Sunday, December 16, 2007

Project Outrage

Project Outrage is an effort of The Slow Home site to gather the collective voices that are dissatisfied with the status quo in housing. Collecting testimonials of the experience of individuals in the form of a blog Project Outrage creates a record of evidence which is usually lacking when it comes time to demonstrate to developers and other key housing players that there is a market for other solutions. Please check out Project Outrage at their site and tell your story. Sign their Declaration: We demand an end to poor construction, bad design, misleading marketing and environmental neglect in the housing industry. Neighborhoods and homes should be built for people not excessive profits. They should be healthy, vibrant, and not require long commutes. They should uplift the spirit and gracefully fit our needs. We believe that everyone has an obligation to create thoughtful, responsible, and sustainable places to live that leave a positive legacy for future generations. If writing is not your thing and you have a photo of a development or mcmansion that you hate, then post it to their Flickr Group. If you are a facebook user Project Outrage has a presence on Facebook as well. Previously on LamiDesign blog: The Slow Home Project

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  1. I'm really not sure where I come down on the Slow Home / outrage thing ...

    I do admire the talent and energy of its creator, and I admire his use of the web and the example he sets for challenging notions of media, publishing and broadcasting. That is impressive.

    What I don't see is an actual coherent argument - or a useful intellectual apporach to the things decried. It seems to largely play to the stereo type that builders are souless creatures that build houses of cards out of OSB and vinyl on land that they stole from farmers and indians ... and writes a rather cold check on the idea if only we could do better design and come to see architect's fees, and the architectural professions notions of process as "worth it" the world would be a better place.

    I don't doubt that it would.

    What I find most dissapointing about "outrage" is that it is using tactics of another kind of battle, a sort of civil rights type framework, where clearly there is an opressed group that can "get outraged" and do something by requiring, even legislating a change in someone else.

    "Wendell Berry articulated this in his essay, "Distrust of Movements".

  2. Greg, I don't know if you are interested in comments on Slow Home's philosophy, but I'm gonna take a poke (with all respect for your blog, and only in the spirit of constructive feedback, and not to initiate one of these predictable architect pissing and moaning sessions). I think it is interesting, since Brown is proposing to have an "agenda" and a mission, to be critical of his message. Here is a quote from Brown, in response to Matt, who claims to be a 24 year old plumber in Canada ... A link to


    "I also want to make one final clarification about architects. You are correct with the observation that (at the moment in North America at least) architects usually build expensive houses. This is because (at the moment in North America at least) rich people are usually the only ones that can hire them. Not because they themselves are expensive (most residential architects have among the most modest of rates in the consulting world) or that they can only design expensive things (most architects I know are really good at designing modest projects and enjoy doing them). Rather, the system is structured against it. The big home companies don’t want private architects – too challenging to the status quo. This means working in a single build custom home situation with a private, usually small, general contractor. This is, by nature, a more expensive proposition. The other big issue is that North America does not have a tradition of hiring architects for houses. We have been told by the marketing wing of the new home companies for the past 60 years that they are expensive and autocratic and that your money would be better spent on an upgraded hardwood floor (which they can make more money on, like super sized fries).

    The slow home movement is also about initiating a change in this mindset. My research has shown that most people in a custom build situation save the cost of their architectural fees because 1. good design can usually provide a better house in a smaller, simpler footprint and 2. good design reduces costly mid construction change orders.

    I know there are exceptions. Architecture as a profession certainly attracts its share of egos. But then again so does wrestling and French restaurants. We have to work around these less fortunate examples and find promote all of the good ones to get more involved. "

    So what I take from this is that the Slow Home movement is a PR campaign to convince consumers to use architects, by sweeping the very real issues under the rug.

    If you look at his site, which as I said, took real talent to produce, what you see is a showcase of well ... more of what we understand architecture is ... site, client, program, ... every client is special, every site is unique ... and above all the architect is the "author" who will bring this all together ... one cotton picking family at a time ... and we just need to accomodate ourselves to seeing this in a more positive light.

