We try to work with these corporations to link a social challenge with a business opportunity, with the intention of making it profitable. At that point, it's no longer CSR—you're creating sustainable social impact incentivized by its profit.
We have a model called the "Virtuous Cycle," that we use to help explain Shared Value. Basically, if you have a social issue and you can directly link it with a business opportunity, you can incentivize its continued effectiveness and scalability.
We see two possibilities: one, develop the city so that people would be more attracted to live there, or two, train local residents and young people in the necessary trades to obviate the need to import labor. In this way, we look at the social issue first, and then try to figure out how to solve it through economic incentive.
I was at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation conference for a three day summit on the circular economy in June, and the first keynote speaker was the CEO, Tom Szaky, of TerraCycle (a company that works with corporations to recycle everything they possibly can) and he gets on stage and says, "everything can be recycled, given enough time, energy, or money." This was a bit of a revelation for me about what waste is.
I see myself more interested, today, in learning the business aspects of it, and how to implement it in the private sector in some capacity, whether it's directly through plastics or food waste reduction. All roads lead to policy, maybe not as a politician, but someone who influences policy in some direct way.
In that sense, everything we do around economic development is married to a story that revolves around the built environment. We ask, "what do you do to further economic development in a place that was built to accommodate tens and tens of thousands of factory workers?” The factories that have been successfully redeveloped have nonetheless been redeveloped in a way that provides only double-digit employment opportunities, if we are lucky.
To me, alternative, diverse forms of practice are the ways we can address questions like this one. Today, the architect puts up a sign and waits for the phone to ring, or enters a competition, or take a tender. That model is only successful within a certain bandwidth. It is much more successful within urban centers, at the upper end of the economic spectrum.
For me, the role of the unsolicited architect is to create the possibility for projects which might not have otherwise been created. The mechanism we have at the moment is the market. It's developers, people looking for opportunities within the built fabric that they can take advantage of. I mean that in a neutral way. Yet, what that means is that there is a huge incentive to produce things which will make money. There is less incentive to produce things which might have second order effects, like improved health or education, or reduce overheads for a local authority who might be spending an awful lot on social care or education. The unsolicited architect can work before the idea of a project is suggested, to create the possibility of that project.
In a way, it is a public interest practice. They are not making money from winning projects. As a private organization, you might operate in an unsolicited manner, but there is a sort of broader role for those projects to be revealed and then thrown into the private sector, and maybe they end up going to competition, or being tendered for, or that kind of thing.
The legislature has the power to, tomorrow, reorganize the transportation authority in the city of New York. Why the state runs the NYC transportation system and not the city is a good question. The bigger question is where the money comes from. All of the ideas require state law, whatever they are. Whether it's a congestion charge, a tax on wealthy people, a commuter tax: none of them could get done by the city of New York alone.
That is the privatization of the government sector, in several different ways.
At the time, there were no assignments, developers weren’t doing anything, and investors kept their hands out of their pockets. Out of that vacuum we had to come up with our own thinking. We were reflecting on what the role of the architect had been prior to the crisis, and in what way we may have been complicit in its cause. Excel sheets had been optimized to fit stereotypical user demands to eventually translate into architecture, which was just a means to make more money. It was not about the people.
Developers, investors, and architects forgot about asking the people what they actually need, and subsequently have generated supply that is ignorant of actual demand. We started thinking about tools to fix this disconnect.
Architecture is still a niche product. I think we have more to offer, but how do we get it to the people that actually need it? We started thinking about flipping the system. Instead of the developer at the top of the food-chain, it should be the end-user, describing his demands, his budget, and the outcome that would be an optimum fit. With www.WeBuildHomes.nl, we took this idea and inverted the development chain.
We are taking high-cost, high-quality design, and selling it multiple times. We have Mecanoo and NL Architects providing designs, of which there more than a hundred. These are architects the average person would never be able to afford if the cost wasn’t spread out over multiple sales.
In analogy to the App Store—WeBuildHomes is the App Store, Space & Matter is Apple, and the architects build the apps (or homes) that we sell. They upload their designs and we update them with user feedback. The library improves, quality improves, and costs are slowly reduced. The more successful WeBuildHomes, the higher the quality, the lower the costs.
As apartment prices go up and sizes go down, the need for collectivity and sharing increases. We asked, what if we designed the collective desire in addition to the individual desire, and used an online platform to identify the scope of these group intentions?
After working through this multiple times, and actually losing money on the first project, we have improved the process. Crowd Building has now become a similar business model to WeBuildHomes: Space & Matter executes the architecture, Crowd Building executes the process of community building. We provide two services through two independent companies.
We use design as an instrument and not an end result. Our visualization skills and architectural translations are a means of beginning and acquiring projects. The project is much more than that aesthetic performance. It is backed up by the group, the economics, the business model, and a willingness to cooperate. It is a high dose of information and intense coordination of these trajectories, but, we are still here, and we are actually getting stuff built.
there was an emergence of architect as arbiter of luxury commodity, which really was a blip born in my generation. Some people my age missed the boat because they are still trying to impress their immediate predecessors. But by the time you reach the 2000s, you have 9/11, Katrina, the Great Recession—these series of enormous shocks to the system that create a new generational shift in the field. If you are still playing by the rules of 1996, you are on a completely different chessboard. The world has changed.
