Monday, January 10, 2011


“We had an architect draw an addition for us, and the bids came in at twice the budget!”  

That’s a complaint I hear all the time.  When you look at how architects are trained, and how they go about seeking a reputation, it’s no surprise that we’re so lousy at pinching pennies.  The truth is that the very meaning of life for most architects is rooted in self-expression:  we want our work to stand out from everyone else’s.  Alas, since a unique design costs more than a generic one, that self-expression comes at the client’s expense. 

Why are architects so motivated to be different? One reason is intrinsic to humankind, not just to architects.  For many of us, shaping a building in the intellect and then placing it in the physical world is our way of saying, “I was here.  This building is part of my legacy.  It’s one reason my life mattered.”  And obviously, we’d like our legacies to be memorable, not mundane.

But there are some less spiritual reasons that architects feel compelled to be different.  One of them has to do with the way we’re educated.  Many architecture schools simply amplify the student’s egocentric motivations, rather than balancing them with an equal sense of responsibility to the client.  

From their first day in school, students are praised for coming up with the unique, the extraordinary, even the bizarre.  Minimal emphasis is placed on budgets and other real-life encumbrances, on the theory that they might impinge on the student’s budding creativity.

“You’ll have enough worries about budget when you get into practice,” one professor told me.  “This is the time to let go of all that.”  Imagine a medical school operating on the same principle:  “Never mind the diagnosis—this is college.  Go in there and have some fun with that scalpel!”  

In the face of this relentless urging to be creative, most architecture students naturally come away with a sneaking guilt that any design that’s less than stunningly original isn’t worthy of the name architecture.  The result is that, for the rest of their careers, many architects aren’t satisfied with a simple solution when a complex one will do.  In other words, schooling teaches architects how to make buildings expensive, not how to make them affordable.    

Architectural education isn’t the only culprit, however.   We architects are also dupes to popular and trade publications that award extravagant architecture with the holy grail of publication, while work that’s more responsible to budget and function frequently goes unnoticed.  Since few architects are anxious to labor in obscurity, extravagant design becomes the norm even when it’s uncalled for.  

Hence, a simple addition or even a garage is trumped up into the architect’s personal manifesto, driving up the client’s cost to no practical gain. 

It’s not hard to understand why architects overbuild, when publication provides the only real way to achieve a measure of notoriety.  After all, it’s a rare architect who gets acclaim for designing something simple and inexpensive.

Picture the screaming headline:  “Nice Little House Comes In On Budget.”

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