Building With the Crowd

TEXT Brendan Cormier

Last year in Rotterdam, amidst the fanfare of live music, balloons and an animated crowd, designers Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman of design collective Zones Urbaines Sensibles (ZUS) proudly inaugurated a pedestrian bridge called the Luchtsingel. The bridge spans a six-lane road and, when completed, will connect an up-and-coming area by the train station to a new elevated park. However, it wasn’t the design of the bridge turning heads–a fine but unremarkable span in wood–nor the vital connection it would soon make. It was the way the bridge was funded. ZUS sold the bridge piece by piece via a crowdfunding website. For 25 Euros, anyone could purchase one of the bridge’s wooden planks and have their name emblazoned on it with laser-cut letters. The people that assembled it on opening night weren’t just eager onlookers–they were owners.

Anyone following the development of crowdfunding over the last few years is familiar with its meteoric rise. The pre-eminent website, Kickstarter, began in 2009 with the simple ambition of providing an online platform to raise funds for creative projects. People could pitch their ideas in the form of a short video and reward donations with gifts–postcards, T-shirts, and so on. What distinguishes crowdfunding from traditional fundraising is the broad reach and relative anonymity of the process. Donors are free to choose at their leisure the projects they want to back, without the direct and personal solicitation of a fundraiser. As with many things on the Internet, successful projects can go viral, far exceeding their original fundraising goals. This deceptively simple rejigging of the fundraising model has created nothing less than a revolution in the way products are financed. Kickstarter has grown accordingly. Every year it has roughly tripled its number of pledges, and is projected to bring in $1 billion this year alone.

Although crowdfunding sites have thrived on products that can be privately owned and consumed–films and music albums are the most commonly funded projects–there is a small contingent of architectural projects vying for donations. A quick keyword search of “architecture” on Kickstarter reveals a handful of such pitches: Architecture for Humanity Denver wants to repurpose a parking lot into a classroom ($20,000), a young architect in Austin proposes building a new porch for a bakery ($1,450), and students from the California College of Art hope to prototype a prefabricated classroom for developing nations ($2,800). 

The allure of crowdfunding for many architects is obvious. Architecture today is often a market-driven service for the wealthy; many architects hoping to address social concerns through building seldom have the opportunity. Also attractive is the idea of the self-initiated unsolicited project. Instead of waiting for a dream client to call, or slugging away at another competition, the architect is empowered to identify a worthy project and pitch it to the people. 

Alas, it’s easier said than done. Built projects remain marginal on crowdfunding websites for a slew of reasons. For starters, they are location-specific. While a watch can be shipped anywhere, a built project can only exist in one place and be enjoyed by the people living around it. Then there is the cost factor: built projects are expensive. While recent movie projects have broken crowdfunding records–a proposed Veronica Mars movie pulled in over $5 million–built projects are unlikely to reach such heights. Add to this the inherent complexity of building. Recording an album or prototyping a new lightshade is a relatively contained affair, involving a handful of stakeholders and a short timeline. Built projects, especially ones in the public domain, involve politics, multiple stakeholders, unforeseen liabilities, drawn-out timelines, and questions of ownership and maintenance.

Enter Brickstarter, a research project developed by the Helsinki Design Lab that explores the complex ecosystem of crowdfunding and attempts to clarify its pros and cons. Dan Hill, a former Helsinki Design Lab researcher and current CEO at Italian communication research centre Fabrica, is particularly interested in what he calls “dark matter”–the messy politics and institutional dynamics that usually take place above a designer’s head. For the researchers at Brickstarter, the trickiest part of crowdfunding a built project is not raking in the donations, but translating that momentum into successful negotiations with City Hall, developers and lawyers. 

Brickstarter points to some successes that provide valuable lessons. The New York designers of +Pool, for instance, broke a large crowdsourced project down into several stages with manageable outcomes. To garner interest, they first published their concept online for a floating swimming pool that could filter polluted water. Engineering firm Arup offered to help with a feasibility study. Once it was confirmed that it could be done, the designers launched a Kickstarter campaign to build a prototype filtration device. The campaign exceeded its $25,000 goal to bring in $41,647. With this success, the buzz grew and politicians and City staff got on board. Now, they’ve embarked on a more traditional fundraising campaign to find sponsors for the multimillion-dollar built project.

Indeed, crowdfunding may be most viable as a stepping stone to funding architecture, rather than a singular means. It has the power to generate interest and to fund initial prototypes, which can all be leveraged into broader popular and political support. The Luchtsingel follows a similar scenario. After ZUS successfully fundraised for the bridge’s first leg by selling wooden planks, they entered the project into a competition sponsored by the local government, which allowed groups to submit civic projects to a citizen’s vote. The Luchtsingel had already mobilized media and popular support through crowdfunding and thus easily won the competition, landing ZUS $4 million to complete the next span to the new park. 

On the home front, the number of architects in Canada venturing into crowdfunding is comparatively sparse. Last summer, Toronto-raised architect Jimenez Lai used Kickstarter to fund a live-in installation at the Architecture Foundation in London, UK. The Everything Roof, initiated without an architect at the helm, will convert the roof of Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation Annex into an urban farm, community hub and educational space. It garnered $10,000 on Indiegogo. In fact, Canadian communities have proven quite adept at self-initiating improvements to their civic spaces. Over the past decade, Friends of Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto raised funds to construct an outdoor brick oven, improve the Zamboni shed adjacent to their skating rink, build a new playground, and bring a farmers’ market and other regular events to the park. 

While a serious discussion is needed about the financing of improvements to our public realm, crowdfunding undoubtedly opens up opportunities, presenting an option to be considered by both designers and communities alike. Architects seeking to work more proactively on local civic improvements might be wise to seek out local organizations, find projects worthy of crowdfunding, and start a campaign. You have my pledge. CA

Brendan Cormier is an urban designer, writer and currently the managing editor for Volume magazine.