Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Can Craftsmanship survive the 21st Century in America?

A friend of mine recently returned from Europe proclaiming that she saw the most beautiful Architecture there. When I asked her which buildings she saw, she could not remember any specific names but had lots of photos of carved masonry friezes, ornamental metalwork, and highly detailed glazing. After looking at the photos it occurred to me that everything she had admired was not so much the work of an Architect, but the work of the Craftsmen who brought the Architect's vision to life. Sadly, these great laborers of bygone days are almost extinct with no great revival in sight. Will these highly specialized trades disappear all together, or just scrape by on wealthy patrons alone? To answer this question, let's take a brief look at the history of Craft and how we got here.

To begin, let's skip through thousands of years of tools and craft and head straight to the Industrial Revolution. People discovered that through the use of machinery, certain tasks could be expedited and completed with a high level of consistency and efficiency. Teh Crystal Palace was actually pre-fabricated way back in 1851 and designed by a man who was NOT an Architect. At the beginning of mechanization, designers were trying to figure out how to balance craft and industrialization so that the soul of a thing was not lost. Some designers are still trying to balance these things today. Look at Frank Gehry. His work is often described as sculptural, yet I don't know many sculptors that need complex computer programs to make their art stand up. And while the Design community has tried to figure out where this balance lies, many Craftspeople have moved on to white collars jobs in offices where they don't have to break a sweat all day. We have gone from a laboring society to a servicing society and craft has disappeared along with it.

I remember being at a conference and remarking that 'Craft' does not exist anymore to which someone replied "I don't know how I'm going to live without their Mac and Cheese." Yes, it's true, the most popular thoughts about Craft have to do with pasta not plaster. And that pasta is also a good example of why the other Craft is dying. One box plus once sauce packet plus milk and butter and you have a complete meal in one pot. What could be easier? Oh, except for the easier version that you just microwave and eat? Yes, that is easier.

Here in America, we are fixated on convenience. We now install plumbing lines in houses made entirely of plastic tubes that clip and glue together without any soldering at all. We have ceilings made up of tiles that we just drop into a grid, and we have mouldings and false beams made of Styrofoam that you cut with a utility knife and glue to your wall. People are not interested in craft because craft takes time and time is money. Here in America, we only care about getting the best version of something for the cheapest price so that we can keep as much money for ourselves. Forget about the betterment of society. Forget about creating an urban fabric where each building actually enhances the other buildings around it. That only happens in those Socialist European countries. No, here in America, we would rather hire an uneducated laborer to glue some fake stone to the front of our house than pay a fourth generation mason to work each piece perfectly. Here in America, we would rather go down to the discount furniture superstore and buy a dresser made cheaply in a foreign country than pay a woodworker to create an heirloom piece of furniture. Those kind of luxuries are reserved for the wealthy and those who can afford such quality.

In the past, those luxuries were in fact common. Towns were full of tradespeople and craftsmen who served everyone. From blacksmiths to cobblers to cabinetmakers to bricklayers, craft was the right of every citizen. For many, coming to America was and is more than the promise of work, it is the promise of pursuing that which makes you happy. I recently read a statistic that over 70% of Americans hate their jobs. I think that's because most people are working solely for the money rather than the satisfaction that a job can provide. So here's how I propose we get out of this all-consuming disposable society of convenience rut and preserve craft for generations to come:

1. We should be showing children that there's more to life than video games, TV, and smart phones. Instead of giving your child a technological baby sitter, teach them a skill or enroll them in a class at your local arts and crafts store. From baking to painting, there's a class for it.
2. Instead of purchasing lots of cheap things, purchase a few things of good quality. This will encourage more businesses to focus on quality items rather than cheap items.
3. Support local businesses and encourage the development of downtowns. Wouldn't it be nice to go to the butcher shop to get your fresh meat instead of the Sam's club?
4. Introduce craft back into your life. Visit websites like etsy.com and find a unique piece of art for your house instead of some framed poster from a big box store. Buy a handmade quilt for your bed, or better yet, learn to make one. Get a sewing machine and learn to use it instead of just watching Project Runway. Shop at Antiques stores for interesting pieces of furniture that you will use. Old desks and tables are useful in any house.

In movies, the future is always portrayed as a dark place where everything is automated. If we are to avoid this fate then we must put our faith back in people and be amazed at what we can accomplish. Become an individual who appreciates the labor of others and I guarantee you will start finding fulfillment in something other than your checking account balance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Designer's Guide to Making Money - the abridged vesion

It goes without saying that when you work in Design, you meet a lot of really talented and creative people. Unfortunately, very few of these people are appropriately rewarded or compensated for their talent. You would think that talent must grow on trees if all of the Creatives that I know are struggling. I can assure you that it doesn't. What can be said is that all of the talent in the world won't do anything for you unless you apply it. Knowing how to apply it is really the challenge and the subject for today's conversation.

I will keep this short and simple. If you want to make money with your design skills, then make something. Make T-shirts, make stickers, make posters. Just make something. The Design world is currently divided into two types of companies: Design Firms and Service Firms. The service firms are the ones who crank out chain stores and insurance company brochures. The Design Firms are the ones who make plaster molds out of coffee lids and turn them into a wall treatment. The current economic climate has made mince meat out of service firms. They are laying people off because their big client has cut their budget and therefore they are out of work. The Design firms are picking up the trash from this economic tornado and making stuff with it. In short, there is always money to be made with great Design, but service providers are a dime a dozen. Let's look at some examples.

Kate Spade started out at a magazine as a Senior Editor in charge of accessories. She was providing a service, competing with all of those other magazines out there. Every month racing around to compile pictures and reviews of the best belts, handbags, jewelry and shoes. Think about how exhausting that must have been. She was not designing anything, although she clearly had the eye and talents of a designer. One day Kate decides that there are no great handbags out there and starts her own line. She has a bunch of them made and gets a booth at a big show at the Javitts center. Immediately, orders from all the Fifth Avenue stores start rolling in and the rest is history. Kate made the switch from service provider to Design provider and now she is a household name.

Martha Stewart started a catering business in 1976 and catered many high profile parties in NYC. At one such party, she met a book publisher who loved her recipes and offered her a book deal. I think we all know how that one turned out. Now Martha could have gone on catering parties and providing a service, but now she's got her name on everything from Furniture to Paper Products. You could make a million meals and never be successful, but make one cookbook and it will sell while you sleep. To sum up, make something.

I recently came across a graphic designer who sells all sorts of 'swag' on his web site. He puts his name on a pocket comb and calls it a 'hair organizer'. It sells for $3 and people buy it. Why can't anyone do this? Anyone CAN do this. While working for a big architecture firm, I realized that I was killing myself making them a lot of money, but I wasn't getting anything out of it. I was just providing a service, and at a meager wage at that. Many of us have jobs. Many of us make our companies a lot of money. But many of us are still unfulfilled creatively and as a result, no amount of money will ever seem like enough. So let me offer you this advice. Brand yourself. Make something that screams of your personality. Whether it's a special kind of cupcake or a typeface or a prefab composting shed. If you put it out there, someone is bound to see it. And if you are as good as you think, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Who Killed Modern Architecture?