    I think the article that they ran in the NYT on you, goes a lot further to actually articulating a solution to the problem that has Brown upset ... not every site is unique, people all need more or less the same things in a house, and good design does not equal custom design.

    Collin Davies, "thoughts on the pattern book" are insightful in this regard.

    The situation in Sweden, is much more like this, I can go into a store, pick a house, and get it approved by my town for my lot, and the builder is pre approved - the town doesn't have to look in the walls any more than DMV needs to take the dashboard out of my car.

    Brown isn't wrong about his objections to what is out there, he is just offering empty and rather dishonest solutions to the problem. "save the cost of the fees?" is he saying that with a straight face?? Is he going to tell me that stockbrokers are free in the big scheme of things too??

  3. Greg, can you edit my screwed up html in that last post.

    more davies here ... Brown would be served by reading this in light of his ideas about architecture ... this is a great piece of writing by davies

    "chapter 5 the prefabricated home"

  4. Scott, I'll comment on your thoughts in sequence with your posts.

    I agree with you regarding the argument, or I should say solution. We can all agree that the build quality of status quo housing is poor, and the design quality is abysmal. But I've said all along that the solution is not to expect the developers and builders of the world to line up to pay the going rate for architects fees for every house that is built. I don't know that John is saying that should happen. What he is doing on the Slow Home site is presenting alternatives that demonstrate good design. Unfortunately I agree that he is not really presenting a coherent alternative - not many are. After all there is no easy answer on how to get from here to there. Not to toot my own horn, I believe my catalog house plans are one way to address this. We have to exam the channels that currently provide the bad design that is built today and make an assault on these sources with alternatives of good design. Catalog house plans is only one such channel - there are many others and they all need to be addressed in an organized and carefully considered campaign. And in all cases the cost of such alternative good design must be competitive or cheaper than the bad design it seeks to replace. Why? Common thinking is that the better design should displace the poor design in the market. Well that has not proved so in practice. The recognition of the greater value of good design will come later when it is being built in numbers and has a presence in the marketplace and consumers respond to it - until then its a tooth and nails fight to get a foot in the door.

    The Outrage movement - to me it is primarily an excellent way to gather evidence. And it is clearly satisfying to those of use who are truly outraged and have had absolutely no voice. If oppression is the test, well then many I am certain have felt oppressed by the quality of the built residential environment.

    Regarding Johns quote that you posted:

    Johns first paragraph on architects role in the status quo - he is spot on.

    Second and third paragraph - I'd say architects that build for middle class clients who for whatever reason are compelled to build custom vs buy a home or buy a stock design would often experience the benefits he describes. Of course there are also plenty of custom home disasters as well. But he says his solution is to promote the use of architects as such. Well this falls on its face for me. The problems he is citing are largely with production builders. I think its senseless to think we could erode that cancer by persuading the market to use architects for houses one at a time. Ultimately we have to change the way the production builders build. Otherwise the lousy built environment is nothing but a scapegoat in a marketing plan to try and increase architects market share by a few tick marks. Harsh, but true. We have to walk the walk here.

    Ultimately the show case of fine projects will not help - again its more architecture with a capital "A". I think the site would accomplish more by exploring ideas that would deconstruct and rebuild the way the industry builds houses and uses design. There are a surprisingly high number of small developers bucking the status quo to great success using good design. We don't need to see how nice the projects are, but talk about their journey in the marketplace, their competitive advantage bestowed by design, or in the case of building techniques as we see in Sweden how construction techniques can empower change.

    I would not characterize it as dishonest. I think we can all be blind-sided by design. Where do you give up principles for the sake of making inroads. Honestly, its is, and was very hard for me to retire the mantra of one site/one solution to start the experiment that is my stock plans. I think most designers come out of their training sincerely believing that every site, every family deserves a house design to suit them. If you are not doing that then how much better than the status quo is it really? And really this is the thinking that has marginalized architects in housing and sent our built environment to the dogs. Its our fault. I've only been able to move forward by conceding the argument to my conscience. You are right - its not much better. But its still better.