But we're actually very judicious about whom we work for. The developers we are doing work with right now share our agenda, at least to a significant degree. Going back to the whole "what we do/what we don't do" thing—what I've found very clarifying about that process is it has attracted both clients and design team members who specifically want to be a part of that agenda.
Reinhold once said, "Why is it that all of these movies depict the end of the world because of climate change, but none of them depict the end of capitalism?" To which Ken Frampton quipped, "Because the end of the world will come before the end of capitalism." I'm not powerful enough, or arrogant enough, to believe that I'm going to overturn capitalism.
I've had very good friends—Pritzker Prize winning architects—say to me they like working in these places far off in the desert somewhere; they know the buildings are being built by slaves, but it is the only place where they get to experiment! To which I respond, "What kind of colonialist bullshit is that? What do you mean, experiment?"
Obviously, there is a side benefit to doing all of that—just as you might with a competition win, you get well known. And people might think of you. How does a small firm get on the shortlist for a museum or a train station? At least we have something to show that says we've thought about the issues that press on that typology, and we haven’t been exploited by a competition.
You know, we can cry in our milk about political people not caring about the things that we care about, or we can try to reframe what we are saying so that it is something that actually resonates with what they care about. That's what I try to do.
You can be getting money from the city, low-interest loans from banks, federal programs, state programs, and so on. It's not like getting a mortgage for a house. It's like getting seven mortgages for all different pieces of the house.
There's a bit of programming that the architect can assist with so that the developer can afford to build the project. But as far as designing a financing structure—that is pretty far away from the architect's responsibility. But, being more cognizant of how these things are put together financially means that the architect has more credibility. If we know these things, we have a stronger voice at the table.
Building costs in the city are incredibly restrictive, which results in two things (and it's way more complicated than I'm describing). If buildings are more expensive, they need to be built in probably the most common or cheapest way possible. This is particularly true for affordable housing, which prioritizes getting as many units possible in a unit mix stipulated by the city.
Ultimately, all of these factors can be distilled to a simple problem: how do I build it as simply and cheaply as possible while putting in the units that get us the proper subsidy (sometimes you get subsidy per unit count) and over the long term, pay off loans, and eventually make money on the project?
In the city, it's "block and plank": a concrete and steel base with concrete block and precast concrete planks above. This type of construction has its own limitations for formal expression—that's why you see all these brick boxes around the city, and why two of the three projects we're doing right now are brick boxes. So then the question is, “Where is the formal opportunity within the technical system?”
Clients build buildings in order to sell purposes larger than space-making.
Then they say, “I guess we need a building to do that—how big should that building be, and how much is that building going to cost?” Then they make all of those decisions, and they go to the Board of Directors where they get money and permission to hire an architect. The architect is handed a brief, where the first three or four giant conceptual steps have already been taken, without the architect even being present.
Architects have to build the muscle of being able to connect to projects earlier, so they know when their inputs are more valued. There’s another dimension that has to do with taking risk: the risk of a project being set up wrong means the returns should be higher.
All because somebody is going to give them a pile of money that’s also in a clearly defined box. Fees and scope are strongly correlated to one another. A lot of value is lost, in my opinion, when you don’t bring a design sensibility to the earliest part of the process.
There are two ways to look at it: one is that these are interesting academic provocations that keep things interesting and architects relevant; the other is that it's a kind of bastardized version of competition work, where architects, without the involvement of clients who are absolutely necessary to make projects come together, are dispensing free work for the public good. I personally am very averse philosophically to unrestrained participation in competitions. I think it's a bad to use an architect—it devalues our work.
The building industry largely doesn't make changes unless those changes occur from the greatest sources of influence, and clients are the greatest sources of influence in the building industry supply chain. They are the ones who makes the changes. Someone has to be willing to stick their neck out and say I'm willing to take a chance on this thing.
The government invests almost nothing in building-related research funding. Billions and billions of dollars are spent on tech, health, military stuff, but the government spends 1/10 of 1% of its entire research budget on things related to the built environment. So there's no money there. And as we talked about, the building industry itself is completely calibrated around lowest first cost. There are zero incentives. I'm going to spend extra money, on a project that's highly speculative, for which at least for a lot of things like safety or building systems, there's a higher likelihood of failure – so why am I doing this?
And the definition of interested in it is "I need a house, I need a performing arts center, etc." I mean it's definitely a question of the neoliberal economy.
The good news is that the President is a developer. If he weren't such a moron, you could have this conversation with him, because at least he understands what building is about.
When we talk about money, we can talk about the source of that money and how you get tied up in the ethics or values of those sources, how much freedom you have or don't have based on the source of the income. On the other hand, we could talk about the pragmatics of running a small studio and what money means in that context.
If we had an interested collaborator inside government, we could say more than just "hey, let's try something new," we could say "let's try something new, and by the way, we're going to also contribute some funds, to de-risk it." I think that's the fundamental issue. If you're in the business of helping people to do things they're not used to doing, they get really concerned about risk, and it's your job to think about how to eliminate or mitigate the risks they perceive.
My friends in foundations say that ever since they got a job at a foundation, all of their jokes are funny all of the time. That's the danger of being perceived as Mr. or Mrs. Money Bags: everybody wants to be your friend.