While I don't fully understand most people's bias towards "traditional" styles, I have to wonder what it is about Modern Design and Architecture that turns people off? People don't seem to mind trading in their old car for the latest model or going down to Best Buy for the most technologically advanced Audio Visual experience. So why is it that in the 21st Century, people still want to build houses in styles that were fashionable 200 years ago? After all, we weren't building Medieval Castles in the 1800's? So the question remains, Who Killed Modern Architecture?

When you look at the history of what we call Modern Architecture, it is hard to divorce its origins from the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Machines gave us the technology and the ability to grow buildings faster and stronger. Most people will cite structures such as Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower, and the Brooklyn Bridge as being some of the first truly Modern accomplishments. Those gave way to breakthroughs such as modern glazing, the elevator, and prefabrication technologies (the Crystal Palace was a pre-fab building in 1851). From there, the founding fathers of Modernism enter through the likes of LeCorbusier, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and finally Mies Van der Rohe. In the early 20th Century, Modernism was in full swing, also commonly referred to as "The International Style". The Museum of Modern Art (under the lead of Phillip Johnson) organized a pivotal exhibition that changed the face of Architecture forever. By the late 1940's Modernism had arrived and permeated every publication and merchant builder throughout the country. Have you ever seen an issue of Better Homes and Gardens from the 1950's? How about Fortune Magazine? Google them sometime and you will be shocked. They're all progressive and modern. The prevailing style of that day is now known as Mid-Century Modern and objects from that era are highly sought after due to their originality and quality. What happens after the 50's is a product of two different phenomenon that was like a 1-2 punch to all things Modern.
First, you have the Depression era children growing up and reaching the age where they want to buy a home. Growing up during a depression leaves you with some pretty lasting memories. (I have a friend who still ties together broken rubber bands instead of throwing them away, but we'll save that for another day.) Since homes were (and still are) the largest single investment that the average person is likely to make in their lifetime, this group had no interest in risking their hard earned savings on the latest and greatest trendy home. They wanted security and comfort and chose older homes with time tested styling. The second part of the double whammy has to do with all of the wars which were being fought in the 40's and 50's. The world was not as small as it is today and resources were rare. Modern Architecture often relies on the latest materials to execute the greatest gestures with the least effort. Steel, Glass, and Wood were considered too valuable to be cladding houses with, so the era of vinyl began. And then all of these soldiers came home and needed somewhere to live. The Government was giving them cheap loans to go buy a house and everyone wanted to settle down and make babies. Builders saw the opportunity and started cranking out tract homes. Cities like Levittown in Long Island grew up overnight. And as you can guess, there were not many tract home developments where each home was designed by an Architect. Builders made alot of money building the fastest and cheapest house they could and they couldn't keep up with demand. And the rest, as they say, is history. The era of the tract home began and the media now had to change focus on how to decorate and style your brand new tract home. 50 years later, the major publications such as Better Homes and Gardens are still doing the same thing, except now they are decorating McMansions and faux bungalows.
Of course, there are still those who want Modern housing thanks in part to magazines like Dwell (my latest issue was REALLY skinny). But now that the latest recession has all but wiped out traditional funding for new and innovative companies, will the Moderns just give up or regroup? If only Ayn Rand were here...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why all the fuss about e-readers??

Architects LOVE books. I have talked about this before. In fact, pretty much every creative I know loves books. As an admitted bibliophile, I have personally spend hundreds if not thousands of hours combing through used book stores to find rare and out of print titles on my favorite subjects. There is something very comforting and romantic about curling up with a great book and cracking it open to discover what lies within. For me, it is something that started when I was very young and it has been a romance that has lasted my entire life.

I have also talked before about great companies and how great companies embrace great Design to change our world. Last week, Barnes and Noble announced that it had developed a new e-reader called "the Nook" to take on Amazon's Kindle head to head in a battle for the e-consumer. Amazon is also fighting Walmart over prices of digital book downloads. You would think that a person who loves books AND design would be excited about the potential of bringing a new distribution network to book lovers. Unfortunately, I don't see what the big deal is.

First and foremost, I believe that e-readers are a fad. The reason being is that book publishing (when done properly) is an Art. How many times have I been attracted to a book simply because of the cover design or the font on the spine? Choosing a good book is like choosing a good friend, even if the relationship is only temporary. When a great narrative is married with a great layout and produced on a high quality medium the results are extraordinary. I have built a collection of books that I hope to pass on after I have gone and I revisit most volumes fairly often. (I will say that many of my books are non-fiction and are not read in the traditional sense. I use many of them on a regular basis for their imagery and inspiration.) As a great book is a work of art, the classics constantly appreciate in value. A vintage first edition of any major work accompanied by its dust jacket is always a prized possession. How can an e-book compare to this?

The e-book is the 'McMansion' of the literary world. Just another way to try and deliver more for less. The problem is that the consumer ends up with no tangible product for the money. Why would I pay $10 for a new digital novel when I could buy a hard copy in a used book store for $5 a month after it comes out? The argument for e-books is that you can carry hundreds of books in your pocket. I don't know about you, but I only tend to read one novel at a time, maybe two. If I have ever brought a book with me on a train or to the beach, it has often been a conversation starter with a random stranger asking if the book was any good or sharing a story about a part that they liked. What is the new alternative? A nation full of people staring down at a screen all reading the same book?

We live in the most technologically advanced society the world has ever known. We have conveniences that our parents could never have dreamed of. With all these gifts however, we are losing our ability to feel and communicate as humans are meant to do. School age children learn to type before they know how to write in script (Do kids even learn script anymore? Or is called cursive?). We have taken experiences that are meant to be emotional and we make them mechanical. For this reason, I don't believe the traditional book will ever go away. Like everything else of quality, they may increase in price, but hopefully this will make it such that only the great books get published. One can only hope.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What is a "Traditional" Home?

Have you ever seen the show "House Hunters" on HGTV? It is definitely one of my favorites. I love to see which houses people are attracted to and what they do to them after closing. I have to admit though, I am often baffled at what people are looking for in a house and what they consider their tastes to be. I would say that most people, young and old, seem to gravitate to more "traditional" style homes and this greatly disturbs me. Today I wanted to examine what makes a home "traditional" in an effort to figure out why most people seem to prefer it.

First and foremost, the word "traditional" to me means something that has not changed over time. Traditional food would be dishes that have been made the same way for generations. Traditional houses are ones that emulate historical styles such as Colonial, Tudor, Victorian, Queen Anne, or Mediterranean to name a few. People seem to feel connected to these styles as they have seen many examples of each and they are familiar to them. Perhaps it is this familiarity which breeds comfort and contentment with these styles.

Inside our "traditional" homes, we typically find "traditional" interiors. From wrought iron dining tables to overstuffed sofas, to wing chairs with gold damask upholstery, it's all there. With swags on the windows and Oriental rugs on the floor, the "traditional" home owner can pretty much go into any store and find plenty of inexpensive furniture to suit their tastes. It is also worthy to note that most of the interior offerings in the "big box" stores also cater to those furnishing their "traditional" homes. I guess you could say that this makes Traditional homes easier to furnish.