    (Scott - I can't edit comments - only delete them, so I'm leaving it)

  5. A few quick things - on dishonesty - I want to make clear that I have nothing but respect for Mr. Brown, and my use of the word dishonest, was wrong - in so far as it is insulting to a person like Brown, who cares deeply about both his profession, and buildings.

    I do hope that my disagreement with his discussion of the "problem" is not seen as a personal insult to you as owner of the blog, or him, it is easy to get carried away in this format, which tends to avoid the proofing and thinking part of the writing process.

    I do think that Brown is not being objective, in his statement that you "get the fees back" ... he is making an argument, that has merits, I just find it hollow, kind of the same as when a stock broker tells you that they can pick stocks, and their improved performance pays for their fees ...

    I don't know if I made it clear in my post, but yes, what you are doing, and the thrust of the NYT article was all about what you are doing is bringing the pattern book to the digital age - you are offering a very real change - and it is brilliant.

  6. Well taken Scott - thank you. the point was to challenge the ideas, not be personal. I support him, and I've put my site behind it via the links here on my blog.

  7. Greg one quick question, in addition to Brown's argument that the fees are absorbed by a reduction in footprint on custom designed homes. He makes the argument that "change orders are reduced" ...

    I know a thing or two about change orders - and the bigger the budget and the more a project is "art" the bigger the change orders. When your clients build your houses from your stock plans, do they normally encounter change orders??

  8. Scott - I guess I would not really get too hung up on the way he has described the benefits of using an architect. He is trying to make it into a succinct list with clear benefits. The reality is that its a soupy mess, and the only way to know that the benefits have accrued would be to roll time backwards and start all over again from a different approach. This is what I think. When you do a custom design with an architect you are going to design just what you need, the space you have will work better for you, so in theory you could build less/spend less, or build less/spend more per unit which could be a better value. But you do have a substantial architects fee on top of it - anything from 10-20% depending on the scope of services. But compare that to working with developer. Your "one of" builder will no doubt make a better profit than the builder working for the production developer. But the developer if they are successful will be taking a bigger profit than the builder, on the house as well as the land. It goes along with their risk if you want to look at it fairly. But that is a substantial chunk of your budget, and significant if you get to spend it on yourself instead. So, yeah, I think what John says is true, but not as clear cut as the statements make it sound. To me the big thing is that all this amounts to is cutting the developer out of the picture. And again I don't think that is a viable solution for making change in the market.

  9. Greg, at the risk of just beating this to death ... I agree with you that we shouldn't get too hung up on the specific arguments about using an architect ... I agree with your statement above.

    what I DO think is interesting, and appropriate for your blog - is how this interfaces with the notion of what architects do.

    You are doing something, as you point out, is rather contrarian as an architect - stock plans!

    Here is a great example of the opposite of what has Brown outraged:

    it is also the opposite of much of what he seems to be focusing on in the editorial voice of "slow home" - which scans, to me, much more as "site client program".

    Site client program is not an antidote to bad development ... when we look at those towns that we find so well designed - I would argue the are the result of the pattern book - not "site client program" type commissions that are the "grail" of architecture - and the main voice of "slow home".

    Here is another example, "the Omaha Path home" ... note one of the key things about this home is that it is FAST. It is also more like a house in Sweden than not ... it is a "FAST" house ...

    Lastly, I offer this an example of the need for reform inside the ateliers of architects ...

    "Look at this example of what Yale has its students doing for the poor folks in New Haven .... How could you possibly emerge from that class with any sense of what is really needed out here in the real world. By telling all these students that they need to "reinvent" the house ... they are litterally being ex-communicated from the world that builders and humans inhabit.

