Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Presenting our case for House Plans at Ignite Philly

Next week we will be presenting our case for Modern House Plans at the Ignite Philly event in Philadelphia. This is one of those lightening formats - 20 slides, 15 seconds each, 5 minute talk.

We are working on the outline of the talk now, and so far we're about about 8 minutes so some serious trimming or faster talking has to go on. In the spirit of spreading the word I am going to post the draft of the outline below, and I welcome comments on what to chop out, or trim off!

• I am Greg La Vardera, an architect originally from Philadelphia, now in Merchantville NJ.

- Here to talk about my efforts to market modern house designs in the form of Catalog House Plans

- Catalog house plans are generally not very well regarded by practicing architects, primarily because level of design work in these mass produced designs are not very good.

• Where I am coming from - my prejudices:

- residential environment we are building in suburbia today is ugly, uninspired, and harmful to our society on many levels. Home design is so bad, and so widely understood to be bad that we actually have coined a term for the kind of homes built and sold today - we call them of course McMansions

- biggest players in the housing industry benefit from driving housing towards being a commodity, all of it alike, any one being a suitable alternative to the other. Appraisals, real estate sales, financing, all want every house to be like every other house. Builders & developers simply go along with whatever makes them the most money.

- Almost every other class of consumer product today is driven by design. Think about the way you pick a cell phone, or a car, your laptop. All of these products leverage design to deliver more value to you, or to simply convince you that they will. Now think about houses - they attempt to appeal to you with the most base level of pandering - phony architectural elements intended to convey status, multiple roof peaks, brick face, just on the front mind you.

• So how did I come to take up House Plans. Well, this was the state of things circa 2000, active practice, not really doing the kind of work I'm passionate about - I have a love of modern design, modern houses in particular. Modern houses are rare in the region, and clients wanting a modern house even rarer, if you are shopping for a house you can't go out and buy a modern house from a builder. Two choices - hire and architect and design and build one, or seek out an existing modern house from the 50s or 60s and hope a previous owner did not muck it up too badly.

- Into that context came Dwell Magazine - a home and garden magazine that claimed to be dedicated to modern design. I subscribed - my architects radar was telling me that they might actually deliver.

- And they did as well as anybody had tried before. I became active on their online messageboard - neanderthal of online social media. Much to my surprise I was meeting people there looking for well designed houses - not just a few, but hundreds of them, and the circulation of the magazine was climbing towards 300,000. The question was being asked where can I get a house like I see in the magazine. The answer unfortunately was - hire an architect, cost was a dead end for many of these folks. But there was demand, unknown till now, clearly unserved.

• The nature of the demand for housing - no data to back it up, guesstimate based on my experience.

- 90% of people don't care, don't think, or are simply ignorant of architecture as it might apply to the design of houses.

- 10% of people are intellectually curious enough to be anywhere from passionate, to interested, to simply open to the idea of design enriching their home.

- of that 10% maybe about 3% are able to afford an architect, or are passionate enough about design to be willing to spend what it takes to have an architect design their home.

- that leaves something in the neighborhood of 7% of people interested in design, enough to not be happy with a McMansion, but with no options almost universally resolve themselves to settling for a McMansion. But this is a huge country, and 7% of huge is huge. The maker of almost any consumer item would die to have 7% of their market. Apple computer? "Limped along for years with only 3-5% of personal computer sales, meanwhile cranking out some of the best designed product in their market.

• I wanted to reach these people. There was unrealized potential there, and they would expose others to better design, expose people who had never thought about the possibility of a house being something more. How to reach them at a cost people can afford and were willing to spend.

- Considered options, prefabrication was a new hot-button, but it required a change in the business model of builder, developer, and financing.

- Houseplans seemed like an interesting medium. Aside from the fact that architects generally hate them, they are widely used, and well understood by consumers and the housing industry.

- Its 2002 now I searched the world of house plans looking for what I considered good design. An epic search, about 30hrs of web browsing stretched over a week or so. I looked at thousands of house plans on dozens of web sites. I found a few small vendors of good quality traditional design styles, almost nothing in the modern style I was interested in. The overwhelming majority of designs were mediocre, bland, uninspired - just like the houses being built all across the country.

- I thought this could be a way to penetrate the market. Like gene therapy being delivered by a virus, I could use houseplans to deliver better design to the housing industry in a form they already understood and use every day.

• Defined our core values for how to approach this

- Committed to doing a better job than typical plan vendors to describe the house. Status quo plan sites show a floor plan and artist sketch of what the front looks like. Thats it. No views of the interiors, no view of the backs and sides of the house. We are committed to providing decent visualization of what a house will look like, all four sides, inside and out.

- Committed to assuming the consumer is competent, informed, intelligent, and interested in design, and try to meet them on that level.

- Committed to sharing my experiences and encouraging other architects to find new business models to influence the quality of housing, whether its by house plans, or prefabs, or even better something I've never thought of.

• Start up took time. I did not have thousands of plans to offer. I have to create product, at the same time run my practice. A couple of years to build modest selection - 3-4 designs

- Great reception to the effort. First ads flooded me inquiries, calls, constant emails. - But people do not build houses on impulse. The entire process of site search and approvals, borrowing, vetting builders means that there is a long lead time from discovering my product to being ready to buy.

- Lucky to have some early adopters that were on fast track and acquired plans.

- First houses were begun 2003, slowly, then more, by 2008 over a dozen houses built or underway that customers had sent back photos, and many others that plans went out to but did not stay in touch. (many resurface later - two so far in 09)

• I'm hopeful that this is just the start of the "infection". I would like to see a real epidemic emerge.

- So to aspiring homeowners out there I say do not settle for a McMansion. Put it to the housing industry to provide compelling product, product that meets your values and aspirations.

- To architects I say you have to be willing to get out of the cozy nook of your conventional practice and pursue new business models. You need to take risks, do things that actually make this tough business even tougher on you, in order to be able to influence the kind of housing that is built in the US. We need advocates of other design interests, not just modern, but green and craftsman, and bungalows - whatever design ideas you can gather passionate consumers around.

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