Lastly, we should talk about maintenance. Colonial builders used things like wood clapboard siding and divided light windows to construct their homes. These represented the best marriage of technology and craftsmanship that they could come up with. Today we have used our innovation to engineer products that are virtually maintenance free and offer comparable appearances to "traditional" designs without the cost or headaches that an older home offers. If you in fact wanted to build a historically accurate "traditional" home complete with extensive millwork, wood windows and siding, slate roofing, hand laid masonry foundations and plaster interiors, you would be looking at a hefty sum indeed. I would think most people would choose cheap and easy.

So there we have it: comfort, availability and affordability. When you look at it like that, it's easy to see why most people are biased towards "traditional" homes. Unfortunately, there is a problem. The problem as I see it is that "cheap and easy" is not usually associated with quality and desirability. As a society, we have spent the last few decades building houses that have no long term value and will likely be torn down rather than fixed up. What people consider to be "traditional" or "American" in terms of style are mostly poor copies of something that was once a genuine reflection of our ability and craftsmanship. Your cabinets may be honey colored with paneled doors, but if you look closely you will find no real joinery on the drawer fronts and no solid wood to be found anywhere. Your "hardwood" floors probably came pre-finished with only a few layers on the top that are real wood and the rest is something else. But as long as there are stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, everything will be alright ("Where did the settlers put their Kitchen Aid Mixer?")

The sad reality of all this is that I really can't be upset about how uneducated people are about Design. We did it to ourselves. Architects gave away so much of our profession that it's no wonder every home owner believes that they know how to Design an Interior. So instead, I suggest that we get off of our high horses and take back our right to work for regular people who would love to live in great spaces. Let's create some great examples of Modern Design that are warm and inviting instead of stark and cold. Let's empower people to go on a housing diet and design more efficient homes that do the work of much larger ones so that the average person can afford the best of what the 21st century has to offer. Finally, let's volunteer our time to those who could actually use it instead of complaining how much work has slowed down. If you are looking to do some pro-bono work, there are hundreds of potential clients in your local home improvement store just asking for someone to help them. They are the ones staring up at the ceramic tile displays with the blank looks on their faces. Simply introduce yourself and ask them if they need any help making a selection. It's really that easy. Almost as easy as picking out those new Venetian Blinds for your Tuscan Inspired Kitchen in your Tudor Style home. 

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Some suggestions for the AIA on saving the profession of Architecture

In 1857, 13 Architects got together and founded what is now known as the American Institute of Architects, or the AIA. The group had two main goals which were to educate their members in the science and art of Architecture and to elevate the status of the profession. Fast forward 152 years, the AIA has become an organization that has over 200 employees and 83,000 members. And while it is no longer a grass roots movement, many would argue that the organization is irrelevant and out of touch. Having worked among AIA members for the last fifteen years, I would constantly inquire about the advantages of membership. The conversations would go something like this:

Me: Do you get special privileges that Registered Architects can't get?
AIA-Member: No.
Me: Is it affordable
AIA-Member: No.
Me: Do you get better deals on books and stuff?
AIA-Member: No.
Me: Do the other members help you out if you're in a bind?
AIA-Member: No.
Me: Do they get you work?
AIA-Member: They have a section on their web site where my name is listed, but other than that, not really.
Me: Do you go to any local meetings?
AIA-Member: No. They're too boring and nothing ever happens.
Me: Can you charge more for your time because you are in the AIA?
AIA-Member: No. In fact, I just lost a job to another AIA Architect who undercut my fee by 25%.
Me: Wow. So what are the advantages of being in the AIA?
AIA-Member: I get to put the letters "AIA" after my name. Basically that's it.

Now I should say that the people that I know in the AIA are small practitioners. This is their experience. It may be different if you go higher up the AIA food chain. Maybe those Architects actually help each other get work or maybe they have the power to get things done. If they do, I haven't heard about it. What I have heard is how disgruntled Architects are about the AIA and how most people I know wouldn't even be members if their company didn't pay the registration fees for them. Those fees by the way, include membership at the National, State, and Local levels. Every branch gets a piece and it gets expensive. They do give you a $37 annual subscription to Architectural Record, so I guess that's something.

In 2006, I attended a conference sponsored by Residential Architect Magazine in San Diego. The conference attracted alot of attendees and was generally very successful. At a portion of the conference, we broke up into groups and got to have lunch with different groups of people for lunch. In our group were some national AIA officers who confessed that they had come to the conference to try and attract smaller firms to the AIA. In their research, they had found that small firms (under 10 people) and sole practitioners represented a very small percentage of their membership. They asked us if anyone at the table was a member. Not one person was. They asked us how they could make it more attractive for people like us to join? Needless to say, the lunch wasn't long enough to give everyone a chance to speak. Almost three years later, I see that they have taken none of the suggestions to heart. That being that case, I wanted to put the ideas out there again in the hopes that maybe someone will find these suggestions and bring them up at a meeting. So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Your web site, your marketing, and all of your promotional campaigns are terrible. You people are supposed to be representing Great Design. Your web site looks like a Pharmaceutical company's web site. You can't even find how much it costs to join. On the application, it says "please call for local and state rates". When you try to search for an Architect on your web site, it does it by zip code alphabetically. I'd hate to have a name that started with a W or a Z. How about filters for type of work and size of firm? Lastly, your print ads depict Architects as family psychologists instead of Great Designers. Whoever came up with that campaign should be fired. I did hear an ad recently on AM radio though. Way to elevate the profession.

2. Stop trying to keep people OUT of the profession. In recent years, the AIA has spent alot of time and money lobbying for tighter regulations on who can officially call themselves an "Architect". Apparently, they now own the word and can sue anyone who tries to call themselves an Architect without the proper credentials. I think you have all forgotten who does the 'heavy lifting'. You know those recent graduates who work 90 hours a week when all of the "Architects" have gone home? Instead of trying to prevent them from putting "Project Architect" on their resume, why don't you try to give people more incentive to become an Architect? Better pay for Registered Architects would be a good start.

3. Lobby for Laws that make sense and help Architects. Almost everyone I know has renovated their house in some way. HGTV and big box stores have empowered homeowners to bust apart their houses and get dirty. If you are building a home from the ground up, most states don't even require an Architect's involvement which is evident by cookie cutter developments cropping up all over our country. Perhaps if there was legislation to require that Architects be involved at a Residential scale, there would be more work available for Architects and the overall quality of Residential Design in this country would improve.

4. Don't let EVERYONE join. I'm sure there was a time when being a member carried some exclusivity along with it. Not any more. Every time a new EIFS clad drug store or bank gets built in my neighborhood, it usually bears the seal of an AIA member. Shouldn't the AIA be endorsing great design? For all of your 83,000 members, how many actually build buildings that adhere to the principles of true Architecture? If you want good architects to join (the ones who will really be a credit to the AIA and attract new members) you have to understand that they don't want to be lumped in with bad architects. Recently, an Architect that I admire (who is actually FAIA- very high up on the AIA food chain) told me that if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't even join. How's that for an endorsement.

