Who needs an architect? These days, a developer will build your house for you. Or you can buy any number of standard plans and take them to a contractor. Or you can buy a modular house, such as those that Dwell has been promoting. Now there is a way to have your architecture and build it too—at least theoretically. Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal gave what amounted to a free full-page ad to Paperhouses, a website that aims to make available free house plans “provided by relatively well-known architects,” as the site’s founder, Joana Pacheco, puts it.
The Paperhouses’ plans do look like they are a cut above what you can find online from Wikihouse or Pulte Homes. Designers who have agreed to participate include Tatiana Bilbao and Derek Dellekamp from Mexico City and Florian Busch from Tokyo. For now, the site (and the Journal article) give us just rendered perspectives set in wholly imaginary and beautiful settings. The Chilean firm Panorama imagined that their modular blocks could sit on a sloping site somewhere near the Andes (or maybe the San Bernardino Mountains or the Appalachians). Bilbao, on the other hand, created heavier and more inward turned blocks.
Pacheco decreed that all of the houses had to be designed so that anybody could construct them for less than $300,000—which would put them in the range of, if not the middle class, at least a rung or two below the one percent. Although blueprints won’t become available until May, Pacheco says the site already has over 5,000 registered users, and you have to assume the latest publicity will only help.
So what are we to make of this movement towards providing free architecture? Pacheco cloaks her efforts in populism, saying that she wants to provide an alternative to a situation in which “the market serves real-estate developers and not the needs of people.” I sense echoes of everything from Frank Lloyd Wright’s “architecture for democracy” and its Usonian realization to Le Corbusier’s Maison Citrohan. Paperhouses’ designs are not quite in that league yet, but you have to also think that sooner or later they will become quite good.
The reality is that most of the costs of making architecture involve not the 3-6 percent fee an architect makes, but the actual construction. The land is the biggest expense, followed by the complexity of all the elements that go into a house as well as the trades that have to put them there. Architects’ fees, on the other hand, are the one part of the process that people don’t understand, as they do not seem to involve physical labor, materials, or legal issues—especially as you don’t need an architect’s stamp in most states to build a home. “Architect designed” usually is a substitute in one’s mind for “expensive.”
I do not think that a Wikihouse of any sort will put architects out of business. The dangers to the profession’s privileges are much greater from developers and design-build systems. Sites such as Paperhouses might add to the array of options for clients, and might even lead them to architects when they realize they have to actually site and customize these designs.
Paperhouses and The Wall Street Journal article, however, raise a larger and older issue: Architects have been unable to explain what they do and why that is valuable, giving the impression that their work is an expendable luxury. If we can believe Pacheco and her providers, even architects themselves believe that. Unless designers figure out how to make the case for good design as something that doesn’t just solve a problem, but rather creates something more—something better, and something more important—then architects are doomed to go the way of everything from assembly-line workers to accountants to graphic designers. They will be automated out of the picture.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.