Sunday, June 06, 2004

Reinventing Reinvention

A new call to Reinvent American Housing, well... I read a great professional magazine called Residential Architect. It is similar to other professional mags - it has features on projects, technical topics, ads from material and product suppliers, but it is focused on residential design. They have a definite modern slant in their editorial choices and they have had several lead editorial articles promoting the emergence of modern design in housing. I would have to characterize their outlook as advancing Modern as the outcome of better designed housing. Of course this really resounds with me and I like the magazine a lot. The fact that it is published by Hanely Wood, the same publisher that gives us the McMansion stuffed Builder magazine, is at once encouraging and discouraging. I like that this group of writers and editors is under the same roof as the ones serving most builders and developers. I am disappointed that they may simply be playing to their audience. The most recent issue (at the time I write this) is May 2004 and it leads off with another very encouraging editorial titled reinventing the american house. Again, it is an intelligent assessment of the state of housing in our country and an astute assessment of the market forces that will ultimately come to bear on housing, compelling it to change. The surprising part is that the editorial closes with a promise to do something about it - to help bring about this change! Bravo! They are calling for a symposium, called Reinvention 2004, and at that symposium they will convene a new alliance of residential architects to take up the cause. They claim to be assembling leaders in design, construction, and academia to redesign the American house. Indeed? They offer a reference to another page where they present a Manifesto for a new Congress of Residential Architects. I must repeat their mission statement here, although you will find it at that link: 1. Sharing knowledge among architects who have dedicated their practice to designing single-family homes. 2. Demonstrating the relevance and value of single-family residential design to the public at large. 3. Enhancing the knowledge and development of design methodologies and technical and social research to benefit the practice of single-family residential design. 4. Fostering communication between architects and publishing and professional organizations to make single-family residential design accessible to the general public. 5. Encouraging and improving academic programs that teach the art and science of designing single-family homes. 6. Providing advocacy in related fields such as land-use laws, aesthetic regulations, and technological systems specific to single-family residential design. 7. Recognizing excellence in single-family residential design. Is'nt that great - I mean, look, they have got the message, we are all on the same page here, yes. Thats great I thought, they are doing something. I thought. And then I thought, no, its not "great". I thought its Ok, maybe OK at best - in fact the more I thought about it the more I thought it was just Ok at best, and I did resist thinking that it was nothing more than patronizing which is a word I resisted using when I said "playing to their audience" above - but I like the magazine a lot and I won't think of it as patronizing, but rather just Ok. Look. This is where I am coming from. I know a lot of people right now that are busy trying to change the state of residential design in this country. They are putting in long hours trying to put modern pre-fabs into production, the are spending long hours designing to advance new modern designs for commodity housing, they are crossing the country speaking to people and trying to open their eyes to new possibilities, they are working to find sponsors to build demonstration projects, publishing the word directly to homeowners and not to the already converted architects, organizing ad hoc meetings of people to learn more about alternatives. If you are reading this you know - the people that follow my blog are doing things, taking the cause to the street, trying to make modern projects happen, waving the flag to show them off when they do. They are doing something!! That's what we need to do! I am sorry to blather on about the obvious, but it needs restating. What we need to be doing is creating modern housing, documenting and evidencing the demand for it, the success of the projects, and the viability of these as commercial ventures in the marketplace. We need to address the initial unsatisfied demand for modern housing. I have no argument with the value of the issues in the mission statement, but I would offer that much of this is already being done in one form or another. While they all may be admirable they do little to directly advance the acceptance of modern housing in the marketplace, nor get anything built! Again - much of this has been going on for ages and it has not brought about change. The points: Residential Architects have been sharing experiences via several forums, Residential Architect Magazine included, and I imagine that Residential Architect will continue to do this no matter the outcome of this congress. Demonstrating the relevance of residential design will best be done by completing projects that are intended to fit the market categories typically filled by poorly designed housing, for example by creating prefab houses selling at market rates aimed at customers of commodity housing. The documentation of these efforts and their success or failure will enhance our knowledge of design and methodologies via information relevant to the market - we have theorized enough about this, we need to build. Making this accessible to the general public is at the core of what is going on here at LiveModern. Dwell magazine has also taken this to the people and they have followed through with the orchestration of the Dwell House competition which has brought about a compelling prototype and also spawned several other viable projects. Making the connection to academia is also valuable, but I would say we have an ample supply of good designers ready to work on housing - let's concentrate on developing someplace for them to ply their trade. I will shamelessly concede that we need advocacy in land use laws. Well meaning ordinances are often the biggest obstacle to good design. And as always Residential Architect among others already does an ample job recognizing excellence in design. In short I think its time to get off your duff and start working on modern projects, specifically paradigms for delivering better design to the housing market. I can't tell you what that means for you. You have to discover it for yourself. If you are an architect pursue a prototype for delivering good design to the reluctant housing industry. Pre-fabs, stock plans, kit houses - there are many different possibilities. Take your knowledge of housing and figure out how to bypass the obstacles that are put in the way of good design. Look for ways to deliver good design through channels that are already understood, through methods that are not threatening, with process that maintains the industry's business and profit model. Work with the housing industry, accommodate them, make it easier for them to do the right thing. I can tell you sitting around a big board room scratching your head won't help. Waiting for developers to give up their crack-habit of cheap bad design to fork over the fees for us to design the future just won't happen. Sure, get together and have your cocktails, do your networking, but till you meet again next year, bust your chops coming up with a piece of the puzzle. No idea will go to waste. There will be no clear answer to the new paradigm for delivering better design. All the avenues that are pursued will contribute something. Where will this take us. I say you don't need to be a guru to see that design driven product is coming to the housing industry. Its driving the market in every other single consumer item, especially big ticket items - cars, appliances, entertainment, you name it. But for now we can't expect the housing industry to send all its carpenters to work in factories, for steel to replace wood, or for developers to change the nature of their profit stream over night. But we can show the way to better design, now, by executing it and delivering it to the housing industry in a form they can use now. If I was to look at it cynically I'd say we were patronizing the industry - helping it to slit its own throat by taking it down the road to a place where design dominates the market. But thats not so - its coming no matter what any of us choose to do. The smart developers will be on board with it before it happens and will emerge the leaders.

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