5. If you can't do any of the above, can you at least get a deal on some books? Architects love books (as do non Architects, and pretty much every Designer I know). With 83,000 members and millions more interested in Architecture books, you would think maybe the largest professional Architecture organization in the US could at least help bring down the cost of publications to its members, right? Wrong. I went to the AIA website to check out some deals on 'Publications'. Even those which are published by the AIA are still 10-20% cheaper on Amazon. How is that possible? If I were spending $1,000 on membership, couldn't you at least give me some deals on a book that you publish? It's just absurd to think that in a world where you can compare prices of everything from your phone, the AIA can't find a way to deliver educational materials to their members at a reasonable cost. And don't even get me started on the AIA Documents.

In conclusion, I hope that there is someone out there who can talk some sense into the AIA. I would recommend starting with a frank conversation with the current members to determine what value (if any) membership still has. From what I have seen in the last year, the profession has taken a serious hit from the economy and shows no signs of a quick recovery. I think people and companies will be taking a long hard look at what those three letters are worth on a business card.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Our latest project rises from the ground..and fast..

For those of you who may not be familiar with my company, we develop Modern Architectural Houses in the Poconos. Although I aspire to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Eichler and Jonathan Segal (two prominent California developers) I have to come to terms with the fact that right now I am no one of importance. Furthermore, I started my development business at the worst possible time in the history of the modern US Economy. And while this may seem romantic, possibly even daring to some, I deal with rejection on a daily basis. Lenders won't touch us, most people ask me if I am stupid and I spend most nights lying awake trying to figure out how to do more with less. All that being said, our houses sell before most people even see them. Our last house sold in one day. Not bad for a depressed market, right?

Our latest project aims to beat that one day record. Before we could even get out of the ground, we started getting calls from interested parties about purchasing it before it was even complete. As of right now, we have at least three interested parties for our next project (on a side note, I find it extremely ironic that all of our buyers tend to have i-phones) and we are hoping to start a fourth before the end of the year. As the project gets further along in construction, I will post more pictures, but I wanted to share some anecdotal evidence about the process so far.
For the first two months of the project, we did nothing but wait for approvals. This meant that our land and our subcontractors basically sat doing nothing. Even though we knew what we wanted to build, we were frozen. After about two months, we got our approvals (permits) and began. In the first week, our lot was cleared and the stumps were dug up. In the second week, our septic system was installed and the basement for the home was dug. In the third week, our footings were put in and the foundation walls were nearly complete.

What we are finding is that the economy has created a buyer's market for goods and services (as well as real estate). We took the time to notify each subcontractor of our project, provide drawings well in advance, and coordinate the timing of each so that one followed the other. Because we did this, we were able to competitively bid much of the work to realize some savings over our last project. The best part is that the work is progressing very quickly, allowing us to save money by finishing the project sooner. In the end, we may find that the time for Design and Approvals may actually equal the construction time. In the pre-bubble days it seemed you were able to get fast approvals and slow construction times, because every subcontractor was so busy that it took forever to tie up all of the loose ends. Now, the tables are turned. Municipal officials are looking at the drawings more closely and doing a better job of making sure that you are building properly (another thing that did not happen in the boom). This is likely to do with the fact that there are also less projects on their desks too. At any rate, all of this is good for those who want to build. Subcontractors are working more diligently to keep your business, often at more competitive rates. We are really excited about our next few projects and I hope you check in our progress.

If you would like to see renderings of this house (known as the Rayburn) please see our website at http://www.poconomodern.com/

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Magic of Ikea

Everyone has their guilty pleasures. The things that you enjoy a little TOO much. For some it's Mallomars. For others, it may be a TV show like Gossip Girl or Project Runway. For me, I am embarrassed to admit that what tops my list is a trip to the local IKEA. Yes, you heard me right. Those Swedes have got me hook, line and SATER.

First, there is the ideology. Great Design at Great Prices. Their stores have big signs that say things like "We'll never stop making good design affordable." Right on brother. Then, there is the Environmental aspect. Flat pack to save on shipping. Put it together yourself. Genius. I think that when you go for a job interview, they should just leave you alone in a room with an EXPEDIT shelving unit and an Allen wrench and just see what happens. If you can do it in under 10 minutes, you're hired. (Just make sure you recycle that cardboard package.)

Secondly, there is the store design itself. The entire apartment in 250 Square Feet. The maze like layout with shortcuts for people in the know. It's an experience to say the least. I won't even talk about the restaurant, where you can get an entire hot meal for $4. To sum it up, they definitely get you thinking.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the sheer volume of their offerings. Other than the exterior shell of a house, they've got it. From napkins to bed frames, they have thought of everything for home AND business. And of course, everyone knows how affordable it all is. For the life of me, I can't understand why people would shop at places like Walmart and Bob's Discount Furniture when you can get thoughtful, well made products at IKEA.

I first discovered IKEA when I was in college. It was then that I purchased my first BILLY bookcase. After that, it was the KLIPPAN Sofa, the POANG chair, you know the drill. You stock up on all of this cool looking stuff and then your friends come over and ask, "Where did you get this? IKEA? Really?" And then IKEA began to grow, adding other systems and finishes to their lineups. Black-Brown began to pop up on everything from LACK shelves to kitchen cabinets. Architects in NYC started specifying IKEA kitchen cabinets for apartment renovations due to their durability and affordability. Stores started popping up everywhere.

Now I have taken my share of criticism for endorsing IKEA among colleagues in the past. Some say that the stuff is not made well. Some say that it is cheap. I would be remiss if I did not mention those criticisms. But here's the rub: No other company is focused on affordable, accessible modern design like IKEA. It's not like there are alot of other options. For a recent project, I was trying to find a sofa with a boxy shape and square armrests. I went to Raymour and Flanagan. Nothing but poofy sofas. I went to Ashley. No dice. I even went to Bob's. Total waste of time. I finally found a 79" sofa at Macy's for $699. When I told the salesperson that I would take it, he said the lead time was 12-16 weeks. I passed.

Yes, I also looked at Crate and Barrel, Room and Board, and the local furniture stores. I found nothing that was less than $1000 for what I wanted. Room and Board came the closest, but had an 8 week lead time. Still not happening. Only IKEA offered the product that I needed. A boxy brown leather sofa, in stock for under $500. Sold.

So, I admit it. I love IKEA. I wouldn't say that I would go out and furnish an entire project from there, but I do selectively purchase staple items and then use the savings to splurge at other stores. And the best part is, they continue to get better. They improve the systems that are lacking, and stick with the systems that are great. They understand what people are looking for, and find a way to deliver it to them on budget without compromising Design. As a company, they act responsibly towards the environment and pass those responsibilities along to the customer. What more could you ask for? How about a free Cinnamon Roll with that Swedish Meatball lunch? Now you're talking my language...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Can You Design a Better Government?

Architects by nature are problem solvers. Give us a site, a problem, a program, and a budget and we go to work finding solutions. I often wonder why there are not more Architects in Public Service. Sure, you might find one on a town planning board, but you never hear about notable Architects running for Congress. And since I think that anything can be Designed to be better, why not a better Government? Let's explore some hypothetical concepts using some Design based thinking and see where we land.

In order to simplify things, let's imagine that our country is one big hotel with lots of residents. The hotel was built a couple of hundred years ago (give or take) and has had several additions put on over time. Currently, the hotel is pretty run down and in need of some upgrading. Now, don't get me wrong, the hotel still has some pretty luxurious suites, but the people who rent those rooms don't come out much and don't really care that the corridors and the lobby need work. In fact, they are pretty much against any renovations to the common areas if it means that the price of their suite will go up. We'll call these people the 'preferred guests' because they pay the most money per room and they typically get the best service.

