media blues


I’m singing the blues today as the effects of construction costs for custom work has me feeling down.

Recently my friend Mark LePage wrote a post titled “the HGTV effect” about the impact HGTV has had on the perception of design, the architectural profession and the reality of construction. Something that can seemingly have good intentions can sometimes backfire and cause the opposite.

We’ve all seen this at some point. We’re watching a program, most likely about renovation and within a 30 minute or 60 minute show a lot of information is concealed as we see homeowners getting a very handsome project built within an unrealistic budget in a ridiculous amount of time. There are few headaches, no mention of permits, no cost overruns (at least ones that affect the project scope), no anything. It’s just magically getting projects done with elated homeowners neatly tied up in the end much like fictional programs. Shame on us for falling for it.

As architects we wonder where are the design professionals for the documents, details, planning and the thought that goes behind the execution. Cable television design programming has brought an increased awareness and interest in design to the masses yet in turn it has also resulted in a negative effect when the rest of us in the real world find that custom projects can rarely be built within the time or money as shown on television. It drives people to find cheap alternatives.


It needs to be clear, if you are venturing on building a custom design project, let’s say custom residential project, it’s likely that it will cost more than those seen on television, and more than your friend who built a spec home and possibly more than you want it to cost. A singular project that has never been built before cannot compete against mass-produced structures. Additions and renovations generally cost more per unit than new construction in my experience. Money is often the reason projects don’t get built or built as hoped. Read the May issue of Architectural Record.

Who can afford this? Is it an unattainable goal?

If we narrow our focus today on clean, contemporary architecture where architects strive for lack of ornament and trim, large panels of glass and desire to carefully align certain elements precisely, one will simply pay more. The struggle comes when clients (and architects) have immersed themselves in media sources such as architectural journals, design magazines or one of the plethora of social media sites and dream of having what they see, but diluted down to their budget. It’s the curse of Tantalus.

The glossy images (by the talented photographers) tempt us with projects done for people with deep pockets that give endless freedom to architects to design and experiment. I have no problem with this. However, it’s not the norm for most of us.

Nevertheless, if one wishes to create a miniaturized version of some of these amazing houses, the conflict begins. Architecture can be minimized to pedestrian expressions leaving no room or budget for more enduring features. This is not what I wish to do.

Are we trying to be someone we’re not?


Are we trying to look like the glossy magazines without paying the price?

Rich materials, sensitive details and thoughtful spaces can’t be faked. However, I’ve been seeing expressions giving it the old college try. Commercial versions are more visible, but as I drive about, I come across a few residential examples too.

Without naming names, there’s a breed of lesser expensive, contemporary commercial renovations appearing with cheaper materials, less considered details and ‘flatter’ expressions that may have appeared good in a two-dimensional drawing or in a digital model. I’m glad to see improvement in design, but we all need to get comfortable with the limits of the budget. If all we can afford is concrete block, then embrace it and don’t expect it to look like brick (they actually make that now).


Have we lowered our standards to achieve a false look and experience after being lured by the higher priced buildings in the media? I’m afraid architecture can sometimes follow the way of the fashion magazines.

It has been known for years that the fashion magazines have impacted young people into making themselves look like the models in the images, whether it’s healthy or not. To overcompensate for that, now we are seeing people dressing (or lack thereof) like the runway models yet don’t have the same…um…stature. It’s just wrong. Not everyone needs to be skinny, but we can all find a way to find a fashion that is flattering for who we are and where we’re at in life.


The same is true for architecture. If you’re planning on building, it’s important to come to terms with this. It’s also important to come to terms with the cost of basic construction for your region.

