of price ranges. All with flaws, but all telling a story and worthy of being loved.