• Return on Design is the brainchild of BLT Architects director of marketing, Heidi Thiede, who wanted to move the firm into the social-networking world. I was looking for a way to increase awareness of who we are, she says, and to find out whats important to the community at large. Managing principal Michael Prifti hopes the site will expand possibilities for the profession.

    Credit: Sioux Nesi

    Return on Design is the brainchild of BLT Architects director of marketing, Heidi Thiede, who wanted to move the firm into the social-networking world. "I was looking for a way to increase awareness of who we are," she says, "and to find out what's important to the community at large." Managing principal Michael Prifti hopes the site will expand possibilities for the profession.

Readers of this magazine will probably unanimously agree: design adds value. But just what that value is—and whether it can be quantified at all—is a more nuanced proposition. For clients hewing to a bottom line, taking on architectural projects may seem daunting, even irresponsible. Thus, for architects, it becomes imperative to make a compelling case about the value of design not just as an aesthetic proposition, but as a way to address a client’s business objectives.

Return on Design hopes to tackle the question of architecture’s business value. Created and given a soft launch in March by the Philadelphia firm BLT Architects, the social networking site asks members to post projects whose design demonstrates a certain value beyond the aesthetic. Members can then discuss the merits of each case study. To stimulate an initial conversation, the site has a prestocked Hall of Fame, which includes New York’s Fifth Avenue Apple store, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson—surely among the best-known, and most-visited, retail spaces in the nation. “We designed [the site] to be malleable. It’s going to move where its participants want to take it,” explains Michael Prifti, BLT’s managing principal.

Prifti has been wrangling with the issue of architecture’s value throughout his career. “Philadelphia is very much a value-driven market,” he says. “The city has near-Manhattan building costs, but developers get Philadelphia rent.” Thus, in a process familiar to most architects, he and his fellow principals at BLT have to go into projects making the case for the firm’s services. “This has been an interesting discussion for us for a long time, since we straddle different markets,” Prifti notes. In this way, Return on Design is very much borne from years of experience.

To encourage participation, at press time, BLT planned on a series of targeted pushes to its clients and to fellow architecture firms. “There’s always something to learn,” says Prifti. “We are just hoping to support the conversation.”