ballard library via bohlin cywinski jackson

There’s More than Just One Way for Architects to Create Value

Last week in Common Edge, I questioned the following statement: “the only way that investing in design and aesthetic quality can turn a profit” is to hire starchitects to design an “iconic” structure. This was the gist of Marianela D’Aprile’s essay from two weeks earlier, in which she took on a recent Current Affairs article calling contemporary architecture ugly and hateable. Now D’Aprile has responded to my response, so we have officially launched Round 2 of this debate—although I hesitate to call it a debate, since, as she points out, we probably agree more than we disagree.


While D’Aprile mentions my “heavy skepticism,” the main point of my article was not to reject her premise that architecture, like most fields, is driven by economics; to the contrary, I merely sought to point out that there is more than one way for architecture to create economic value. There are many, in fact, and some are more widely available and much easier to adopt than most architects seem to understand. Earlier this year, for example, I conducted a survey for Architectural Record and found significant gaps in architects’ basic knowledge about sustainable design. Nearly every respondent claimed they understand what climate change is, but fewer than half correctly identified its causes or know that the building sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gases. Participants also thought the number one obstacle to wide-scale adoption of energy-efficient practices is cost, but that myth was debunked almost a decade and a half ago. Some of the most visible and influential architects and critics routinely expose their own ignorance about or lack of interest in sustainability. Arguably, ecological illiteracy, not cost, is the most significant barrier to sustainable design.


Yet, D’Aprile contends that “the majority of architects, working in offices of five or fewer people, are too busy churning out drawings and managing contracts on slim margins to conduct and/or apply any of the research that Hosey cites.” In actuality, some of the smartest firms are small. Brooks + Scarpa and Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, which at times have employed fewer than a dozen people, are among the most frequent winners of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award, considered “the industry’s best-known award program for sustainable design excellence.” According to COTE’s research, several sole practitioners have won a Top Ten Award, as well. The size of a firm should not prevent it from adopting better practices.


D’Aprile also speculates that widescale adoption hasn’t happened because sustainability doesn’t pencil out, another misperception. Many architects and patrons don’t embrace it, she insists, “because $500-billion in savings from ‘best practices in energy efficiency’ means a $500-billion loss for someone else.” This makes it sound as if building owners and operators don’t want to save money because it will keep that money out of someone else’s wallet, which strikes me as the opposite of how the free market works. “In order for capitalism to function, corporations have to spend, not save,” D’Aprile continues. “The system is not built to withstand the kind of trade-offs that Hosey proposes, which may be the reason that they remain largely unimplemented.” I’m no economist, but anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of for-profit companies recognizes that, like it or not, a primary motivator for most corporations is to increase shareholder value. Lowering operating expenses can yield higher profits and greater ability to invest or spend. For minimal or no additional cost, smarter design can dramatically improve value—not just economically, but also socially and environmentally.


Highlighting this fact was the basic intent of my first response to D’Aprile, but somehow we seem to have gotten tangled up other issues, including the very definition of architecture. In her earlier article, D’Aprile defines architecture as “buildings that have been designed for construction in the physical world.” The dictionary definition of building is simply “a usually roofed and walled structure built for permanent use (as for a dwelling),” and the term usually indicates that a structure doesn’t technically require roofs and walls to be a building, so D’Aprile’s original definition suggests any designed structure. Otherwise, for example, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which ranked in the top ten of the AIA survey, “America’s Favorite Architecture,” would not qualify as “architecture” at all, because it has no roof or enclosed space.


In her second essay, however, D’Aprile implies—without directly addressing—a very different understanding of architecture. Taking issue with my reference to a study estimating that the built environment accounts for 40% of global GDP, she writes, “While I wonder how much of that 40% ends up in the pockets of architects and architecture firms, it’s worth pointing out that the ‘built environment’ is not the same…as architecture, as it encompasses things like railroads, bridges, power plants, and waterways.” Before, she characterized architecture generally as anything designed to be built, but now she describes something much more specific—only certain kinds of structures, and only those designed by or commissioned through architects.


In fact, some of the structures most celebrated by architects include “things like railroads, bridges, power plants.” Santiago Calatrava, winner of the 2005 AIA Gold Medal, became famous by designing bridges. This year, in addition to a dozen other design awards, the Stanford University Central Energy Facility, essentially a power plant, became one of only fifteen projects ever to win both a COTE Top Ten Award and an AIA Institute Honor Award, “the profession’s highest recognition of works that exemplify excellence.” And some of the most beloved buildings in the world include railroad or metro stations: the Paris Metro stops, New York’s Grand Central Station, the Washington Metro, etc. Among the most inspired structures in Britain are the great Victorian-era railway stations designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who also designed the railways themselves, as well as many incredible bridges. Since Brunel was an engineer, not an architect, is the magnificent Paddington Station disqualified as “architecture”? After all, the design fees didn’t “end up in the pockets of architects and architecture firms.” Is D’Aprile more concerned with the economics of architecture or the economics of architects?


“I got into architecture to make the world more beautiful,” she concludes. “I still think that should be possible, whether that beauty and the feelings it evokes make money for anyone.” This is about as wonderfully idealistic a statement as I can imagine from a design professional. Yet, even while making this declaration, she insists that my own optimism distorts my view of reality, which she sums up this way: “while market forces do not conspire deliberately against architectural beauty, they do prioritize profit over good design.” Which is more practical: insisting, as she does, that “the value of beauty in architecture [should] be beauty itself,” or recognizing that good design can provide more value for the clients and communities we serve?


Featured image: Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson; Seattle, WA.



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