Perhaps we need to start celebrating the projects that have found a way to have rich experiences and spaces for under…say $175 or $200 or $250/SF (without lying). Avoid the cheap expressions of those posing as their rich counterparts. There can be beauty just being who you are rather than trying to be something you’re not. Architecture is no different.


photo 1 credit: Vintage TV via photopin (license)

photo 2 credit: London Bridge is falling down via photopin (license)

photo 3 credit: Simple Masks (Fox, Owl & Bear via photopin (license)

photo 4 credit: Trompe l’oeil brick, Kingwood, Texas 0901091547 via photopin (license)

photo 5 credit: “Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.” Margaret Atwood via photopin (license)

photo 6 credit: IMG_3866.JPG via photopin (license)

media blues

13 thoughts on “media blues

  1. dwmarc2014 says:

    Yes, the televised media eats their young with no apology. The falsehoods go beyond the schedule, the price, the staged naïve and fawning clients. Programs like “The Property Brothers” are actually “Father Knows Best” (circa the 50s) all over again.

    But several truths, inconvenient for many of us, lurk behind the BS. For architects, design only services for projects below .5 mil are increasingly lost to integrated DB firms- this has been going on for decades. And because of HGTV, the public, esp women, are increasingly opinionated about interiors, and you must be up to speed on furniture & finishes. If your client hires an interior designer, that person must be instructed to coordinate with the architect- lest your project be hijacked with anarchy as a follow-up. Unless your firm addresses these truths realistically, you are a has been in this arena.

    Every day that goes by makes me happier that I was able to practice in the era of bid work, use of allowances so that work can begin prior to all selections, fairly easy permits, etc. But those days are mostly gone for good. Good luck!

  2. Unfortunately many people do not even know to go to an architect first, rather than a builder. Since the spec building industry is controlled by builders, even for expensive, custom homes, many assume they need to approach a builder first- as if it is some type of established industry protocol. In many cases the builders will work exclusively with “their” client (I have put this in quotes, because in reality there is rarely a signed contact before plans are completed – so in essence it isn’t “their” client) and then meet exclusively with the architect. I know many of you are thinking….just walk way from these projects, yet their are way too many qualified architects needing work to simply turn away every project.

    And what is getting built? Most of it is floor plan generated, non-descript, boxy forms (with hip roofs) with a façade for curb appeal. Then comes the interior. This is where the Houzz effect takes shape as each room is seen as an exclusive stage set. Even though none of it relates to each other or the house as a whole, this is where the bulk of the money is spent. It is common to see the wife having all confidence in the interior designer, and both husband and wife trusting in the builder’s leadership, while the architect acts as drafts-person. There is no integrity; no strong concept driving the design. Just gimmicks and gadgetry.

    Is there a way for people to learn their ” ABC’s” (Architect Before Contractor)? Or at least understand that it is an option. Hopefully the efforts of CRAN and ArCH will enlighten people to the truth that it may be beneficial to hire an architect first. After all, a builder can do very little without a set of plans.

    My pipe dream….

    A comprehensive study of families who have built custom homes using an architect. Better yet would be those who built more than once and tried both methods – architect lead verses builder lead. These are the minorities, yet they’re out there somewhere. If architects are going to lead, we need these consumer case studies to build a case that: a) you can work directly with an architect. b) it can be a better process. c) you will likely get a better design.

    Even in the custom home sector, architects are losing ground to builders. If you share this burden, please consider joining ArCH (Architects Creating Homes) or AIA”s CRAN. This battle can only be won by residential architects uniting together.

    1. Edward, you know all of us architects would tend to agree. After all of these years of history, do you think more people hire architects for houses now than ever before in history? TV is best for showing us lies and tricking us into thinking we need what we don’t have. People like to get intoxicated with the elixir of TV fantasy for at least 30 to 60 minutes a night to relieve them of the truth of their own misery. If they were content with what they had, perhaps the allure of the fake nature of reality TV would have less appeal. The trouble remains that we must pick up the pieces and march forward.

  3. wmello1934 says:

    This shelter,
    This house,
    This home,
    With commodity,
    With firmness,
    With delight,
    Defines the architects plight.

