On March 17, The Architect’s Newspaper hosted a panel discussion in Culver City called BetterHomeBuilding on improving large-scale residential development in Southern California and getting architects more involved with the process. The exchange was one of the liveliest I’ve been part of in a long time. Clearly, there is much to say and learn about this topic.
All it takes is a visit to the Inland Empire, Orange County, the outskirts of Sacramento or many parts of Silicon Valley to understand that the mass produced housing stock in our country has become, with a few welcome exceptions, architecturally, urbanistically, and morally bankrupt.
Homeowner interests—and to some extent even their tastes—are dictated by a group of well-heeled homebuilding companies, and the banks agreeing to fund them selectively, that often have little stake in architectural quality. Their “designs” are vastly unoriginal, have little to do with respecting or taking advantage of context, and are particularly obsessed with a drippy nostalgia. They rarely connect to any sort of human-scaled or mixed-use neighborhoods, and contribute little to the overall urban fabric. Design is one of the smallest factors considered. Much more important are economies of scale, cookie-cutter replication, a sense of “prestige” or perceived luxury—and, of course, profit whether for the developer/banker in the moment or for the homeowner at resale time.
Architects are not a vital part of this process. As architect William Krisel, who has a long track record of being involved in these kinds of projects, said on the panel, architects have in large part “abdicated their role” of building across America.
To get back in the game, architects need to take several steps. For one they can team with developers or develop their own solutions for affordable homebuilding. Fledgling examples include developer/architect teams like Proto Homes, Piece Homes, and even the low cost work by Marmol Radziner at Mountainview mobile-home park. These schemes take advantage of mass production technologies but still respect design as a way to solve problems. Architects—who have a reputation for catering only to the rich in the realm of housing (including high cost prefab schemes)—are not entirely innocent. It starts at school, where they need to teach budget and business and a little less ego—and continues in their practices. And they need to learn, as Krisel did, how builders work and how to offer them the most value. How many architects have been to a homebuilders show? How many really know what homebuilders need from them?
Of course, easier said than done. Architects have been trying for years, and most feel like they’ve been banging their heads against a (faux) brick wall. The market has become much more complicated, and builders larger and more bound to their public shareholders than in Krisel’s day. Architects need the organizational support of groups like the AIA, the American Planning Association, and others. If more than 90 percent of our country’s building is not being done by architects then that’s an institutional issue. And these groups, as well as publications like AN, have an obligation, too, to make it clear to all (not just to other architects) that there is inherent, and bankable, value to good design.
Despite the prevalent idea in the homebuilding community that contemporary design is the kiss of death, there is an audience for it. And it is the obligation of the smart architect to figure out how to combine the contemporary with the affordable in a way that catches the eye of enlightened developers. Only then will developers, and eventually banks, follow as these schemes show they can turn a profit. Sure, it will be a lengthy process, but architects can’t expect a quick fix. Nor is it about making all building contemporary—but there should be more options for homeowners. But quality should not be optional, no matter the price point. Anyone who doubts the ability of top architects to make high quality but affordable designs should look at the elegant, responsive, comfortable, and inspiring tract houses made by Krisel, Jones and Emmons, Cliff May, and developers like the Eichlers. It can happen again. In fact, it is urgent that it does, because unless something is done our landscape will continue to be marred with poor quality, banal sprawl that is actually very carefully thought out: just not from a design perspective.