Canadian Architect

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The Architect and the Single Family House

A North American case study in interdisciplinary intervention addresses the role of architects in the mass housing market.

October 1, 2002
by John Brown

The single-family residential construction industry is a major force in the North American economy, but architects have historically played only a very small role in this very significant sector of the built environment. The architectural profession will only become an important player in the single-family housing industry when it is prepared to re-examine its traditional role and methods of practice and develop innovative strategies for working within the overpowering normative conditions of production within the industry.

In an article entitled “Who Needs Architecture?” published in the February 2001 issue of World Architecture, Colin Davies observes that one of the reasons for architecture’s declining influence lies in its estrangement from the construction of the everyday world. “Architecture’s alliance with art, or what is usually these days called ‘art practice,’ has become so inflated that it has eclipsed the much more essential alliance with construction… the political reality is that architecture cannot survive without construction, whereas construction (particularly low scale residential building), of course, can manage perfectly well without architecture.”

In North America we see this with appalling immediacy in the low quality of our residential environment and in the construction industry that creates it. According to the Statistics Canada report Capital Expenditures on Construction, residential construction accounts for 67% of the annual capital expenditure on building construction, with new single family home construction making up over 32% of that amount. One of every three North Americans currently lives in a single family home and for most people, owning a free-standing house on a little plot of land is not only part of the American Dream, it is the single largest and most important purchase they will ever make. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Consumer Intentions to Buy or Renovate a Home notes that with 29% of the population moving annually, the average North American will live in at least six different homes in his or her lifetime. And yet, less than 7% of all single-family home construction–almost all at the very top end of the market–involves the services of an architect.

Lamenting the architectural profession’s abdication of responsibility for this very significant segment of the built environment is nothing new. In his book The Details of Modern Architecture, Edward Ford suggests that in the early 20th century the profession largely abandoned the single family housing industry and abdicated its responsibility to planners, builders, and developers. Ford argues that the many attempts to reverse this trend did not succeed because they focused too narrowly on issues primarily of interest to architects, such as new materials and technological innovations, without accounting for the entrenched production processes that actually define the industry.

Despite the validity of their intentions, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house and the Case Study houses of California were not widely adopted into the mainstream and remain idiosyncratic prototypes because they ignored the vernacular processes that build the everyday world. Although some of these problems can be attributed to differences in stylistic preferences, the issue is much more complex and extends to a basic disjunction between the structure of the normative residential construction industry and the traditional services provided by the architectural profession.

The time is ripe for a major structural change in architectural practice. As Thomas Fisher wrote in The Redesign of Architectural Practice in the RAIC’s Innovative Practice series: “Traditional methods and patterns of practice and construction are not working as well as they once did… what lies before us is not just the redesign of traditional practice, but the design of new practices which go beyond our role as building designers to take advantage of our potential role as activists, visionaries, enablers, and coordinators. In other words, once we see our role as not just that of building form-givers, but as architects in the broadest sense of the word, we will find our rightful place in the world.”

Context

The single family construction industry is highly fragmented and anachronistic. It relies on a series of established players, vernacular practices, and typical detailing to render the high volume of construction that is produced annually. It is also typically comprised of two sectors: small contractors redeveloping properties in existing communities, and large well-organized tract builders working in new suburbs. In each case the normative construction industry is more concerned with, and organized around, the execution of a process rather than a final product. That this runs counter to the way in which architects are trained to think underscores the need to investigate and understand the players and processes involved in this industry. The single family residential market is comprised of four major groups: realtors, builders, retailers and developers.

Realtors are the undisputed first point of contact for people looking for a new house. Their exclusive access to the Multiple Listing Service database gives them the ability to not only quickly identify properties for sale but to appraise their value in terms of neighboring properties. Realtor commissions are paid, through a prior agreement with the seller, from the proceeds of a sale. With these costs incorporated into the sale price of all listed properties, using the services of a realtor involves no initial cash outlay by the client and the commission on a selected property is incorporated into the mortgage.

Residential builders, like their commercial counterparts, are primarily managers and almost all general contractors, regardless of their size, draw from the same limited pool of sub-contractors. Unlike commercial work, however, the historical absence of detailed contract documents and the very tight margins in residential construction have resulted in a heavy reliance on the repetitive use of typical details and procedures by sub-trades. Architectural drawings are typically understood to be general descriptions rather than precise instructions and the builder, balancing cost and time with client preferences, makes the majority of decisions immediately on site in consultation with the sub-trades. It is this working relationship with sub-trades that most conflicts with the traditional role of architects and their typical instruments of service.

Retailers play a significant role in the residential building industry that is not typically understood by either architects or the general public. In the absence of detailed contract documents and in an attempt by builders to market their product at the lowest price point, dollar allowances are provided for a variety of items including floor coverings, cabinets and counters, appliances, and plumbing and electrical fixtures. During construction, clients are directed to a series of retail outlets that offer the basic allowance package and attempt to up-sell a variety of more expensive options. This creates an almost institutionalized process of cost over-runs, with money often being spent in inappropriate ways and resulting in an unevenly finished end product.

