Real Houses for Real People

By Georgia Bizios, FAIA

Published in Inform: Architecture + Design in the Mid-Atlantic, Number Five, 2010.

As a recent graduate in the early-1970s, I got my first job with the architects Elizabeth and Winston Close in Minneapolis, who were known for the quality and breadth of their residential portfolio. While interning, I designed custom houses and worked on a screened porch addition for an office neighbor, while some of my other colleagues completed construction documents for a young couple’s small house to be built on a modest budget and sweat equity. Serving anyone who asked for architectural services was a moral imperative for Lisl and Win’s firm. During the 40 years, that philosophy has shaped my practice and the practices of many others. Residential firms, on par, have proliferated by being entrepreneurial in how they function through creative marketing and fee structures. These residential firms have identified a different sort of client base apart from the mythical patrons of residential architecture–clients with impeccable modern tastes, magnificent sites, unconventional programs, and generous budgets.

Designing for the middle class is a different proposition. These clients value and are willing to pay for professional services. They reflect diverse lifestyles and family units: parents with one child, single parents, recombined or multigenerational families, empty nesters, active retirees, and live/work or single person households. Their needs do not fit the typical three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom, cookie-cutter houses that are predominately available. Most have experience in owning houses and can articulate the reasons why their current situation or available housing options do not meet their expectations.

The new middle class client wants to be involved in the design and decision making process. She requires a frequent and high level of communication with the architectural team. She expects to see alternatives, approve major decisions, and build on time and on budget. She is financially savvy, seeking good value, and willing to spend money on products and services that are important in her life or value system. She is looking for energy efficient, well constructed, low maintenance solutions. Her house will be designed for her needs and site, but not fully customized. It will be built mostly with off-the-shelf materials and tested construction methods.

Practitioners have responded to the needs and expectations of the middle class client by redefining residential architectural services. We have reinvented and orchestrated the office organization and fee structure to make the design process more collaborative, transparent, responsive, efficient, flexible, and predictable. We also aim to make the design process more interesting and less expensive.

We also define our work as a service and we have learned to accept and respect the fact that our clients may choose not to follow all our recommendations. We see the wisdom in the fact that most are not interested in subsidizing an architectural experiment or our next professional design award. Our clients want us to design their house, not our signature house or a piece of art built with totally new or unusual materials and construction methods. They do not aspire for their home to be the next “box-on-the-rock” design on an architectural magazine cover. Interestingly enough, the clients who do not aspire to front cover professional magazine notoriety are pleased with the recognition of notable qualities of their houses in the local newspaper or on a home tour. They appreciate the recognition of their house as a good house and neighbor at the local level.

Awareness of the new realities has created opportunities for fresh approaches to marketing. Residential architects are finding ways to dispel perceptions that we are arrogant and that our services expensive. We join local clubs, participate in home shows and home tours, and network with other building professionals. We establish web sites and often mail portfolio-type publications to friends, colleagues, and potential clients. Many of us proactively seek to develop our clientele by educating the public about design thinking and building processes. We give lectures, teach courses, and write articles or books.

Another myth is that architects do not live in houses we design. Building our own home or undertaking a major addition/renovation is a way many of us have established our architectural practices. We also pay attention to the fact that happy clients have always been the best marketing strategy. Following up and asking for feedback is a sure way to improve services, establish a good reputation, get references, and secure repeat clients.

These new clients are a delight to work with because they are not simply pragmatic, but also poetic. They yearn for houses that accommodate needs but also lift the spirit. They have figured out that architects can design houses that sustain life and wellbeing by being beautiful, special, and distinctive. These are places that they can truly inhabit as homes.

In the new economy, the ground has surely shifted beneath the feet of every architect. But, the terms of a residential practice have been shifting for quite some time. Our imperative to listen remains stronger than ever and there are still plenty of opportunities to do good work for every client.