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On 10:42 AM by Rachel Preston Prinz in
When I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, after finishing my master’s degree in architecture at Texas A&M, I worked at a small design firm that was led by a pragmatic design architect. Our specialties were historic preservation and very rational, unfrilly-to-match-the-budget buildings for local colleges. We had a nice backlog of projects, many of which are still in phased construction due to capitol sourcing nearly 15 years later, and several of our old clients are still working with the firm. I look back on those days when I was just starting out and learning what makes great architecture, and am thankful that I started my career in a “low-end” environment.

A couple years later, there was a job opening at one of the “high design” firms that regularly makes the pages of architecture magazines and is always on the list of the year’s AIA awards.  I immediately went for it. I felt SO unbelievably lucky when I got the job. It was incredible to see a visionary at work. For a while. Then I started to hear from past clients about how the buildings worked, and what they had to say wasn’t always nice.

From there, I moved every couple of years to either a high design firm or a small pragmatic firm, torn between the two extremes.

What I learned in the high design firms is disturbing: I knew when we weren’t paying attention to the budget, or to the schedule, or when the principal wasn’t listening to our client’s wishes. I routinely had to gloss over the fact that our designs had little or nothing to do with anything other than a few abstract concepts that the owner had mentioned in passing, as if all the substance of what they wanted wasn’t relevant in the face of the design style they had employed us to implement.

High design firms are led by bold, confident, visionary leaders with a great sense of artistically sculptural design. In my case, my bosses had uncanny abilities to detail very challenging joints in exquisite ways. It also became apparent that our clients were almost always unhappy with the function of the result, though not in the friendships they acquired with the “famous” designers, or in the outward beauty of the building.

The problem is that elevating a professional based on their sexy design and smooth talk usually leads to the client (justifiably) feeling that we are, as a profession, ­­egomaniacal at worst, narcissistic at best, and… short-sighted too.

This has become more and more apparent to me, as time has passed and my friends have called upon some of the same designers who I worked for - or competed against - for their projects. When my middle class friends cannot afford the uber-famous designer, who often charges upwards of 15% of construction costs in fees, the designer often recommends one of their “very capable apprentices who [they, themselves] trained.” My friends are getting very funky, cool and unique designs that look neat on paper, and in high-res too. But architecture should be, if it is not already, about more than “unique.” It should also have a great deal to do with function and economy.

One couple wanted to do green in the most incredible way they could afford. Naturally, they thought first of the architectural designer equivalent of the mega-church (who shall remain nameless, but he's supposedly one of the greenest architects in the world). When they could not afford him, or wait however many years until he had a spot in his schedule, they went for the “prize apprentice” option. The result? On paper, a very unique adaptation and addition to their typical rural split-level. It has recycled cardboard countertops, Ikea shelving for cost savings, hardiboard and aluminum siding, wood floors, an excellent view from the master bedroom, and is filled with light.

In practice, though, its greenness isn’t “all that green”, or even pleasant to be in. Let’s ignore the environmental impacts of small but relevant details like the aluminum siding attachments and deal with the way the spaces work. Bedrooms open onto a two-story living area, so when the downstairs TV is on, the entire house can hear it through the un-separated mechanical system and through the doors. Plumbing on inside walls facing the open space allows everyone in the home to know if you used the little flush or big flush option, as well as hear the fan. Major functional rooms in the house, on outside walls no less, have no tube skylights or windows to allow natural light in. Therefore, to change clothes, get your boots to walk the dog, or get something out of the pantry—all the functions of home which are most often employed—you have to turn on lights, and you cannot find the light switches because they are behind doors or tucked into the side panels of cabinets. The mudroom, which has no windows, also has no drain and no ventilation. So, wet boots and coats don’t dry unless they are brought out into the house.

The south facing windows are 9 feet tall and have no overhangs to prevent overheating in the summer. Rather, a mahogany barn-door system was designed and never installed, because barn doors don’t work well on curved tracks and the face of the house is curved. Aside from the fact that mahogany is far from a renewable resource, this option would also force the owners to be either all-dark or all-light. (Shade doors either all-closed, or all-open.) To make up for the mahogany doors that were not installed, drop shades had to be custom made for the expanse of French doors on this side of the house, to cut the summer sun - at an additional cost to the owner. And, there are so many French doors along this window-wall – effectively the front door of the house - that no one knows where to enter the home. There is no sense of entry, and no sense of public or private space. Stick framing on extensive concrete foundations with huge uncovered porches are not all that “green” either. The production of cement alone is responsible for 10% of the world’s pollution issues. It seems unfathomable that these designers have the audacity to call themselves “green,” though maybe “greener” would be appropriate.

One of the high design firms I knew of would routinely design homes that could not be modified to be handicapped accessible despite the fact that all of their clients were aging boomers. The design team's 200SF bathrooms are beautiful, and they are impossible to change without extensive renovations, even to add grab bars. There are usually at least 4 and sometimes as many as 6 half-levels, which cannot be accessed for someone in a wheelchair or on crutches without an $80,000 elevator. Imagine scaling 12’ to 14’ floor-to-floor heights on crutches! For 3 stories! In a ski town where injuries are more than common, they are expected! The 5000SF (minimum) houses cost an average of $3000 per month to heat in the winter, and mechanical rooms were often so loud, because of the extensive equipment needed, that the rooms around them had to be abandoned. Not designed to accommodate pressure and air movement, the houses are either freezing cold or sweltering hot, often along the same long hallways. In fact, these homes are 30% hallway or invisible hallway. So the client has paid an average of $400 PSF for unusable space that often took up at least 1500SF. That's $600,000 for hallways! The houses are gorgeous. But ask clients how they live in them and what could make them better and the answer is always “How much time do you have?”

So why am I picking on high design firms? Because often it is these firms that espouse to “be the change we wish to see,” when in fact they are training a generation of young architects to believe that as long as the vision is fashionable and they can distract clients with awards and magazine spreads that acknowledge how attractive their work is… true substance, and even greenwashing, doesn’t matter. They say “the devil is in the details,” and in my experience, it seems to be true - the more fame a firm seeks or accepts, the worse their design actually is. One of the firms a friend worked at won an award for a gorgeous green-roofed mountain retreat where they actually photoshopped in more than half the flowers because, in fact, the roof design itself was a failure that brought financial losses to the owners, the contractors, and the architects. Only the architects didn't mention that when they submitted for the award.

It’s time that architects everywhere are seen for what they are. “Big” (not in size but in profile) firms are big because the people leading them want to be big. Their egos demand that they be seen as “leaders in their field.” Small firms might not have the awards or their name in lights in the architectural rags, but that's only because they are busy solving problems and designing things to make their clients' world better instead of submitting for awards. And they don't nearly as often have the thought that they are always “right” or even “more right” than anyone else. Regular architecture firms practice learning by doing (and undoing the poor work of high design firms too), and they affect their immediate communities—you cannot get more sustainable than that! They practice integrity and humility. They usually listen to their client. And some even practice truly green design, too.

I'm writing this note because I want to acknowledge the good works of humble local architects. They too often go unnoticed. Their work changes destinies. Very few monumental works, of whatever name and whatever use, really change the world. The work of our small firms... does. At least it can. I want to shine on those whose light... is directed outward.

I thank Dave Puckett and Randy Byers, two great “small” architects I know, for what they taught me about doing it right – to stand up for the people least represented in our profession - the clients... and taught me the most important thing of all - great design is not in the name, not what school it went to, not how pretty it is even... but great design is in its wholeness.