Don’t Blame Bad Buildings on a Lack of Money

Everything that is made has a cost. In the building boom/supply chain crisis of the last two years, money has become detached from value, where senseless explosions in price have nothing to do with cost and have everything to do with demand. 

The essential premise of architecture is to make things. When architects were “master builders,” construction was part of their lives on every level. For the last two centuries, architects have seen their training and experience trend away from the art of building. Our work has largely come to be judged by its aesthetic outcome. Because the process of construction is less important in architectural education and professional recognition, cost is often not addressed as a basis of judgment.

Architects have always rationalized their failures by citing inadequate funding. A lack of money is often perceived as standing in the way of good ideas—or at least new ones. However, money merely implements what architects design. In architecture school, the cost of what is designed is not a factor, because the act of design does not require building. After graduation, success in architecture is often keyed to what architects know least about—cost—because that knowledge requires understanding construction. 

Without this understanding, huge errors can be made. This is not about “style.” The recent failures of the “Make It Right” housing initiative in New Orleans can be laid squarely on the failure of construction, independent of design. But those failures are not just in technology or design, but in the profession’s focus away from how buildings are built, toward what the building is when it is a finished product, often judged by a 2D image, much of it ignorant of what it becomes in its use. When architects were master builders the gap between design, building, and the use of money was minimized.

The profession’s aversion to getting its hands dirty in the construction process is not new. Sixty year ago, Paul Rudolph, the dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, had a great idea: stack dwelling units on top of each other (before Genga), at roughly the same time as Moishe Safdie’s Habitat. For Rudolph it was public housing in New Haven, rather than a housing showcase for a World’s Fair, so the budget was limited.

Ideas have consequences. For Rudoph’s project, the incongruously named Oriental Masonic Gardens, stacking wood boxes askew from each other, presenting thousands of joints to a world of rain and snow, would have taken great construction knowledge, or the budget of Safdie’s Habitat. Rudolph had neither, and the project became a compost heap of rotting wood and was condemned in a decade and torn down in 1981. Rudolph thought the problems were inevitable. “I suppose it was a mistake,” he once said. “It was eventually demolished. People hated it. First of all it leaked, which is a very good reason to hate something, but I think it was much more complicated than that. Psychologically, the good folk who inhabited these dwellings thought that they were beneath them.” 

But leaking and rotting undo the reason for shelter. When those flaws are exacerbated by “value engineering” (i.e., the budget), the buildings degrade to the point of endangering their occupants. If the design was to shelter those who needed it, the lack of understanding how to avoid leaks undermined all good intentions and doomed the project, independent of the character of the buildings (a determination architects are comfortable discussing, unlike building to avoid leaks) 

Oriental Masonic Gardens, New Haven, Paul Rudolph architect. Image courtesy of Paul Rudolph Foundation.


Less than 10 miles away, also in New Haven, Charles Moore, another Yale dean, used a federal housing grant a decade later and proceeded to build a more conventional townhouse project, Church Street South. It involved a decade of back and forth with the city and funders, scores of plans and a tight budget, but the project moved forward, creating a subtle and thoughtful site plan. But the buildings turned out to be disasters. Within a decade, the eaveless flat roofs, done as cheaply as possible, set to breaks in the buildings that inevitably fail, allowed water into the buildings of concrete block. Rudolph’s Oriental Gardens may have rotted, but concrete is a great medium for mold, and Moore’s buildings soon became unusable and, after 40 years of attempts at remediation, were torn down.

Church Street South Housing, New Haven, Charles Moore, architect. Image courtesy of New Haven Preservation Trust.


You could say that the tiny budgets of Oriental Masonic Gardens and Church Street South doomed them, but that is not the whole truth. A lack of understanding of construction doomed them. Thirty-five years ago, my office created Cephas Housing with the same federal funding, and it has housed 15 formerly homeless families on a quarter-acre site ever since. We knew that elevators, lobbies, and shared space, not to mention maintenance, cost money, so there is no elevator or lobby, and we designed pitched roofs with eaves and the first use of cement-based siding in the northeast. We utilized the site to eliminate the cost-consuming common features. The essential organization was based on affordability, as well as context, light and air, and aesthetics.

Cephas Housing, Yonkers, New York, Duo Dickinson, architect. Photos by Mick Hales.


Why did a 30-year-old architect even think of design as a way to minimize cost? A decade earlier, I was part of a shop, Breakfast Woodworks, that worked for some of the great architecture firms in the northeast. I did the shop drawings and took the ignorant hopes of designers and helped find a way to build them, always with cost in mind. That perspective changed the way I thought. 

Independent of design education, money was always the essential issue for everyone in construction, and for good reason: In my shop, we had to win the bidding, then not go broke in the making, or in fixing the callbacks. It is easy to curse the darkness of a fine arts education if that aesthetic focus makes architects less relevant when it comes time to build.

But architecture schools are now offering new approaches, beyond the rarified, fine arts tradition, including an emphasis on construction. Some schools are providing experience in building what they design: an academic environment that forces students to deal with materials, technology, and craft. These efforts at the Colorado University College of Architecture, Kansas University School of Architecture, Yale School of Architecture, the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, and elsewhere are providing the understanding of how things are made that no academic course can simulate.

At a time when the hands-on realities of design and licensure are changing in the inevitable filter of the digital and internet explosion, these building programs embody the essential realities of construction no 3D printer can simulate. Understanding construction enough to affect designs before they are built might have saved the Oriental Masonic Gardens or Church Street South housing projects. Yet if architects don’t value building what they help create, but are happy enough with nice ideas and images, then the cascade of architecture into window dressing and disastrous outcomes, as happened with Make It Right, may be inevitable.



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