paper architecture [aka unbuilt]

30 December 2013

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Yes, I believe unbuilt or theoretical design work can be considered architecture. I enjoy working on theoretical design concepts much like some people write poetry, knit or collect stamps. It’s a creative outlet that needs not to be explained. However, I am not satisfied to build a career on paper architecture; I want my work to be built. Some architects may believe unbuilt work is best to avoid liability while still getting paid to do the work. I’m the idealist that births these projects mentally and when it doesn’t become real, well…we’ll just say I don’t like it.

In the past several years since our financial world got lost in the weeds and our money got lost in the WC, there have been many projects fall into this category from architects all over the country. To be honest, the old file 13 has gotten kind of full of unbuilt work.

As I write this, my 200th post, I am thinking about the past year and the projects that did not get built for one reason or another. I know many you share in this dilemma and can commiserate with me on this one. Today I’m going to take a rare moment of sharing my own work as a vehicle for sharing two stories that depict familiar reasons for why some projects don’t make it out of the office. Maybe as an architect or as a client, you can relate to these.

Parkview Boulevard Modern House Addition

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This project is located high on a bluff overlooking the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh. The direct view is not of the river, but it does boast a nice view and as one approaches the house, this new addition to the south would be the welcoming face. The program is quite simple and common—a new master bedroom suite with miscellaneous revisions to the existing house to knit it together. One can see from the exterior images our work is on the far left with modifications to the entrance and the existing siding on the far right to tie it together. I love this client and they had the full intention to build it until the bank wouldn’t loan them the money after doing their assessment voodoo. They made peace with it and they asked me to lunch just to give closure to the project’s end and confirm our positive relationship. I’d work for people like this anytime.

Lake House Addition

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This project is an expansion to a simple 1970′s split entry house built next to a beautiful lake just a bit north of Somerset, PA. The house is nothing to boast of to be frank, but the view and site is one we all long for as architects. This project only made it through schematic design and the graphics are not as sharp as we normally produce. Much time was spent on various physical model studies and quicker, loose sketches to grapple with various design ideas. After we developed our own opinion of probable costs, the owner gave the drawings to several contractors of their choosing for preliminary pricing. They said they’d contact us once they got the prices back. Either six months later they’re still waiting on the prices or they decided to do something else. We were clear about our services and the potential costs all along the way. However, sometimes things simply don’t work out as planned. We still think it had potential even in its current raw state. There were several opportunities for spatial variety and wonderful transition moments. I wish them well.

Besides the myriad of issues, constraints, goals and demands, each project has a story. There is a lot of money at stake and a degree of risk. However, what is really important is there are people and relationships involved. The reasons for unbuilt projects are generally no one’s fault; it still leaves us feeling like we went on an incomplete journey. I feel as much for them as I do myself. It is cliché, but we must move on.

Did 2013 have any similar stories like this for you?

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5 Responses to “paper architecture [aka unbuilt]”


  1. I’m just going to copy your post and revise your clients names to mine ;-). Great post!


  2. Reblogged this on Architect's Trace and commented:
    Another great post from Lee-

  3. Cary Says:

    Lee, once again you’ve written a post that captures my thoughts and feelings exactly. Some of my best work has never been built….in 2013 and in prior years. It’s often heartbreaking, but that’s the profession. To a better 2014! Thanks for your thought provoking and quality blog posts. I read every one.


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