    With the changing cultures,
    This plight ebbs and flows,
    Redefining the architect,
    This priesthood,
    Crumbling about itself,
    Self defined,
    Willing lives on.

  4. wmello1934 says:

    Back in the mid 80’s Tracy Kidder wrote “HOUSE”. It also fell into the same pits as the current media with many fallacies about owner, architects, contractor and tradesmen relationships albeit about a part of Massachusetts where the exceptions were the rules.
    Which is it? The “abysmal apex” or the “Insurmountable nadir”?
    Where are “Architects” now?
    A fun thought.

  5. dwmarc2014 says:

    Since so many potential clients are fee sensitive, go on the offense and point out that Design Build firms simply bury their design costs in the firm’s mark up. So customers are not really getting the deal they think. It is a little more complicated than that….but not by much! The most important thing is figuring out how to get your phone to ring so you can have this conversation.

    1. Actually I don’t have trouble right now getting people to contact me for residential work. Therefore there are people out there who care enough about their own homes. Many, I will say, want a “set of plans” whether innocently asking or not. I vet through the calls and choose ones that have promising relationships and interesting projects. I don’t think I’m losing clients to a D-B firm or another architect as much as I lose people to no architect at all or not doing the project. A few calls I had recently were from people who couldn’t find an architect to take on their project at all. For reasons stated above, it wasn’t me either. I think I happen to be in a location that doesn’t necessarily have a high demand for architects, but with so few around, I also don’t have much competition. Everyday is a different challenge and it seems my job as an educator to the masses will never end.

  6. Lee, this is an excellent post on a topic that has been on my mind for some time as well. Material ‘purity’ is of great concern to me and not much turns my stomach more than a material trying to be something it is not. Just because vinyl can look like wood does not mean it should. Same goes for cmu and brick. And any other number of materials made to represent a different material. Thanks for writing this.

    1. wmello1934 says:

      A closer look into the history of architectural materials thru the centuries would show that materials in appearance were not always the “real” thing. The use of “fake” is an ancient learned cultural activity.
      This I would say falls into “The Emperor’s Suit” category, but often repeated.

      1. Bill, I love your comments. Yes, the Greeks were some of the earliest fakes with doing wood construction techniques in stone. We seem to have switched that around. However, our nostalgic minds tend to focus on the simple materials of the recent past – wood clapboard siding, solid brick walls and real stone foundations. Perhaps our ancestors would have adopted our mentality in the past had them had the disposable income we have and the choice. Most, I would assume, were happy to have a roof over them and with no Lowes or Home Depot available, they had to use what was available. I think our world is skewed and I don’t know how it can be straightened. Thanks as always for your musings and wit.

    2. I don’t know how to fight this. Most of the construction out there has a cladding that is intended to mimic something else. Some even challenge brick veneer as being a thin (albeit 4″) fake method of brick construction of the past. Like you, I dislike vinyl. In the past I described it as a healthy loathing. I have an affordable housing apartment building near completion now that is clad in it. I don’t like it. Fortunately, we were able to do the corners in Azek to take away the cheap look a bit. What we all hate to accept is how money plays the biggest part in this game and how the construction industry has altered the thinking for people to have a fake look and convince them that it’s enough. People are content to have the “look” from 20 yards away even though up close it looks terrible. I don’t know what to do about it anymore but pray for rich clients. That too seems a bit shallow.

  7. dwmarc2014 says:

    Without naming names, one of the genders can be utterly clueless about material integrity. In my most costly and extensive whole house renovation, the decorator had the GC install faux wood-grain plastic beams at intervals across a vaulted ceiling in the family room. So long that you can see them sag. This in a historic building with exterior walls of granite stone and masonry 16″ thick- a veritable fortress, with brick additions & lots of good materials. Fortunately this was the only lapse in an overall fine outcome. I wasn’t asked if there were other ways to break down the scale of this rather large living space. So if you take your eye off the ball, this can happen any time!

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