  10. Your first link to the "New Urbanist" development is interesting to me. I've never breached these planning issues in my blog, and I've not addressed them directly with my plans, beyond offering designs that can plug into this kind of "traditional town planning" scenario. I'm not sure what Slow Home's take would be on this. Sure, it solves many of the problems associated with sprawl development - all things I like to see: a walkable urban downtown, denser suburbs with sidewalks and houses that address the street. Is this the answer to the Outrage? Well yes and no. These new urban places emerge out of prescriptive style codes that would never allow a modern home. That's no solution for me. But it reflects building with thoughtful design from the ground up - this is a distinct departure from the typical mode of development. For me it completely falls down on its imaginary colonial past and potpourri of pseudo historic styles, but thats my own preference.

    The PATH home of course is more of a showcase for alternate building methods, but I agree. The design is much better than your typical McMansion. It has a characteristic of authenticity that typical developer homes lack - its well designed. And it uses technology to make it quickly reproducible. They are even giving away the plans on the site so it would seem. So yes, to me this seems like a suitable answer to the Outrage, if you acknowledge as I do that good design in the housing industry does not have to be limited to a specific style. Good design is needed for modern homes as well as traditional homes.

    I looked at two pages at the Yale site - the small images of the house designs, and a page of construction photos. I don't know if you are being fair about this. I cant' tell much about the designs from the small images - a few looked over the top, but in general I'd say most of them looked quite modest and consistent with what I see coming from the numerous modern developers I've seen on the internet. Many have contextual cues that are obvious even in the small images, and others looked fairly simple in their geometry and I imagine easy to build.

  11. Greg, great thoughts, and I'll take your point that I'm perhaps being a bit too far reaching in my criticism of education in architecture ... New Haven is a study in extremes ... some of that stuff there has been very ... very good ... some of it ... and I'm thinking of one Rudolf low income prefab project in particular, and a number of other low income modernist blights in the hood ... have been very very bad.

    I guess I get to reading Wolfe and Kunstler ... (and I'm planning to read the new book by the retired president of BC that belongs on the shelf with them ... ) and I get carried away.

    It is complex ... you are right - and you are making a positive contribution!!

    as they say in Sweden, God Jul!

  12. Scott and Greg,
    Thank you for all of the thoughtful commentary on the issues we are trying to discuss on the slow home site.

    I apologize for not participating in the conversation sooner and it now seems a bit late to go over some of the issues that have already been discussed.

    However, I do feel it would be useful to articulate more clearly what our intent is.

    Our primary goal is to empower individuals to take more control over the places in which they live. To borrow from the slow food movement, we believe that we should all be co-producers of the homes in which we live. This does not mean that we have to build them ourselves, have them custom designed,have them be expensive, or even own them. It simply means being more attentive, careful and involved in where the materials for your home comes from, how it is made, and how it is lived in. (I think that we see this in the cultures of both food and the home in many European countries).

    To try and start the ball rolling on this rather massive campaign the website has two components. The first is to advocate for change in the North American production home industry. This includes real estate agents, developers, designers, contractors, retailers, planners and financial institutions (in no particular order). I think we can all agree that this is long overdue and the example you describe in Sweden is a valuable precedent. I was in Copenhagen and Holland this fall and was amazed (as always) at the quality (design and construction) of the everyday type housing and marvel at both the government infrastructure and public awareness that makes it possible.

    But we find ourselves in North America where the conditions are much different.

    To initiate a change, our site is targeted towards a public audience to try and raise awareness of the need for something different than the standard status quo of cul de sacs and overscaled single family houses.

    Obviously the change will have to happen within the industry not outside of it but in the same way that McDonald's started putting salad on their menu in response to public pressure (rather than from the years of being told about its benefits by the public health industry)I think that getting the public roused up is a good place to start.

    Project Outrage is our first attempt at this. It is a way to gauge public interest and get feedback on what people (primarily non professionals) are thinking about. We are very pleased with the response and are planning to roll out in the new year a more extensive (and articulate) campaign that also highlights innovative alternatives within the production industry.