The next part of our client base is the 'bargain shopper'. These are the people who shop all the web sites and want to pay the least amount of money to stay in our hotel. They want the place to have a nice fitness center and pool and they want a free breakfast included with their discount accommodations. In short, they don't want to spend one cent more than they have to and they are the most demanding guests you can have.

Lastly, we have the regular paying customer. These are the customers that make reservations, pay the market rate for the room, eat in the restaurants and respect the property. They would love to work their way up to 'preferred guest' but by following the rules, it takes longer. The paying customer is the best guest that the hotel has.

So the current management tells me that they want to fix up the public areas of the hotel to attract more Paying Customers. They are not concerned so much about the rooms because the Bargain Shoppers won't care so much and the Preferred Guests have the nicest rooms as it is. With respect to the Paying Customers, they want the public areas to be so nice that the Paying Customers don't stay in their rooms. They come out of their rooms and spend money in the restaurants or at the bar. In fact, they want the Paying Customers to be so happy with the amenities of the hotel that the Paying Customers insist on renting the hotel for big meetings and conferences. Lots of new Paying Customers will come to the hotel for the meetings and everyone will be eating and drinking and socializing in the renovated Hotel. Life will be great.

So I get the job to do the renovations and I start by putting together some schematic plans and estimates. Despite the fact that these are not final drawings, everyone starts to go nuts. From the cost of the light fixtures to the price of the carpets, management slashes the construction budget by 40%. The leather on the bar stools becomes vinyl with a faux leather grain. The original artwork in the lobby is changed to framed prints with non-reflective glass. And finally, the walls that were to be clad in wood panels become vinyl wallcovering. We have saved a fortune and management is happy. We issue the drawings and start getting bids on the work. The numbers come in close to budget and construction begins.

What happens next is the most curious part of the process. The management sees the work progressing and they think the renovations look cheap. They say the carpet doesn't feel luxurious (probably because we changed the specification from wool to nylon to save money) and the vinyl wallcovering looks institutional (duh, it's vinyl). Even though the decisions they are unhappy with are theirs, they blame the Architect. They start saying that the Design is flawed and must be changed. They want everything swapped out to the more expensive materials and they want the Architect to pay for it. Since the Architect's fee is minuscule compared to the cost of the project, I can't afford to give up any of my fee. My only hope is to appeal to the contractor for some charity. And so begins the juggling act between charity, contract work, and change orders. Eventually, the hotel will get done. It will look better than before, but will not be great, and the guests won't really care either way. They probably wouldn't have cared if the renovation didn't take place at all because none of the items on their 'wish list' got addressed anyway (can we get Wireless in the restaurant please?!)

So, can you figure out who's who in our story? The funny thing is that the above story is a totally real account of a job I did not too long ago. When I listen to all of the pandering and spin surrounding our political process, one thing is very clear to me. No one really cares about the guest. The guest is never at any construction meetings. The management and contractors both THINK that they are helping the guest, but really both are looking out for themselves.

So, the question remains, Can You Design a Better Government? The answer is Yes. But you need to cut out the Management and the Contractors and develop a dialogue directly with the Guest.

I remember one time, I was Designing an office space and the Client gave me the new seating plan of where everyone was to be located. As I was doing a survey of the floor, the workers in question were trying to get a peek at the plan. It was clear that they had not seen it or had any input in its creation. I set the plan down on a file cabinet so that I could take some measurements of ceiling heights and came back to find a small group surrounding the plan. Before I could take the plan back, comments started flying at me. In a matter of minutes, the staff on hand had proposed several re-organizations that were far more efficient and cost effective than what the management had come up with. I made a note of their suggestions and brought them up to my Client at our next meeting. When I suggested that perhaps we lose some of the copy rooms and add a networked printer in the open floor, he asked me why I would suggest that. I stated that some of the staff came to me and suggested it. To this, he replied, "If we were going to let them make decisions, I wouldn't need to manage this project."

"Exactly" I thought. And so goes the Political Machine.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Love/Hate Relationship with HGTV

Recently, our cable company sent us a simple message: Convert or die. Up until now, we only had a basic analog signal and that gave us about 50 or so channels of basic cable. We believed them when they said that we didn't have to do anything during that whole changeover that happened in February. Now we were being told that if we didn't get some digital converter boxes, we would lose everything. Now my first inclination was just to drop the cable altogether. Neither my wife nor myself watch very much TV and I certainly not up to speed on my Lost, Mad Men, Survivor, or whatever reality show passes for Prime Time TV nowadays. After weighing all of the pros and cons of keeping the service, we could come up with only one major thing in the plus category: HGTV.

Now for those of you who may not be familiar with Home and Garden Television (aka HGTV) it is one of those channels that you have likely skipped by on your way to Comedy Central or the E! Network. Most of the content features people walking around some unfortunate looking house with the intention of either buying it or fixing it up. The shows have titles such as "House Hunters", "My First Place", "Divine Design", "Spice Up My Kitchen", and my personal favorite "Designed to Sell." On 'Designed to Sell' all of the magic happens in the beginning of the show when they bring in the 'real estate expert' to tell the homeowners why their house has not sold yet. Perhaps it has something to do with those four uncleaned litter boxes on the kitchen floor. Trust me, you don't have to be a real estate expert to figure this one out, but it's entertaining at the very least.

After you've seen enough shows on HGTV, you can pretty much divide each show into one of two categories (or at least I do). The first category is the Design Documentary. These shows follow a project from beginning to end, over a realistic timeline and give you a sense of how to complete a normal home improvement project. They follow reasonable time lines and often show real Architects and Designers working with the Homeowners to achieve their goals. I love these shows. I love it when every project goes over budget. I love it when it takes twice as long as it's supposed to. I love these shows because they offer a glimpse into the real life challenges of being a Design Professional. The editors cram months of hard work into a neat little half hour package that I can digest in little bites and feel totally satisfied. I could watch these tiny morsels for hours.
Now the other category is all together different. I call these 'Time's Up' shows. These shows are typically taped over a very short period (usually two or three days) where the entire project from start to finish happens right before your eyes. The crew always has to meet some fictitious self imposed deadline ("the open house is in one day!') and you see people racing to throw together some half baked Willy Wonka color parade. In two days, paint goes a long way. On a show like "Design to Sell" most of the dramatic improvements are made just by taking all of the Homeowner's crap out of the space so that you can see the floor. On other shows, they try to sell you on homemade art pieces and MDF furniture that is both cost effective and attractive. It is these shows that are like Poison to those of us in the Design profession. It is these shows that exemplify the disposable society in which we live. I can assure you that going down to Home Depot and buying a $50 Chandelier is not going to make your dining room more valuable. But if you hot glue some fringe to that fixture, now you've got a custom touch that screams chic. Give me a break.

