Is Cost Architecture’s Weakest Link To Reality?

A post recently popped up in my Inbox headlined: “Guggenheim Helsinki Museum Plans Are Rejected.” It seems the Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki Architectes, who won a competition in June involving more than 1,700 international firms, could not bring their design in at a price tag Finland’s government could afford. The $140 million project allowed for about $350 per square foot—neither extravagant nor bare bones. It’s not unusual for building budgets to change once a design is determined. But for this project, there was not enough confidence in the architects’ ability to control costs to keep the project alive.


Costs kill another project—not exactly news. When Zaha Hadid’s design for the 2020 Olympics stadium went unbuilt due to costs coming in at twice the original budget, it was yet another confirmation that design for starchitects often exists in a cost-blind bubble.


(FILES) This file illustration released from the Japan Sport Council on May 28, 2014 shows an artist's impression of the new National Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. It was reported on July 29, 2015 that the Japanese bureaucrat heading construction of the 2020 Olympic stadium is quitting his post after Tokyo ordered design plans for the venue to be ditched amid public anger over its 2.0 billion USD price tag. AFP PHOTO / FILES / JAPAN SPORT COUNCIL ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / JAPAN SPORT COUNCIL" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - NO ARCHIVES
Zaha Hadid Architect’s proposal for the 2020 Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo. This scheme was scrapped when cost estimates came in way over budget.


Architects traditionally blame the lack of money as the root of banal architecture. I hear that lament at nearly every architecture event I attend, but that’s like blaming cheap ingredients for bad food: A great chef can make pasta sing.


Unless cost becomes an integral part of architectural education and criticism, design will continue to live in an aesthetic bubble and fall easy prey to bean counters. “Value Engineering” often has just one value—doing it on the cheap—because architects cannot engage in the hand-to-hand combat of cost control that can only happen if they know enough about construction to change a design without gutting its value.


The architect/money disconnect is nothing new. It often translates into firms always being pressed to pay their own bills. H.H. Richardson died young, with his firm’s finances in a desperate state, even though the legendary architect had won many of his era’s great commissions. The 19th century journalist Ambrose Bierce effectively defined the disconnect with characteristic brevity: “Architect. One who drafts a plan of your house, and plans a draft of your money.”


If architects value building as the purpose of architecture, they work to understand and control costs. Any other attitude is simply irresponsible.


If architects value building as the purpose of architecture, they work to understand and control costs. Any other attitude is simply irresponsible. Design without a budget, unfettered by costs, is the essence of fine arts expression: the miraculous realization of aesthetics into reality—with all the depth of construction 3D printing offers.


But architects operating outside this disconnected bubble of design know a different reality: every construction project has a budget. And yet, having taught some and managed dozens of interns, it’s painfully clear to me that very little is taught about building costs in architecture school.  This void is complicated by the growing reality that, during this lingering national building lull, the 6,000 architecture professors teaching 24,000 students are more likely to be career academics—versus teachers who build on the side. Most design journalists know even less about what drives building costs, because they only see the finished product, not the means and methods necessary to build to a budget. As a result, there is often little ability for anyone to assess the beauty of a given building in the context of its cost.


Architects should be the first reality check on cost. We should know enough that we can head off errant client expectations (or our own wishful thinking). Although treated as paint, canvas and clay in school, the actual expense of building is exponentially greater than the cost of artful design renderings (like the slick ones Moreau Kusunoki won its doomed Helsinki commission with).


To be fair, there are real challenges to understanding costs in construction. The U.S. has at least half a dozen distinct construction markets—each with its own specific realities of labor and materials, so cross-referencing what projects cost relative to other regions is often problematic.


Construction is also dramatically keyed to supply and demand. When a region is in recession, labor costs recede; when there is a boom, they explode. Every building, in essence, is a one-off. It’s built once to unique criteria: architect, client, site, real estate market, local codes, and on and on. Building budgets, therefore, vary a great deal. Still, that does not excuse the budget-blind design ethic architects are steeped in while at school and perusing journalism, where cost is often a footnote, save for those designs that are based on accommodating tiny budgets, like Alejandro Aravena’s Pritzker Prize winning work or by the late Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio.


Unless an architect works for the wealthiest sliver of the “1%,” cost is the determining factor for what gets build and what doesn’t.


Unless an architect works for the wealthiest sliver of the “1%,” cost is the determining factor for what gets built and what doesn’t. In the place where I practice, residential design, when bidding reveals that the architect has spaced on the money available, it becomes a screaming freakout. Although it’s a niche, residential practice offers a microcosm of the client misconceptions and architectural wishful thinking surrounding design and cost.


The home is almost always the biggest investment and liability for any family. The ability for architects to manage expectations is extremely compromised by the insanely unrealistic budgets and timelines offered by cable TV shows burlesquing house flipping, tiny houses, or completely false DIY scenarios. These shows are not building projects, they just play one on TV.


Given the risks and variables, homeowners are desperate to get to a budget, even one based on television show research, long before any design is started. In the chicken-and-egg scenario of costing construction, a budget range informs a design, but no budget can be credible without a design. Stepping into the breech comes websites like HomeAdvisor and organizations like McGraw-Hill, the National Association of Homebuilders and Means Cost Data. Efforts at predetermining building costs almost always boil down to the “cost per square foot” metric. At best an average, at worst a guess, the classic “cost per square foot” misleads more than clarifies.


It’s only by repeated exposure to the endlessly variable aspects of what-costs-what-and-why that some sense of a reasonable budget can be made before a design is bid. That should be exactly what architects provide, but we often fall pathetically short. Out of control budgets are the principal reason that buildings go unbuilt, or architects get fired—whether for modest homes or futuristic soccer stadiums.


And what’s even more egregious are the tight budget projects that get badly built and fall apart with use. Creating a dangerous building is worse than having no building. Paul Rudolph’s Oriental Masonic Gardens Housing in New Haven, Connecticut, instantly deteriorated and was demolished within a decade of its completion. The project’s genius architect did not understand that cheap wood construction without flashing quickly rots.


No matter what scale project, architects fall short on building costs because we often have a vested emotional interest: we desperately want our ideas to be built. We are taught in school that the beauty, innovation and cultural value of any good design is worth whatever money is needed to complete it. Do we know what Ronchamp cost? Do architects care? But clients do care: it’s their money.


Clients and the users of buildings love it when their built environment inspires, but their criteria for success involves a lot more than innovation and expression.


Clients and the users of buildings love it when their built environment inspires, but their criteria for success involves a lot more than innovation and expression. Context, functionality, durability, and yes, cost were often ignored in the analysis of the vast majority of designs we saw as students and see in awards announcements and published projects.


Inspiration is the essence of why architects have a role in our culture. But unbuildable designs end up depressing a market for our services that’s already threatened by technology and other options to design construction.


If money is simply seen as a means to an end, disconnected to value, if architects believe that if clients have to ask about the price they do not deserve our designs, architecture slides further into fantasy. It’s easy for us to blame cheap clients for poor outcomes, but that’s a cop-out—and represents the worst in us: aggressive condescension from a place of growing irrelevance.


Featured image: Moreau Kusunoki’s winning scheme for the proposed Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki, via


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