    The second goal of the site is to increase design literacy. Unlike many countries in Europe, North America does not have a particularly strong tradition of well designed material culture (at an average everyday level). The projects and products in Folio are meant to try and address this lack of awareness by providing a range of examples. I am well aware that many of these are expensive projects for wealthy patrons. (One of the problems we are trying to address is the reality that there aren't many reasonably priced architecturally designed houses out there). However, the houses in FOLIO are not being proposed as THE alternative as much as just examples of good design ideas. Where the projects (particularly renovations) are modest (and we hope to find more and more of them as word of our site gets out) we hope they will serve as touchstones for people to take on something themselves). We have even included video interviews with architects and product designers to try and combat the image of the architect/ designer as some demigod with a big ego. We want to give them a human face and reduce the barriers and apprehensions that people have to talking with professionals.

    Folio is also only the first step in our goal of increasing design literacy. In the new year we will be putting these examples to more effective use through a series of educational tools that will more explicitly talk about the elements of good, sensible, modern design and how you can start to incorporate them into your own life.

    I am very interested in what both of you are doing and believe that it falls within the broad tent of concern that we are trying to articulate. I think there is definitely a place for pre-built housing if it means that the r&d costs are maintained so that the product is the best it can be.

    I also believe that there is a place for a professional designer or architect to help a client create a new or renovated home.

    Finally, I believe that it is possible for an individual to start taking control of their own home and make intelligent, well designed adjustments to finishes, fixtures, etc according to their ability.

    I think I have probably gone on long enough. I would be very interested in both of your thoughts.

  13. John, I think "design literacy" ... and raising awarness of design literacy is an intellectually flawed objective, that resonates well in the hermeutics of the architecture profession - but, without being bound to the discipline of the market place, is useless to adress the problems you and I both see.

    The market is genius, because it says, you can't have "what ever you want" ... it lays on this other thing, called "costs".

    People are evolved creatures and when architects give them disasterous spaces, or when builders give them disasterous spaces, they instinctively understand if that space is disasterous or not.

    McDonalds changed, not because of public pressure, but becaues they were loosing market share to companies like Subway, Boston Market, etc ... ... who were throwing up stores next to them and offering something healthier. Do you want the big mac meal, the subway sandwich, or the roasted chicken with green beans - they cost the same. Lots of people said, Subway ... and McDonalds, who is quite aware of how many hamburgers it sells everyday, changed. Now you can get a salad at McDonalds ... in fact you should see what they do in Sweden ... Sliced apples and fresh carrots in the happy meals ...

    That said, I think "name and shame" does effect the value of brands - so, for instance, making McDonalds look like a terrible brand, helps firms like subway - and Boston market, but it doesn't do anything to the sales at Jean-George - which is why mocking $70 a sq. ft. and pointing at $400 sqft is problematic.

    "Outraged" at "sprawl" is like outraged at "obesity" - you have to actually turn that camera on a brand, and there has to be some other brand waiting to take the disaffected from them, in order for the brand to change.

    The KB's the DH Hortons, the Tolls, the Pulte's are all examples of brands, who would suffer for being named and shamed ... here is an example of a very bad thing to have happen to you if you are a builder:

    Similarly, there is a real problem in the design profession, and in architecture. I feel like you are in a very powerful position to challenge this aspect of the problem. At bit of "outrage" at the idea of "authorship" in architecture - a bit of humility and less pressure for these kids to wad paper like Gehery or use buildings as heroic statements of their genius ... would go a long way, since, the doors to change in your profession are locked from the inside.

    Perhaps on this point, Greg Lavardera might expand on his comment and explain in more detail WHY it was hard to decide to offer stock plans over the internet? What about his being an architect and having an architect's education and background made this seem, "difficult"?