I want to share with you a quick story that gives you some perspective on my experience with these shows. I had gotten a call from a prospective client who owned a very nice house with alot of potential. The house was in an area where homes commonly sold for over $1M and the buyers had purchased a fixer upper for around $700K. I was referred to them by a previous client and I went to meet with the Homeowners on a Saturday afternoon. During the meeting, they asked me questions like, "How many people do you have in your crew" and "Do you think you could do the work while we are on vacation?". I tried to explain to them that I live in a world with liability insurance and permit drawings, not the TV world of weekend transformations and artwork made on their front lawn. They looked at me as though I did not understand what they wanted and that I must not be very good at my job if it would take months to do what can be done on TV in three days.

And so continues my love/hate relationship with HGTV. When people watch movies, they can pretty much tell what is real and what is movie magic. I await the day when the same is true for Home Improvement Television, but I won't hold my breath.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Will Main Street ever return?

For those of you interested in Architectural History, there was an event in this country in 1893 that influenced the Architecture of America more than any other since. This event, held in Chicago, commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. It was known as the Colombian Exposition, or more simply, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

Before the fair ever happened, it was a big deal to even win the rights to have the fair. Chicago and New York fought for more than a year to see who would host. When Chicago was chosen in 1891, it seemed almost an impossible task to design all of the necessary buildings in so short a time. The effort was lead by Architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root (Root died before the grounds were completed) and they enlisted the best and brightest of their day to participate in the designs of the Buildings and Grounds. Included among them were Louis Sullivan, McKim Meade and White, Frederick Law Olmstead, and George B. Post among others. Now, I won't go into details about the fair itself, but I will say that the aesthetic was decidedly Classical. Columns and pillars as far as the eye could see and all at a scale that was more impressive than Disneyland. In fact, the buildings were so amazing that it brought in over 1 million people a day at its peak. That may not seem like a lot, but this was 1893, in the middle of a severe recession, and the only way to travel cross country with any speed was by train. Considering the circumstances, this was impressive.

A by product of the Fair's success was the creation of a new style of civic architecture. People were so taken with the Neoclassical revival that practically every big city adopted the same Architectural Language for the creation of their public buildings. From state capitals to banks to libraries, many new large projects constructed after the fair bore strikingly similar profiles to those in the Colombian Exposition. Now this is not to say that Classical Architecture was not used before, just not at the same scale as after the 1893 Fair. Even the United States Capitol Building in Washington DC was expanded (in 1904) to reflect a grander scale for a rapidly growing nation. Downtowns in every major city were bustling with new buildings and a cohesive Architecture that gave people Civic Pride and a sense of unity in their towns.

Now I don't have to tell you what happened next. In the middle of the 20th century, downtowns and Main Streets were being abandoned for the suburbs with tract houses and strip malls. People moved out of cities at an alarming rate and many great cities died as a result of this. Beautiful turn of the century buildings were torn down as developers moved in and bought up city blocks to build office buildings. The city became a place of business, not a place to live. McKim Meade and White's Pennsylvania Station was torn down in 1963 to build Madison Square Garden and One Penn Plaza and it's limestone columns were sent to the swamps of New Jersey where they still lay buried in the muck.

Fortunately, time heals all wounds. Main Streets are being re-discovered for their irreplaceable Architecture and the benefits of city living. Where I live, the most expensive towns to live in are the ones with beautiful historic downtowns where new restaurants and boutiques are thriving. This has always been a country where you have choices. It seems we are always at a crossroads waiting to choose. So with the national economy in the toilet, and the McMansion housing bubble burst, the question is this: Can it be possible for future generations to rediscover a smaller, higher quality lifestyle or will Walmart wipe out every store in the country? I think you know which way I'm leaning.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Being an Architect: Myth vs. Reality

If you have ever seen Seinfeld, you know that George Costanza is constantly lying about being an Architect. And why not? It seems to impress the ladies and gives George a sense of reputability and esteem that his normal character lacks. Having spent the last 17 years of my life in either Architecture School or the profession of Architecture, I can say that the public's perception of the profession is fairly consistent with the response George usually gets. Unfortunately, it's also not true. Below are some of the biggest myths about the Architecture (and Design) Industry and note that they are listed in no particular order.

Myth No. 1 - You need to be good at math to be an Architect.

I suppose in the 'old days' Architects had to do all sorts of calculations as it related to simple structures. As buildings got larger and more complicated, Architects handed all liability for computation off to Structural Engineers. If you are a small shop working on small projects, you can likely have the manufacturer's engineers help you with anything more difficult than reading a chart. And although you may get drilled with formulas in a college structures course, the real world value of that experience is zero.

Myth No. 2 - Architects get paid well.

I don't know where this one comes from. On my first day of school our critics told us that if we were going into Architecture to make money, quit now. Of course, there are famous Architects that make alot of money. And there are famous actors that make $20 Million per film. But for every box office breadwinner, there are 10,000 wannabe actors filling in as extras for $100 per day. That's kind of how architecture is too. When you graduate, most people will spend the first 3-5 years doing construction documents until you are deemed knowledgeable enough to talk to a client. Once this happens, you might go from draftsperson to 'job captain' or something like that. In a recent survey, starting salaries for Intern Architects averaged between $35K-$45K per year. It is also worthy to note that a Bachelor of Architecture is usually a 5 year degree. Between the schooling and the Internship, it will take you a minimum of 8 years just to be eligible to start taking your licensing exams. You find me a doctor or lawyer that starts at $35K per year.

Myth No. 3- You have to be able to draw well to be an Architect.

Having worked with many young graduates, I can tell you that this absolutely is not true. With computers taking over as the default production method, I don't know why you would even need to draw by hand. Computers can generate 3D models faster and more accurately than any human. You can also forget about Penmanship. What is often referred to as 'Architectural Lettering' is now found only in your font menu as 'City Blueprint'. Now don't be confused by my tone. I am not happy about it. It's just the reality of the world we live in. I was probably in one of the last graduating classes that had to stay up for weeks on end inking my final drawings on mylar. Those days are gone.

Myth No. 4- It must be great to Design things all day.

Prior to starting my own firm, I had about 10 years of experience working in various Architectural Offices and I had never really designed anything. This happens for a number of reasons, any of which may apply. It could be that the office you work in has a 'Design Director' who spends all day handing off sketches to junior grunts who put it in the computer. It could also be that the project you are working on is all about budget and the client is dictating every decision based on how much things cost. Or it could be that you were only hired to produce a set of filing documents because it is required by the municipality that an Architect be involved and no one really wants your opinion about anything (this is most common in retail work where you are just cranking out a prototype established by the Client by their 'in house design team'). In my experience, one of those three scenarios accounts for over 90% of the work.

Myth No. 5 - You need to be licensed to practice Architecture.

I find this one to be the most false. I have found that there are two types of Architecture firms: Service Providers and Design Firms. Service firms are crank out work. Design firms focus on problem solving using Design as a medium. Most firms in existence focus on providing a service, not providing Architecture. Look around your town at what gets built. In my town, most of what gets built are retails stores and houses. I would not call a Best Buy a work of Architecture, no matter how big the pointy sign is. In 20 years, it will not be there.