The developer is responsible for assembling the financial package that enables a client with very little free capital to undertake a construction project. The developer is an established player in large projects and in speculative situations involving a great deal of risk and high potential returns. Within single-family residential construction, however, it is usually not a specific and separate entity but a role that one member of the process assumes. Although builders predominantly act as developers it is not uncommon for realtors and, in certain renovation projects, even retailers, to take on this responsibility. The developer has established financial relationships and sufficient capital to provide bridge financing until the client can take out a m
ortgage upon completion of the project.

Suburban development is a sophisticated and highly refined integration of these four constituent industry groups. Large and well-financed home building companies combine real estate, design, construction, retail sales and development services into one vertically oriented organization. Essential to the success of the suburban model is a ready supply of lots, usually supplied by a land developer that may or may not be involved in the construction of the houses. In either case, most land developers select a limited group of new home construction companies to work in a particular location. This creates a guaranteed market for the land developer in return for restricted competition for the builders.

Barriers to Traditional Practice

There are four major structural barriers that have historically deterred the traditional architectural practice model from playing a larger role in the single-family market.

Unlike all other residential products and services, architectural fees are typically an up-front cost to the client. The industry and the general public are largely unfamiliar with the role of the architect and see the professional fee as an optional luxury that is usually traded off in favor of more tangible construction costs in the project. On the other side, the scale of most residential work is typically too small to generate a fee large enough to make the project viable for a traditional office.

The traditional instruments of service such as extensive working drawings and specifications, change orders, punch lists and payment authorizations do not easily fit into the normative procedures of the industry, often resulting in increased cost and frustration.

Residential contractors typically provide comprehensive builder services. The client is usually very involved in the construction process and consistently visits the site. As a result, the builder and sub-trades usually resolve issues directly with the client on a regular basis. The introduction of the architect as the client’s representative is an unfamiliar and often unwelcome intrusion in this process.

The role of builders and realtors are well understood in the housing market, but the role of architects remains shrouded in unfamiliarity. Builders and realtors offer potential clients clearly accepted services with predictable outcomes. The general lack of familiarity with architects combined with the popular perception of architectural design as a luxury reserved for the very wealthy leads to a reluctance to even inquire into the potential of architectural services.

Case Study

In response to this context a new form of architectural practice has been developed over the past few years. Residential construction is based almost entirely on process rather than product, and this new form of practice is an attempt to infiltrate this process. It seamlessly inserts a transparent yet powerful architectural presence into the core structure of the existing residential construction industry. Its operational strategy emerges from a design-build framework adapted to the specific constraints and opportunities of the residential industry. The result is a vertically integrated interdisciplinary company that offers a complete range of design, construction, and real estate services in one of Canada’s largest inner city residential marketplaces.

Its innovation is neither technological nor aesthetic but lies in the conceptual design of a process. Its goal is to create an architectural presence within the everyday, subversively manipulating the status quo to offer a critical alternative within the normative residential industry.

From a client’s perspective the firm offers a one stop, simple and cost effective process for building (as new construction or renovation) in an established community. It combines a strong architectural philosophy with an integrated model of production to make the option of an architecturally designed residence as readily available as the status quo alternatives. From the industry perspective, the firm assumes, as required, the normative roles within the process (realtor, builder, retailer, and developer). It translates its architectural agenda into the language of the everyday industry to minimize friction and maximize the opportunity for the client. This new entity, named House Brand, has a strong, clear, and broad-based marketing image that focuses on the quality of the product being offered and the ease with which good design can be obtained by redeveloping in established communities.

Operations

House Brand is a partnership of three individuals who each bring a particular expertise to the process. John Brown is a registered architect with over 10 years experience in conventional practice. He is a licensed realtor and responsible for client development, site acquisitions and schematic design. Matthew North is a graduate architect and is responsible for detailed design and project management. Carina van Olm has a background in retail, small business and interior design, and is responsible for the final finishing stage of the projects as well as retail operations and office management.

In addition to providing general contracting services, House Brand also imports a select set of wholesale building products and manufactures a small collection of furniture. Where appropriate, these products are offered to its clients as options. Finally, House Brand facilitates its projects through bridge financing. The company offers its clients a complete range of financing options that can be tailored to the individual requirements of the project.

To compete with well-established suburban development companies, House Brand maintains a strongly branded marketing presence. The centrepiece of its marketing strategy is a demonstration house constructed in one of Calgary’s established communities. This house is widely advertised and is available for public viewing on Saturday and Sunday afternoons or by appointment. House Brand architectural staff is on site at these times for free consultation. The demonstration house acts as a showroom for House Brand design services and products. A series of information brochures and a promotional compact disc describing the possibilities of inner city redevelopment, the process one undertakes, and the philosophy of the firm are distributed free of charge at the demonstration house or by request.

