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Every building is a prototype

Witold Rybczynski’s recent blog post about architecture’s “curious business model” gets at one of the core challenges of new construction: “Every project is, in effect, a custom job; there are no real economies of scale.” There are also no reoccurring cash flows for the architect, Witold explains, unlike a writer who might earn ongoing royalties or a business owner whose wealth will grow as the business grows.

There are two items to discuss here: (1) The “curious business model” used in the practice of architecture and (2) the inefficiencies of construction.

The first one is not unique to architecture. You could say the same thing about the planning and real estate lawyers who also work on new buildings. But I take Witold’s point in that even a painter’s work could appreciate in value after it’s done, whereas there’s typically no mechanism for any of this to accrue (to the architect) in the world of architecture.

When I was young, I was told that there are two ways to make money. You can either trade your time for money or you can own assets that make you money. An example of the latter might be a farm where the tenant farmer pays you rent every month. You’re not trading your time by actually doing the farming, you just own the asset.

This may seem obvious, but it’s fundamental. And it’s one of the reasons why, when I was in architecture school, I admired the practices of people like Jonathan Segal out of San Diego. Jonathan is one of the pioneers of the “architect as developer” approach. He simply became his own client and started building his own projects.

Moving on to topic number two.

Everyone in the business of building new buildings is looking for repeatable methodologies. Many have thought: How do we make the construction of buildings more like the assembly of cars? How do we create a standardized kit of parts? And that has lead to longstanding efforts around prefabrication. Today, as you know, we are also looking at how 3D printing might make this easier/cheaper.

In some ways, that is happening. There are examples of prefabrication and panelization, and there are developers who are using this approach. (See H+ME Technology.) But for the most part, we still build on site and it’s still a messy process with lots of waste and inefficiencies. If there was a cheaper and more effective way to do it, the industry would certainly move in that direction. Eventually that will happen.

In the meantime, we will continue building our prototypes.

Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash


  1. David

    I wonder if Architects would be willing to trade some upfront fees for a future participation in revenues over a certain threshold. This could/should motivate the architect to design properties that have not just visual appeal but functional appeal as well. It just might improve the working relationship between architects and engineers.


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