Grounding Design in Reality

The economic black hole over the past two years has impacted our industry and our livelihoods. In all certainty, the economy will improve and the custom home market will return. The question is how this recession will affect the product that we call the custom home. What’s on the other side of the storm and what long-term impact will this have on the residential architecture profession?

One thing we know is, as a worldwide phenomenon, the green movement is one of the few certainties we can count on for the future of our industry. Sustainability, fully embraced by our industry for decades, is current to today’s market climate. A lot of architects who have developed an expertise in sustainable design consider this an advantage in getting more jobs, especially in this downturn.

Another certainty of the recession is the renewed emphasis on economy of spending. The downturn in consumer confidence has significantly impacted our collective work over the past two years. Retirement nest eggs are tenuous. Would-be clients may no longer be in a financial position to design a custom home. Projects are either postponed indefinitely, or design solutions focus on more pragmatic, less ostentatious lifestyles.

So where is the money? Who can hire the architects to design new homes? As before the recession, the Baby Boomers still comprise the larger percentage of potential clients for custom home design. This is unlikely to change in this decade.

As a group, Baby Boomers still share a penchant for more classic architectural styles. They also want energy-efficient, practical solutions without sacrificing comfort and luxury. “Transitional” has become a happy architectural medium for them that is new and fresh.

Yet the way we are inundated with obtuse angled roofs, concrete floors and metal siding in industry magazines, you would think we were all designing and living in ultra-modern homes. The influences of the modern movement, with roots mostly in academia, have happily settled into inner urban life, but it’s yet to be seen if neighborhoods will embrace it in the next chapter of housing in 2011 and beyond. Regardless, the Baby Boomers are definitely not embracing ultra-modern in great numbers.

Many architects see ultra-modern as the only design style venerated by architectural schools, professional organizations and the media. I think it’s time to separate the ultra-modern from the sustainable and green. Quality, award-worthy architecture that is also affordable and therefore more attainable can surely find a home in today’s architectural realm. A house’s aesthetic does not need to be dictated by the mechanics.

As professionals providing a service, we need to understand what clients want in our individual markets, and be prepared to provide it. If you have spent the past decade sharpening your skills in sustainable, green design in pursuit of design recognition yet failed to understand your market’s aesthetic criteria, you have some catching up to do. A good way to begin is the integration of sustainability with modern clean lines within a context of classic architecture.

One thing we know is that a large number of Baby Boomers are still calling the shots as clients. Modern architecture will have to wait another decade or two to become fully embraced, and that’s a long time to sustain a design movement.

Let’s identify trends for what they are, and lead real, sustainable design into the future. In doing so, we will retain our place at the head of the design table. If we as custom residential architects don’t do it, I guarantee that the production builders will be acutely tuned in to become the new kings of residential design.

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