Analysis

This new form of practice incorporates the duties of realtor, builder, and developer into an expanded new role for the architect. It integrates core architectural values into the normative residential process and creates an architecturally designed alternative for the marketplace.

House Brand has been in operation for five years. During that time the company has experienced a 35% annual rate of growth and a 48% increase in profitability/job as compared to traditional practice. More important, however, is the observation of emerging trends and their potential impact on the role of architectural practice.

A clearly defined and comprehensive role in the construction industry strengthens the relationship with the client. As the one professional leading a process from the very beginning to the very end, the architect is put in a strong leadership position. This is reinforced by the fact that the “hard” quantitative assistance in the real estate transaction and with construction pricing increases the architect’s rapport and builds credibility with the client when dealing with “soft,” more qualitative design recommendations.

The focused marketing campaign and expanded set of services increases the visibility of the firm to a broader spectrum of the general public. Through its role as real estate agent, House Brand can present its redevelopment option directly to people who are looking for a new place to live. Advertising the demonstration house and its regular weekend hours attracts individuals who are looking for a new place to live and may not have considered inner city redevelopment. Finally, the comprehensive services offered by House Brand make the firm a viable alternative for people w
ho would not otherwise have considered using an architect.

The combination of design and construction transforms the design process and the instruments of service. Integrating reliable, hard costing into the initial stages of the design process results in less redesign and fewer client disappointments from budget over-runs. Establishing long term working relationships with selected sub-trades increases the quality of the product. The direct ongoing involvement with the sub-trades improves the quality of construction detailing and promotes technical innovation within the context of everyday construction practices. Controlling construction facilitates the sequential creation and release of drawing packages (framing, mechanical/electrical, millwork) during construction. The format and role of specifications is transformed to accommodate and control the importance of retail shopping in the design process.

A substantial increase in the quality of the final residential product has been noted. Consistent on-site architectural involvement increases the ability to catch mistakes before they happen and to adjust to contingencies in a manner commensurate with the architectural intent. The increased control of the process, from site selection to furniture design, results in a more fully realized project. Eliminating the middleman between architect and sub-trade reduces the opportunity for miscommunication. The integration of design and construction results in fewer cost over-runs and better management of those that do occur.

Providing each client with an expanded set of services increases the revenue generated per client. The process is profitable for a wide range of projects, including small renovations, thereby significantly increasing the pool of potential clients. Distributed profit centers increase flexibility and the ability of the firm to weather changes in the market. Post-occupancy contact and follow-up services maintain client awareness of House Brand and increases the possibility of follow-up work.

The everyday world of residential construction is based almost entirely on process rather than product. By focusing too narrowly on the constructed object, traditional architectural practice has missed this essential part of the industry’s nature.

The interdisciplinary method of integrated project delivery being pursued by House Brand offers a potential mechanism for the architectural profession to overcome these barriers. The existing residential construction industry is already organized around a design/build production model, albeit with little emphasis on design. By adopting a method of practice that is sympathetic with entrenched industry processes the profession can develop strategies for playing a renewed and more significant role in the housing market.

This case study demonstrates the potential of an economically viable method for the profession to reach beyond its traditional clientele while pursuing the high quality design of small-scale projects. It demonstrates the capacity of the profession to expand the definition of the architect and architectural practice and to discover new ways to be relevant and successful within our rapidly changing society.

It is an opportunity for the profession to have a legitimate voice within the problematic world of the single family housing industry by providing a mechanism to bring architecturally-based alternatives directly into the marketplace. Finally, by participating in the broader spectrum of the residential industry, the architectural profession is brought to the attention of a much larger cross-section of society. This demonstration of relevance is much more effective than any marketing campaign aimed at educating people about the abstract importance of the profession.

The realization of these benefits, however, requires a substantial change in attitude as well as practice.

In his article “We Dream of Prefabs…” published in the April 2001 issue of Dwell magazine, architecture critic Jay Baldwin observes that “small-building construction is the only major human endeavor that has not yet entered the industrial, much less the information, age… (and) the first corporation to market a high quality, high-tech housing unit as part of a whole system shelter service will make (the current industry) irrelevant, in the same way that laptop computers vanquished typewriters.”

Given the extraordinary significance of the house in the lives of people and its impact on the quality of the broader built and natural environment, it is not only appropriate but essential that architects stand at the forefront of this revolution.

John Brown is a registered architect in Alberta and an Associate Professor in the Architecture Program of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design, where his research is focused on innovative forms of architectural practice. He is author of a chapter on Residential Design/Build in the AIA Architects Guide to Design/Build Services to be published by Wiley & Sons next spring. All photos are by Robert Lemermeyer except as noted. The author can be reached at [email protected]




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