Tag Archives: MYTH

THE INFURIATING MYTH OF AN ARCHITECT’S WEALTH

April 9, 2021

The Brady Bunch, a sizable family to support as an entrepreneurial architect (1969 to 1974)

It’s a popular myth that you see in TV and movies, that an architect is rich. From Mike Brady supporting a family of eight (nine if you count Alice) to the architect duo of Richard Gere and Sharon Stone, from charming Tom Hanks to Steve Martin playing an architect twice, the world seems to think architects are wealthy—rolling in money.

Know this: we are not. Not at all. Not even close.

left: Sharon Stone and Richard Gere in Intersection (1994); middle: Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993); right: Meryl Strep and Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009)

We are regular people  with a regular job. We don’t have those fancy clothes, driving those nice cars, living in big homes, as one might believe from the prevalent urban legends of who an architect is.

Poon Design team from archives (photo by Poon Design)

Yes, we are rich in our artistic rewards and in the opportunities to chase our creative dreams. But no, we are not affluent. My question is this: Why don’t we have lots of money?

I compare our design industry to doctors and lawyers, who have similar paths of required higher education, rigorous state requirements for licensure, and even responsibilities to public safety. But for anyone who knows the statistics, architects aren’t just not rich, some are living at modest middle class incomes. Well, at least not starving artists. But when compared to doctors and lawyers, architects are compensated at a fraction of our professional colleagues. Why?

Probably a doctor, not an architect, showing up in his/her $3 million W Motors Lykan HyperSport for a day on the yacht (photo from smf-blog.com)

The work of an architect is not valued as it used to be, as say in the Renaissance, when kings and queens rewarded architects handsomely to design heaven-reaching cathedrals that would last centuries. Perhaps architecture today is too abstract to understand. People know that when they hire a plumber, the pipes get fixed. But if you don’t understand what design is or what an abstract idea is—then from architects, you are only getting random lines on a piece of paper. And how much money is that worth?

Curson and Pico Mixed-Use Project, by Poon Design

But with star chefs, you would never call the recipe for a Michelin-rated dish, merely random scribbles on a piece of paper. I have had clients say that they don’t need a design, just the drawings. I don’t get that. That’s like saying I don’t need the fascinating epic of the Harry Potter saga. Instead, just give me random ink on pages.

Add to this how reality TV (here and here) has inaccurately shown that you can approach an architect and ask for three designs, for free! Would you ask any professional for free work, such as your doctor, dentist, accountant, or lawyer?

One critical thing to note why architects suffer: The typical fees paid to an architect rarely compensate for the work that needs to be done when designing a building. For example, if an architect gets a fee of $100,000, we all know right from the start that $120,000 is needed to do the work. You might ask: Why not just do the work of $100,000, since that is all you are paid to do? It is not that simple.

Architects drafting and slaving away (photo by Michael Neatu)

Partly, the work is dictated by the client’s indecisions and endless changes over the course of an unknown number of meetings, coordinating the work of structural and mechanical engineers always behind schedule, getting city approvals that can take months and even years, administering construction and resolving all the unforeseen conditions, and the other hundreds of spinning tops and fires that burn brightly. In part, we are also driven by our artistic ego, and we will design a project until it is great, not stopping at the amount of fee that is allocated.

So, who is the blame?

San Diego Civic Theater, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA)

MYTH OF THE PREFAB HOUSE

February 4, 2016

Prefab home, Madrid, Spain (photo by Abaton)

I am convinced that prefab homes are a myth. The success stories have been shown to be mostly fictional and braggadocio. More relevant than ever, we need well-designed, good value housing. But relevance doesn’t mean reality. According to all those glossy marketing campaigns, prefab houses were supposed to not only change the housing market, but change the world.

Different than a custom designed residence built at the construction site, a “prefab” (short for prefabricated) house is designed speculatively, built in a factory, and assembled on the property owner’s lot like an enormous toy kit-o-parts.

“Modern Home No. 115,” Sears “Kit” home, circa 1930
“Modern Home No. 115,” Sears “Kit” home, circa 1930

Though apparently popular in past years, the prefab approach is not new. Early 1900’s, retailers like Sears sold prefab homes from a catalog. After World War II, the prefab solution offered an affordable option for returning soldiers.

First problem. Prefab homes are not meant to be customized. To reflect personalities, people love to change things. Even with the prefab companies offering some architectural variations, such as a larger bedroom or different kitchen layouts, such few choices rarely suit homebuyers. And their requested customizations muck up the whole process. With homes already fabricated and pre-approved by building codes, customer changes, even the smallest ones, come at great cost, loss of efficiency, and waste of energy.

Prefab home en route (photo by Joe Sohm)
Prefab home en route (photo by Joe Sohm)

Second problem. When considering the deceptively low price for a prefab home, make sure you pad the wallet for: purchase of your land; delivery costs of bringing said house to your property; and the infrastructure required, i.e. building foundation, sewer line, driveway, landscape and site lighting.

Third problem. How great are these homes architecturally? With the limits of a factory process and dimensions of the truck delivering across interstates, the design result is not much more than a box. And a box, even a nice bunch of boxes, might not make an enjoyable home for you.

Prefab beach house, Hekerua Bay, New Zealand, (Photo by Russell Kleyn)
Prefab beach house, Hekerua Bay, New Zealand, (photo by Russell Kleyn)

Years ago at the national trade shows, I witnessed an impressive number of sales booths promoting prefab companies. I queried the salesperson, “How many prefab houses have been sold?” With all the different salespeople from various booths, the answers were consistently ambiguous. “Well . . . we have designed several, some in production, few are pre-ordered . . .”

When asked again, this time with tenacity, their responses were embarrassing, as no marketing person likes to backpedal. They admit, “Only one, maybe two have been delivered to a home buyer.” Not the 50 or 100 as their pretty pictures represent.

Each passing year, I witnessed fewer booths. The fancy magazines wrote editorials retracting their previous features on the “silver bullet success of prefab homes.”

Prefab home in Desert Hot Springs, California. Originally listed for approximately $2 million. Four years later, sold for only one-third of asking price. (photo by CAD Services and Marmol Radziner)
Prefab home in Desert Hot Springs, California. Originally listed for approximately $2 million. Four years later, sold for only one-third of asking price. (photo by CAD Services and Marmol Radziner)

The once seductive $200,000 price tag for a house has been replaced by the actual total cost of $2 to $3 million. Perhaps the prefab home would sell better to the wealthy. Such structures can have exciting possibilities as second homes, weekend beach structures, or getaway vacation retreats.

42 portable classrooms, Palm Harbor University High, Florida, 2014 (photo by Andy Jones)
42 portable classrooms, Palm Harbor University High, Florida, 2014 (photo by Andy Jones)

Homes aside, prefab buildings have purpose as temporary structures. How about those prefab classrooms in your school’s parking lot? Ironically, though these “temporary” classrooms suggested a permanent solution was on its way, these structures remain in use, 30 years and counting.

The prefab industry is a tiny niche. As a hyped marketing position, it impressively blazed through mainstream media. But as the answer to good housing: sorry.

© Poon Design Inc.