cake, icing, and architectural fluff

gigis cupcake.jpg

One of the most difficult things to predict in terms of cost is building construction. Most possessions that we need (or want) in our lifetime can be evaluated in terms of price and features before making a commitment to purchase, and in some cases those items can also be returned, and refunds granted if we find ourselves dissatisfied. This is not so with buildings.

Buy a car or a watch, a TV or anything else that is manufactured, and the cost is listed somewhere; it might appear on a menu so the choosing process has cost in mind from the very beginning. Before we choose between the spaghetti or the veal Parmesan, we will know the relative cost difference, which might lead to a selection from the sandwich or salad menu if the entrees are more than we are willing to spend based on our personal value judgments. To be honest, I don’t understand why people pay ten or fifteen dollars for spaghetti at a restaurant anyway.

this is actually eggplant Parmesan and it was fabulous

There is truly an art (more than a science) to estimating construction costs as so many variables are in place. An ongoing conversation on a private architect Facebook group has a myriad of architects sharing struggles of foreseeing costs and searching for ways to communicate that to clients, knowing that the elusive prediction of prices critically directs design decisions. Those decisions go back to our value judgments.

A current scenario I am working through has me thinking of a mindless illustration that begins to express my frustration yet gets at the heart at how inexact this science really is – and being able to communicate that to my client. Every illustration breaks down quickly and I am admitting up front that this is intentionally silly with obvious hyperbole to state a crucial point in a lighthearted fashion.

Just think with me.

Regardless how much experience the architect has and regardless of how much the client demands an accurate cost estimate, there are too many moving parts to a building project of any size to predict with great precision and sending the project out to bid can be risky. Renovation work adds more layers of complexity to this sandwich. Since we’re talking food, I’m going to walk you through one that elucidates my frustration as it gets at the heart of the weakness in the process.

lolas smore cupcake.JPG
one of the best cupcakes ever – S’mores cupcake, Lolas Leesburg, VA

There seems to be an incorrect, but preconceived idea that architecture is analogous to a cake with icing – the cake is essential, the icing is the decoration to make it pretty if you can afford it (ignore my post from 2012 where I did relate cupcakes and architecture). Although this concept is terribly fallacious, we’ll run with it to prove its absurdity. Let’s take a plain chocolate cupcake from a bakery and say that it is being sold for four dollars (but we don’t know that yet), yet we overlook it because we find it a bit underwhelming. It might relieve our hunger but does little to uplift us or give us reason to share the experience later. Now we see one embellished with frosting, sprinkles, and perhaps a filling and arrive at a special cupcake that is offered for seven dollars. At any point along the way one can decide whether this cupcake is worth the money; everyone will have their own price point where they’ll say yes or no. I’m likely to say yes, but it’s about this time one of us admits the seven-dollar cupcake may be a bit too pricey – so the clerk proceeds to wipe off all the icing and sprinkles in front of us. I kid you not. We essentially returned to the plain chocolate cupcake; but, this is where we leave the clear path because the clerk tells us the cupcake is five dollars and fifty cents! Once we discover the price of a plain one we shout out ‘what type of math is that’? I think the plain chocolate cake was overpriced to begin with by the way. Nevertheless, depending on one’s affection for frosting and sprinkles, that might be deemed superfluous and the baker argues the plain cake is sufficient, yet when working backwards, removing the icing doesn’t lead to a fair or reasonable price.

Is the plain cupcake and “altered” cupcake really the same? That’s a fair question.

maple bacon.jpg
go ahead, take away the maple and bacon…what’s left?

In other words, the fancy cupcake is (unjustly) criticized as being extravagant, but when the icing is removed, the cost doesn’t come down significantly, but there is a SIGNIFICANT difference in the cupcake. So where is the extra cost and why can we not address the cost of the cake? How can plain cupcakes cost four dollars? Who determines the frosting to be unessential? Should we do without instead? Perhaps we consider going elsewhere for mass produced cupcakes that run fifty cents each. After all, those have become the baseline that lead the mentality that determines what is expensive.

chicago donut.jpg
donuts can be a substitute analogy to cupcakes

Now my construction friends can begin to chime in with a series of endless lists attempting to explain such a scenario or the faults in my logic, but I’m still bewildered at this mysterious, enigmatic process of adding and removing features while reconciling costs fairly.

In my practice I would argue that every part of our designs is essential, integrated and everything performs some type of duty for the building owner and/or the occupants despite how unusual or ‘special’ they appear at first glance. Therefore, removing an element instantly affects how the remaining building works. The cold, hard truth is how we judge the value of a feature becomes evident when costs must be reduced – thus the customary practice of criticizing the frosting.

If that isn’t silly enough, the better analogy to use to describe what happens when one needs to reduce cost of something is a cookie. There’s no uncomplicated way to remove any single ingredient, as all the elements are integrated, other than to reduce the size of the cookie, get a different type of cookie or start over as that acknowledges each component as essential and contributing to the greater whole. We need to start looking at design in this manner. Only removing “icing” targets the ‘low hanging fruit,’ takes away immense value, yet generally nets insufficient cost reduction resulting in clients overpaying for something of far less value. I conclude this to be a flaw in our cultural mindset that is a casualty of technology. We make things faster, we get things instantly, thus we only build for now. Tomorrow is someone else’s problem.

pizza cookie.jpg

Do you see the trouble of thinking about architecture primarily in terms of a style that is spread over a plain box? Do you see how this faulty thinking causes endless insertions of mediocre architecture? The media’s fascination for the bold, weird and rare as being innovative, progressive and important further separates the chasm between people and architecture. If we as architects race ourselves to the bottom by designing extruded boxes of function with a bit of make-up, we will perpetuate the myth of architects as naive to the realities of construction or worse ignorant of the needs of our clients because our contributions will be seen as superficial. If developers, contractors and real estate professionals down play beauty as essential to occupancy, branding, identity and community building by overcharging for the things that are unfamiliar, or appear complex, then we should return to merely building shelter out of the easiest and cheapest means possible. Perhaps we already have.

Regardless, I’m redesigning.

gingerbread houses.jpg
real gingerbread houses

cake, icing, and architectural fluff

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