    Lastly, John, I want to make sure my thoughts here are not seen as attacking or critical in the negative sense, I agree with your complaints - and you aren't just grumbling, you are doing something. However it feels like that your main audience are young architect students.

    Teaching young architects that buiders and developers are evil, stupid and greedy (and unaware of design) is actually going to make the problem worse - the world does not need young architect students with superior design "awareness" who float above all the constraints out here in the real world.

    What it needs is great designers who can work to change the constraints that builders, homeowners, and citizens face ... in Gregs case, it is offering a great home design for a few grand, not 30K, or more that it would cost to end up where his clients end up had they gone the "client site program" route native to the profession.

    Lastly, it is a problem that we treat design largely as something that exists as an independant quantity in the world. My view is that unless design is evaluated next to some objectives (cost is a great one) - it is just a meaningless luxury - un connected to the issue of human needs.

  14. Scott, I don't see the Slow Home site or Project Outrage being directed at architects or architecture students. The two sites have a different focus in my mind.

    The Slow Home site as John has identified it is akin to the Slow Food movement. Its not there to be aimed only at home owners, or developers. Its there to define a set of values that anyone can subscribe to. I think the Not So Big House movement is a good demo of this (that also shares a lot of its goals, but narrower in its focus perhaps). Ultimately you would want builders, small developers to latch on to this as a marketing tool, just as independent restaurants would with the Slow Food movement. In order for that marketing to take on value the movement has to capture peoples imagination, and the examples of good design are a tool to achieve that. To that end I think the Slow Home Principals need to be more inclusive ( ):

    Avoid homes by big developers and large production builders. They are designed for profit not people. Work with independent designers and building contractors instead.

    We need to open and embrace small developers that are working with designers and producing great work - the ones doing now what we would like to see the whole industry doing. The language in this principal sounds like we want every person who builds a home to get on the custom design/custom build merry-go-round which is unrealistic. People should be able to, and want to, be able to purchase decent design without engaging in what some would no doubt find a tedious process.

    There are other aspects to these principals which I think should be reconsidered against the larger goal. The appeal to go Modern, while it matches my sensibilities and preferences, closes the door on good design in other styles, which frankly we should not do. I've pitched a big part of my practice at advancing Modern design. In truth even talking about it as a "style" called "modern" is a compromise. Architects don't like to think in styles - you design and work with the means and methods of your times, and what comes out of it is of your time - no labels. But that's a mode of thinking that most consumers do not understand, and have no desire to understand. Houses for them are categorized by style - this is how the public understands houses. I don't think it is our mission to revise this. I think its our mission to deliver better product in a format that consumers can readily understand, and that requires us to talk about our work in styles. It does not have to change the way we design it, but it has to come in to the way we sell it. So, we can't expect everybody to adhere to our preference for Modern design. Truth be told there are many architects out there that prefer to design in traditional styles, and I'm not talking about the schlock that goes for traditional in production housing. And I'm not talking about historical reconstructions. There are talented designers using age old disciplines of design and proportion to design houses for our modern program of living that are well designed in historical styles. John met many of them at the CORA talk he gave this year. Not my taste, not yours, but good design on many levels none the less. Slow Home has to embrace them.

    So, as I see it, The Slow Home Movement can be a set of values that we can all agree on that provides an identifiable goal for advocates to reference too. We have no other comprehensive model to stand in this role right now, and that's why I support it.

    Egads, this is getting long! Let me sum up on Project Outrage - consistent with what I posted above. PO provides a forum for people to voice their objections, and as such it creates a record of evidence of everything that is wrong with house building. It gives us a body of samples to back up our claims, and eventually will document the magnitude of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Making well reasoned claims is good. Backing them up with evidence is even better. We need this. We need to get the word out among the people we know who share our thinking.

    The things Scott, that you have a problem with are true, but I think they are not necessarily the role of the Slow Home. I do think the movement has to be tuned to serve as a goal for creating change, but we have to define the consensus first and this is a way forward.