The ‘Wow Factor’: Myth or Reality?

Recently the Chicago Tribune (Leslie Mann, Jan. 8, 2010) ran an article on design elements that make a home stand out, or give it the “wow factor,” which she defines as “something that will stop people in their tracks, or trigger a stare, head shake or raised eyebrow.”

This got me to thinking about the “wow factor.” After all, our natural instinct as architects and remodelers is to create something that will make people take notice. So I was wondering:

  • Is the “wow factor” real?
  • What does the “wow factor” mean to professionals?
  • Is it still relevant in today’s economy?
  • If it is real and relevant, what is our role, as professionals, in creating the “wow factor”?

I decided to take these questions on the road. So at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas, I was sitting in the Qualified Remodeler booth, and I asked several of the remodelers and builders who stopped by what they thought the “wow factor” was. The responses were very intriguing. Some examples:

  • Flooring
  • Lighting design
  • Bedrooms with integral bathrooms for guests
  • Green
  • Multihead showers
  • Large pantries that accommodate bulk purchases
  • Motion sensor lighting
  • Living roofs
  • Gray water management systems
  • Home automation systems
  • Dumbwaiters
  • Trim work
  • Wireless music systems
  • Bringing in the outdoors
  • Higher efficiency building systems
  • Master bedroom coffee stations

When I got back to the office, I contacted a few architects I knew. They had a somewhat different philosophy best articulated by the following comment:

“The ‘wow’ has been reduced to gadgetry. The typical homeowner does not care about the flow of a floor plan, consistent use of materials or the nurturing proportions of the spaces.”

So where do I stand? First, I agree strongly this comment. And I have to say that our profession has been guilty of promoting “gadgetry,” or style over substance. “Bigger…better…fancier” seemed to be the credo. “You want people to come in and say ‘wow’ ” was the pitch we would use.

Second, I think there is a “wow factor.” But it is different for everybody. There are two ways we can put “wow” in a job. The first, and wrong way, is to communicate our “wow” to our clients and sell them on it. The second is to listen to our clients and be their advocates. This is not as easy as it sounds. I try to jump into my clients’ heads, unscramble all the different and sometimes convoluted ideas they have floating around and then make some semblance of order out of those ideas using my skills as an architect. My job is to then create something they want that will get them to “wow.”

Third, this is somewhat of a generalization, but what is getting people to “wow” today is not about what will make other people say “wow.” It is not so much about amenities to impress their friends and tell them that they have “made it.” Instead, it is about moving toward the extras that suit their lifestyle choices. In other words, what makes people say “wow” today is more personal. It is about comfort, whether that is automatic lighting or heated bathroom floors or more functional closets. To a certain extent, this has been driven by economics. During the last 18 months, people’s priorities have changed and the “wows” of just a few years ago, such as great rooms and showcase kitchens, are things of the past. Instead, in most of the rooms we are designing, our clients are thinking more of finishes and amenities and less about square footage.

Fourth, architects and designers are more important than ever in creating “wow” for our clients. Anyone can leaf through the multitude of magazines available to find ideas. But these ideas are meaningless without working with someone who possesses a sense of design and can communicate aesthetic options. Today’s buyers want “wow-ing” architecture coupled with the expertise we bring as building professionals. We all want to live in spaces where we feel cozy.

So in summary:

  • “Wow” is a reality; not a myth.
  • Everybody’s definition of “wow” is different and, without sounding like a Zen master, everybody is seeking their “personal wow.”
  • “Wow” is evolving from something to impress others to something that is personally important to the client, whether that is about saving money, being comfortable, or both.
  • To maximize “wow” the role of the architect and contractor is simply indispensable.

As always, my quote of the month: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” (Winston Churchill)

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