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Architects Design Just 2% of All Houses–Why?

While just about every public building has an architect as its designer, the vast majority of homes in America are not designed by architects. Why? Architects have managed to position themselves like fashion designers or celebrity chefs to the average housing consumer: we’re perceived as producing unaffordable esoteric products.

Food, shelter and clothing are the three essential human accommodations. Mammals without fur need shelter and clothing to maintain body temp—and every living thing needs sustenance. Most of us make most of our own meals, buy clothing off the rack, and live in places that are not designed by anyone in particular, let alone specifically for us. Everyone lives in architecture, and yet relatively few of us even think that architects might be useful for our homes.

The analogies are many: Wal-Mart sells billions of garments while Haute Couture hand-makes each one for the few Size 0’s among us. Food can be mass-produced or it can be “artisanal,” where the preciousness of provenance makes sustenance a luxurious necessity. Sadly the missed opportunity for architects to be of wide service and find expression in building is huge in its breadth and scope.

That said, most Americans who own their home invest huge sums of money and risk even larger amounts of debt. Why don’t homeowners trust architects to minimize risk, when they so often pay an unlicensed investment counselor to manage far lower assets and risks?

The penetration of architects into the housing market is undeniably tiny. Building Advisor estimates that percentage to be between 1% and 2%. While the vast majority of small architecture offices do residential work, the majority of architects work in large firms, which do almost no residential work.​

Most people have come to believe that architects cannot relate to their domestic issues because the anecdotes of the always-leaking-roof, big cost overruns, and deafness towards the way a family actually wants to use a house, are based in large part on fact.

This disconnect between value and architects is a self-created hardship, born of our education, culture and drift to a fine arts focused profession. Most people have come to believe that architects cannot relate to their domestic issues because the anecdotes of the always-leaking-roof, big cost overruns, and deafness towards the way a family actually wants to use a house, are based in large part on fact.

Winning a Record House award from Architectural Record is the highest honor a home can receive in the architectural profession (this is a self-serving statement, as I won one in 1985, but still true). The 2011 Record House Issue’s editorial responded to complaints that a burst housing bubble might signal a need for architects to rethink their “2% is enough” attitude. These “thought leaders” of our profession responded to a collapse in confidence with this classic “archi-tude”:  “The houses here are ones that set forth a vision—not ones that illustrate tried and tested design and construction methods that have resolved yesterday’s challenges and refined last decade’s ideas. They are not the archetypal house, which reassures us and reiterates what has long been a part of our lexicon.” In other words, the highest level of residential design should not use methods that make costs knowable, or reassure their occupants. This is the voice of architects who design homes as offered to housing consumers, and why this attitude appeals to barely 2% of them.

​​Architectural Record and virtually all other architect-centric media and competitions, save a small group of neo-traditionalists, all reflect contemporary architectural culture that values idiosyncrasy over utility. Frank Gehry declared 98% of all buildings “shit.” To the vast majority of housing consumers, the perceived work product of residential architects as seen in Record Houses would have the appeal of serving Styrofoam to the hungry or offering clothing made of rocks to the naked.

At the height of the housing bubble, the AIA noted that 18% of architecture firms declared themselves to be “residential,” and that number has greatly decreased during the post-burst years, hovering between 11% and 14%. At the height of the housing boom—2005—63% of architecture firms did “some” residential work, but not surprisingly the majority of that work was for the 10% of houses that cost over $500,000.  As a result, the home design work that architects have participated in is for a small portion of the smallest part of the entire housing market.

On average about 500,000 new homes are now built each year in the United States, far more in number than any other type of building. According to AIA, of the 80,000 architects left practicing, perhaps 10,000 are basing their professional lives in designing about 5,000 to 10,000 new houses per year. Of course there are a far greater number of renovations and additions being done on the 80,000,000 existing homes, but anecdotally the percentage of that construction category that are designed by an architect is equally small, if not smaller.

This tiny market matches the ratio of McDonald’s to restaurants like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. It is an epic fail for a profession desiring to be relevant and useful. It is a marketing triumph if the desire is to create value from exclusivity.

This tiny market matches the ratio of McDonald’s to restaurants like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. It is an epic fail for a profession desiring to be relevant and useful. It is a marketing triumph if the desire is to create value from exclusivity. Although almost everyone would like to have haute cuisine three meals a day, very few homeowners think that an architected home would respond to their tastes. Waters’ artisanal tomatoes would be in millions of homes if their owners could afford them, but architects have not proven to be desirable at any price because our profession predominantly offers up experimentation in homes as a way to move architecture “forward”—for other architects.

In truth thousands of architects whose thoughtful and creative work does not sufficiently reject context, allusion or craft to be included in venues like Architectural Record Houses, do design thousands of homes each year for appreciative families: but millions more do not see the value in our services enough to make it a purchasing criteria. When the housing bubble made residential practice more viable those architects in the AIA created a Knowledge Group: the Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN).  Another group of us created a bold Congress of Residential Architecture (CORA)—which tried, in vain, to reform how we practiced and were trained and licensed to get more value in what more architects do. CORA even merged worlds and presented a Position Paper at an AIA National Convention just as the economy was tanking in 2009. The publisher Hanley Wood risked a dedicated magazine: Residential Architect, and a dedicated annual conference, Reinvention. Then, like so many residential dreams of so many potential homeowners, these good things that surfed a bubble were wiped out when it burst (except for CRAN, which lives on).

Despite these efforts, architects and homes are not a love connection for the housing consumer. Architects and houses are more like a dangerous dating relationship, where the commitments are not reciprocal. Frank Lloyd Wright created Usonian Houses during the Depression because he wanted PR in the absence of clients, and he knew that the vast majority of homes in America pander to low expectations. Now, endless shipping-container-to-home rehabs similarly provide hip lip service to show 98% of homeowners that metal boxes can be Home Sweet Home—or should be, if you have any ethics or taste.

Architects talking the talk of relevancy is a lot like Waters telling hungry people they are wrong to want affordable food. Unless we satisfy the hunger for better places to live with affordable, useful, relevant services, residential architects will keep surfing the artisanal 2%.

The current political climate reflects a mass rejection of the status quo. Clearly, the traditional American housing marketplace of pandering aesthetics and profit betrayed the trust of millions of families. Architects are, theoretically, catalysts of culture, but are seen by most people who want a home as the status quo of a tone-deaf elite. Can we offer an alternative to fast food homes that inspire and reward risk with value? Or will we continue to retreat to serve that elite, as we have since the bubble burst? It’s up to us, as the 98% have stopped listening when we talk only to ourselves.

Featured image courtesy of the author. 

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