Now in contrast, look at Brad Pitt. Not an Architect. However, he has been largely responsible for the construction of more Architecture in New Orleans than most large firms that I know and he didn't even do the Design. Brad Pitt has essentially opened a Design Firm (by way of a not for profit organization) and brought together a staff of talented young Designers to conceive and execute thoughtful new housing. I don't know any big firms that have done that. So if you want to pursue Architecture, pursue Architecture. If you want to sign and seal drawings for demanding clients, pursue a license. Either way, make sure you are doing what you want to do for the right reasons.

Finally, don't mistake my intentions for writing this article. I love the profession. And that's why I started a development company.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Stylish Side of Sears Modern Homes

Lately it seems that every time I pick up a magazine about residential design or construction, someone is talking about 'green' design. Phrases such as 'rapidly renewable', 'eco-friendly' and 'prefab' are quickly becoming a part of the general public's vocabulary. Recently, I started seeing recycled glass tiles and zero VOC paints at the big box stores. And while all of this is definitely good for the planet, I can't help but wonder how it REALLY affects the architecture of our day. Are these new products really changing the general consciousness about Design, or is it just a marketing necessity to offer a sustainable option?

Consider this: In 1913, Sears Roebuck and Company offered 'kit houses' as part of their general catalog. For under $2,000 you could get an entire house in numbered pieces including Millwork, Plumbing Fixtures, Rough Lumber, Roofing, and Finishes. You had the option of putting it together yourself with an enclosed instruction manual, or hiring a local crew to do it. Now the interesting thing about these homes, was not the progressive method of distribution (decades ahead of IKEA), but rather the Design of each residence. With regards to millwork, exteriors, and planning, no detail was overlooked. In order to attract the would be buyers, each model had to be comparable in both price AND aesthetics.

Just for fun, do an image search for 'Sears Modern Home' and you will likely see a collection of modest but very charming homes. If you do a little more digging, you can probably find images of actual homes still in existence from the first part of the twentieth century. Now compare these homes with the current 2009 offerings for affordable 'pre-fab' or 'modular' homes. The results from this search will be dramatically different. Now don't get me wrong, there are plenty of companies that make beautiful modern pre-fab homes. But in my experience, they are not affordable to the average American. Take the Kithaus offered by Design Within Reach. Although visually elegant, it will cost you around $400 per SF for a single 9x13 or 11x17 room. Ouch.

So my challenge to everyone out there is this: If Sears could design and produce elegant and affordable homes made from high quality honest materials in the 1920's, then why can't we do it today? In all this dialogue about Environmental Design and Sustainable Building, perhaps people ought to look at the past before we miss a great opportunity in the future.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Elements of Style

It has been a couple of weeks since my last post as I have been taking it easy. One of those two weeks was spent on a beach with some books that I have been waiting to read for almost a year. I find that vacations are great for that sort of thing as it totally takes your mind off of all of the things that you go on vacation to forget. At any rate, I got through about five books in total and there were winners and losers. The winners were the ones that read very easily with great flow and the losers were the ones where I was wondering why I was still reading it after 300 pages. It occurred to me that anyone can author a book, but the truly successful writers possess something that makes their work more popular. That 'thing' is STYLE.

Now you cannot talk about Style at it relates to writing without of course mentioning 'The Elements of Style' by William Strunck and E.B. White. Although this book is small, it is has had a profound impact on the world of literary education. Having never studied English beyond high school, I first heard about it from Stephen King's autobiographical manual, "On Writing."

It goes without saying that artists and architects have their own style when it comes to developing designs for new projects, but I was wondering if there were any connections between the traditional design process and the construction of great prose. So I picked up Strunck and White and here is what I found. Section V of the book is called "An Approach to Style" (sections I-IV deal mostly with English and Grammar) and offers a look into the enigma of great writing. The author(s) say:

"If you doubt that style is something of a mystery, try rewriting a familiar sentence and see what happens. Any much quoted sentence will do. Suppose we take "These are the times that try men's souls." Here we have eight short words, easy words forming a simple declarative sentence. Yet in that arrangement, they have shown great durability. Now compare a few variations:

-Times like these try men's souls.
-How trying it is to live in these times!
-These are trying times for men's souls.
-Soulwise, these are trying times.

It seems unlikely that Thomas Paine could have made his sentiment stick if he had couched it any of these forms. But why not? No fault of grammar can be detected in them, and in every case the meaning is clear. Each version is correct, and each, for some reason that we can't readily put our finger on, is marked for oblivion."

Reading those words made me realize how universal Style is. Here Strunck and White are talking about words, but you could easily replace the grammar of language with the colors in a fabric or parts of a building. We have all seen structures made of wood, concrete, and brick, but why do some call for attention and others 'marked for oblivion'? Style is something that must be a part of every great designer's toolbox. Projects that are executed with an eye for function only are functional, but boring. Louis Sullivan was function with Style. Frank Lloyd Wright went through multiple styles and the rest of the modernists got together and framed 'the International Style'.

Looking back at previous generations, I wonder if we have given up style as a society. Our cities are populated with the same identical big box stores and landscapes as every other one. I tend to think that this is good for those who want to think differently. So I encourage anyone to start their own company or open up your own shop. I believe you will be rewarded for thinking differently, just make sure you do it with Style.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

To Buy or to Build? The truth about the REAL cost of a home

For years I worked in Architecture firms designing things for other people. Eventually you become numb to the fact that a $1.19 duplex receptacle will cost you about $250 to install in the world of commercial construction. If that same receptacle is installed as the result of a change, then you are probably looking at about $500 instead of $250. It seems pretty crazy, right? Well, that's how business is done in the world of construction and Architecture. Now obviously, you are not paying $500 for an outlet. You are paying about $10 for the outlet and about $490 for Construction Supervisors, Administrators, Insurance, Overhead, and Profit. And the bigger the project, the more Overhead and Expenses get built into the costs.

So if you buy a home, then what are you really paying for? Are you paying for the cumulative cost of goods and services in the house, or are you paying for an arbitrary price based on intangible factors? To put it another way, if you buy a house that was built in 1969 at an original cost of $14,000, then where is the justification for a price tag of $450,000? Some would say that the appreciation is based on the price adjusted for current inflation. Some would say that you are paying for the dirt and the locational factors. I say that if you are buying a house that someone else has built, then you are likely OVERPAYING (obviously this would not apply to Foreclosures). If you don't believe me, take a look at your home owner's insurance policy and look at the listed 'replacement cost' for your house. Chances are that the replacement cost is well below what you would sell your house for. Which brings me to my point. If you pay a premium to buy a house that someone else has built, then why not build your own house?

Let's examine this question a little more closely. When you purchase an existing home, you are not paying for the sum of the parts. You are paying to purchase the completed item which is usually greater than the sum of the parts. This is because there is alot of time and labor that have gone into the construction and maintenance (and maybe even renovation) and the Owner wants to be compensated for that beyond the cost of the materials. You should know that location doesn't factor into this comparison because the dirt is the dirt whether you buy or build. The land costs should be the same regardless.

Now let's talk about building your own home. You find a nice lot in a neighborhood that you like and you find an eager young Architect to help you out. Let's just say for argument's sake that you find an Architect who is keen on designing you a great place for about $20,000. Younger Architects will likely take on challenging commissions like this if the project presents a good design opportunity because they can usually lead to bigger and better commissions if they do their job well. So your Architect works with you on the Design and finds some creative ways to save you some money (Architects are very good at this; trust me) . After a few months, the Architect helps you get some bids from some contractors and you examine the costs.

