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.