Credit: illustration: Mark McGuinnis
In January 2010, The New York Times ran an article headlined “Architect, or Whatever,” about how a Seattle architect named John Morefield was surviving the recession. Out-of-work yet entrepreneurial, Morefield had set up a booth at Seattle’s Ballard Farmers’ Market in 2009 with a sign that read “Architecture 5¢.” For a nickel he answered the architecture and design questions of curious passersby. After several weeks of manning his booth, Morefield created the website Architecture 5¢ (architecture5cents.com) with the motto “No project is too small for big ideas.” Eventually, and remarkably, Morefield received enough commissions to earn more than $50,000 last year.
Morefield hasn’t been the only one attempting to differentiate himself. As the economic recession and implosion of the real estate market continue with little relief, other residential architects have discovered that by being innovative and adaptable, they stand a better chance of surviving the persistent downturn.
Or, as James Walbridge, AIA, founder of Tekton Architecture in San Francisco says, “I think the ‘new normal’ is not to be normal. The status quo is gone.” The question then becomes: How are you going to differentiate yourself and not be normal?
For Walbridge and his colleague Stuart Narofsky, AIA, founder of Narofsky Architecture in New York City, the answer has been to embrace the concept of architect as “master builder.” To do so, both architects have created architect-led design/build firms to provide clients with the entire gamut of residential design and construction services. “Master builder is the gestalt of how I founded my firm,” Walbridge says.
He and Narofsky arrived at the same place from opposite points of origination: Walbridge was a licensed general contractor who later became a licensed architect; Narofsky was an architect who later became a builder. Both architects offer clients “a seamlessly integrated, 360-degree perspective because we’re building what we design,” Walbridge explains. “In terms of best practices, the ability to provide value and to demonstrate expertise—not just in design but during the entire process—is crucial in today’s business climate.”
Narofsky adds that clients “are embracing the idea that they can hire the master builder again, which is in a way a throwback to the way architects worked at the turn of the [20th] century.” The new paradigm eliminates the contractor-owner-architect triangle, and reinvents and broadens the architect’s responsibility. “We’re taking on a much greater role to make ourselves more relevant, but also to obtain a greater reward,” he says. “There’s more market share to grab.”
Narofsky and Walbridge’s master-builder paradigm also brings to residential architecture such 21st-century methodologies as integrated project delivery (IPD) and technologies such as building information modeling (BIM). These strategies get all parties to the table from the start, resolve clashing and conflicts, improve project coordination, and increase construction accuracy.
Narofsky claims that in wearing two hats, he’s professionalizing builder and contractor services by bringing them under the umbrella of the architect-led project. The result, Walbridge adds, is greater value for clients “because they understand they’re getting the skill sets of all the entities involved on a project from a single point of responsibility,” he says. “We can be competitive—and competitive with far more value added.”
Another aspect of residential architects’ new normal is diversification. Doug Patt, AIA, a registered architect in Pennsylvania who began to diversify before the recession, now works as a consultant to other architectural firms, operates a product-development company, writes architecture books, and founded and runs the How to Architect website (howtoarchitect.com) and YouTube channel for students, clients, and architecture aficionados. While his primary income continues to come from project-managing high-end residential projects, he says, “when the economy tanked in 2008, I was busy doing other things.”
During the Custom Residential Architects Network symposium in October in Indianapolis, Patt delivered the keynote titled “Expanding the Field for Residential Architects and Architecture.” “Architects today have to use the tools at hand to expand their professional lives,” he says. “Architects are particularly well-positioned to expand their fields because of their experience, their education, and the Internet.”
Consider Kerrik Wessel, AIA, who founded the residential firm Wessel Design in St. Paul, Minn., and spent his downtime in 2009–10 creating a new product: Parasol Modular. One day, while playing with his kids’ Crystal Climbers—colored plastic pieces with cut-out slots that slip together into walls, sculptures, and structures—he got the idea to create solar panels of colorful polycarbonate that would fasten together like puzzle pieces. His prototype was a solar carport, which this year morphed into Parasol Modular (parasolmodular.com).
Wessel’s practice has picked up again, and Parasol Modular has provided a new way of marketing his inventiveness and problem solving. He also offers the panels, and their construction, as one of his residential-design services. Parasol Modular, he says, could be configured into a solar-powered lawn sculpture, “lean-to, garage, or pavilion in the backyard for a pool.”
Other entrepreneurial possibilities exist in the marketplace for architects willing to expand their expertise and design intelligence into new ventures. “The public has an insatiable desire to build things, and to change the built environment that already exists,” says Dale Mulfinger, FAIA, founder of SALA Architects in Minnesota and author of such books as Cabinology: A Handbook to Your Private Hideaway (Taunton Press, 2008) and The Cabin: Inspiration for the Classic American Getaway (Taunton Press, 2001).
“Architects have the unique knowledge and talents to meet that desire. Finding those connections is key to reaching out to the public and new clients,” he adds. While setting up shop inside an Ikea store or parking an “Architects’ RV” in a Home Depot parking lot may fall into the purview of younger, more daring architects, “people need and want help in making decisions about their home,” Mulfinger says.
“Before the recession, we had more architects per capita than before in the history of the U.S., nationally,” Mulfinger adds. “That meant we were serving up to the public more architecture, and the residential segment of the industry grew a lot. It’s still there. We just need to find more ways to reach out to more of the public.”
To learn more about the AIA’s efforts on supplemental architectural services, visit aia.org/practicing/akr/AIAB089194.
At the conclusion of this three-part series on residential practice in today’s economy, author Camille LeFevre puts “The New Normal” series in perspective. LeFevre, an arts journalist and former editor of Architecture Minnesota (AIA Minnesota), has covered design and dance for Architectural Record, Metropolis, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Dance Magazine, andMinnPost.com. LeFevre currently teaches arts criticism and journalism at the University of Minnesota.
One of my sources actually guffawed and said that “there is no normal” when I called him. It’s true. For most residential architects, the tectonic plates have shifted. They’ve had to reinvent what they’re doing and how they operate their businesses.
People are still going to call architects, and there are still clients commissioning second and third homes. For the architects tapped into that market, second and third homes will still be lucrative. Remodeling, though, is also an expression of upward mobility. That idea has been accelerated by the recession, in tandem with the fact that people think about their homes differently: as places to reinvest.
We can’t ignore the renters. For them, houses are no longer an investment as the adult thing you’re “supposed to do.” It’s the loss of a fundamental perception that the home is the center of American life. More people are renting, which is a temporary investment by an occupier in an apartment, rather than an investment by an owner in the value of the place.
Residential architects still have this problem with how they’re perceived: as elitist or as people who know what’s best. I think a lot of them have already discovered that adaptability and flexibility are about survival as much as they are about working smarter.