In this scenario, you are shown the value of each trade line by line, like a menu. You can see where each dollar is going and you can choose how much or how little you want to allocate to each area. For example, if those solid maple kitchen cabinets are too much, then you can go to particle board bases with solid wood fronts. The bottom line is that you have more control over the costs and you are only paying for the actual goods and services required for the construction of your house. Also, if you are obsessed with value, you can also oversee all of the work yourself (get rid of those GC fees) and even perform some of the work if you are handy (things like painting and tiling are always pretty straight forward). At the end of the day, you will end up with a house that is probably more valuable than what you paid and will also have something unique as opposed to a cookie cutter builder's house.

So if you have the time (and the stomach) for a unique experience I suggest building your own place. Not only will you be able to say that you helped in creating your own home, you will have invested your money in something that can only appreciate. And that's just good business.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Even a Garbage Can Wants to Be Something

As you may have suspected, my wife and I are partial to supporting companies that produce well designed items. As my wife has officially entered the 'nesting' phase of her pregnancy, she continues to diligently seek out baby products that are 'green', modern, and functional. This has lead to conversations about Scandinavian baby bouncers, 600 thread count baby sheets and strollers that require the processing of loan applications. But the latest request even has me questioning the value of great design. Yes people, my wife has requested that we purchase a VIPP Stainless Steel Pedal Bin for the containment of diapers.

Now, I had never heard of a VIPP Bin, nor did I know (or want to know) how much this thing costs. She assured me that it would hermetically seal in the diaper odors and unlike a normal plastic diaper genie, it would not absorb any of the smell. This was due to a very high grade stainless steel construction, which has been done by hand since its invention (somewhere in the middle of the 20th century). My wife then went on to very passionately tell me the story of the family that invented this bin and how it was a great icon of modern design that was originally intended to hold hair clippings from a beauty shop. She also threw in that we would have this trash can forever since it can stick around long after the diapers have gone. With all of this information in hand, my wife assured me that this can was a bargain even at double the price (given its pedigree and all).

When I could no longer stand the suspense, she then told me how much this lovely can would cost us. An affordable luxury at $324.

Now, I am a very pragmatic person. I will certainly support design when the design warrants it. But somehow, I could not get my head around a $300 trash bin. So, when my wife and I are at an impasse, we did what we often do. We struck a deal. The deal was (is) that we would get together a pile of items to sell on EBAY and if we could raise the money from the sale of random unwanted items, we would buy it. If not, we would stick with the ever affordable, Diaper Genie. I felt that if the Gods of Design wanted us to have this bin, then they could surely find someone to cough up good money for our old watches, luggage, books, and costume jewelry. I guess we'll see how it ends up, but let this be a lesson to you all. When designed well, even a Garbage Bin can be Something.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A pause for Julius Shulman

If you have never heard of Julius Shulman, you have likely seen at least one of his photographs in your lifetime. His most famous shot features one of the Case Study Houses hanging off the edge of a cliff in Los Angeles. The house is by Pierre Koenig and it is immortalized in Shulman's black and white photograph where a pair of ladies are sitting on the sofa seemingly suspended over the lights of the city below. The amazing thing is that the shot never really happened like that. Shulman made the shot from two different shots: one of the city below and one of the house. In the days before Photoshop, you had to see the shot you wanted in your head and then capture what you needed to make it.

Shulman was famous for the capture. He earned the nickname 'One Shot Shulman', often getting what he needed in only one take. I was reading a short obituary on the LA Times web site and they had about 20 pictures or so spanning Shulman's career. I was taken by one picture in particular of Shulman setting up a shot on the front lawn of a ranch house. He is standing there positioning his camera at the proper angle for his shot and he's got all of these plants set up around his lens. There are at least three potted plants and another huge branch strapped to a wooden bracket. The thing that struck me was that Shulman was creating an artificial view to better frame the building. Having seen literally hundreds of his photographs, it never struck me that what I was looking at was constructed. It always seemed organic. I guess that was what Shulman excelled at. He saw the shot and did what he needed to do to create it.

It is likely that in a few news cycles no one will be talking about Julius Shulman. Fortunately, he has left us with a remarkable portfolio of work to reflect upon for years to come. What will always stay with me is the purity of how he saw the world through Architecture. His photos made every place look special or important. Trust me, it's not easy to do. As we look at our generic landscapes of big box stores and chain restaurants, I wonder whether or not we have lost that lens that makes places special. I certainly hope not.

Thank you Mr. Shulman for memorializing so many great places and memories. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then you are certainly one of the most prolific authors in history.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why Design Matters - Part II

As I write this, I am reminded of something I saw on EBAY this morning. A 1992 Ferrari F40 was selling for $619,000 with many models above $500,000. And these are USED! I thought that was a fitting intro for my thoughts today about the value of Design. In my last post I discussed why a house that is considered is not only worth more, but it also makes you feel better. Today I want to discuss how great Design can be the Blueprint for a successful business transaction. Whether that transaction is selling your house or staring a company, Design Matters.

Let's take a look at the Ferrari once more. Now, I would never buy a Ferrari, because to me, a car is just about getting from A to B. But I can certainly look at a Ferrari and recognize that it has been designed both a vehicle and a work of art. Anytime I have been in my car and pulled up near a car of this magnitude, whoever I am with always says something like "Hey, check that car out!". Now I would suspect that most people couldn't tell a Ferrari from a Lamborghini from a Lotus, but I have never been in the car when someone was excited to see a Toyota Camry or a Chevy Malibu. This is because the Design of those vehicles is driven by cost and ability to be mass produced. My point here is that when producing great Design is the driver, the result is usually something that is elevated beyond function alone. It is this elevation that often justifies the higher price tag than something that just serves the purpose.

Let's switch gears to another company that understands this: Apple. By putting Design first, they have carved out a product line that is more than twice as expensive as their respective competitors. Yet despite the big Recession, consumers are actually buying more Apple products this year than last. Does that make sense? Absolutely. Apple offers each customer the ability to be on the cutting edge of both technology and Design. While other stocks have lost up to 90% of their value, their stock is actually holding its value. I could talk about many other companies that embody these virtues, but I will save that for another day. The only thing I will say is that next time you are waiting in a really long line for a Burrito or a Mini Cooper, ask yourself what it is about the product that makes you want it. You will find that the answer to that question is in the details. All of the details of whatever it is that you want, have been considered and thought about. Do you know who thinks about these details? Designers.

I will end today with some thoughts about your house. If you are one of the people who has been affected by the unprecedented destruction of personal wealth in the last 24 months (i.e. the value of your house has fallen significantly) then I will give you this advice. Consider the details of your house. Does your huge walk in closet have a cheap wire shelf around it's perimeter? Is your study just a room called a study, or does it have well constructed milllwork built in to the space? Does your living space have wall to wall nylon carpeting that not only traps germs and allergens, but also makes you sicker? Ask yourself why your house is better or worse than your neighbors house. Is your house a cookie cutter model or has it been designed to serve the needs of living? I can tell you that the latter types sell MUCH faster. Design Matters.