Viewpoint (October 01, 2002)

In his 1927 book, The Public and its Problems, American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey remarked that “a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all.” As a profession, architecture has certainly enjoyed its share of cachet, rarification and hero worship. It carries a mystique that, in addition to the very real specialized training and knowledge architects must acquire, fosters a culture of expertise that is at times removed from the quotidian bulk of our building projects. In John Brown’s provocative piece in this issue, he encourages architects to change the nature of their practices in order to foster a broader vision for their social role (see page 24).

Possibly, the best laboratory for such a comprehensive task is the single-family home construction industry. Traditionally, fewer than 7% of all single-family homes built in North America make use of the services of an architect, and so architectural knowledge and practice have often been regarded in this context as experimental or idiosyncratic, relevant only to the esoteric interests of an architect or her wealthy, eccentric client. Brown reminds us that the terms of residential construction today are largely dictated by contractors, whose comprehensive builder services obviate the role an architect could play, because the client can communicate, directly and frequently, with the builder and the sub-trades regarding changes to specifications and details which occur during construction. The typical components of architectural service, such as the preparation of extensive working drawings and specifications, would just confound these normative procedures. With his company House Brand, Brown proposes a new kind of architectural practice–one that moves away from product and gravitates to the intervention, into the industry’s current process, of an architectural presence. This is achieved with the development of a comprehensive practice that offers design, construction and real estate services that can change the current market and service practices of the residential industry for the better.

Indeed, it sounds too good to be true when we take a look at House Brand’s 35% annual rate of growth over its five-year life and its phenomenal 48% increase in profitability/job in comparison to traditional practice. In addition, a furthering of architectural culture through its increased accessibility to a larger cross-section of the populace means that we all make gains–through the broadening of services offered by architectural practices, our small-scale built environment is improved with attention to the gamut of detail running from site selection to furniture design. Follow-up work also constitutes a portion of House Brand’s success, because it offers post-occupancy contact with clients.

In related long-term and more socially encompassing ways, a relational/communicative model of the services offered to the consumer by the supplier is certainly commensurate with community-building. The comprehensive efforts that architects have successfully deployed in more exclusive or even aesthetic contexts can be channelled into thoughtful place-making with opportunities for increased input by those who live in those places. The arrival of a kind of functional architectural practice offering a broader base of services may give the profession an opportunity to counterclaim, with force and proven success, George Bernard Shaw’s dire assertion that “every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.” Nyla Matuk