26 February 2010

How much did you say that was going to cost?

This post was written by my friend Bob Borson, a Dallas Architect. He's also a blogger and writes Life of an Architect. He's entertaining, informative and nearly as prolific as I am. Check out Life of an Architect and give him a warm welcome please. Thanks! --Paul

Modern design, including modern architecture, is experiencing a dramatic surge in popularity. More and more of our clients are coming in and asking for modern designs without knowing what it means to have a residence in the "modern" style. You can find modern design everywhere now --the background to every car commercial being made, to the checkout stands at your local grocery store.

"I wasn't looking at that issue of Women's Fitness, I was looking at this issue of... Dwell. Besides, she's too fit for my taste anyways"

There is also a massive disconnect between what it costs to build a modern residence versus what people think it costs. Modern homes, with their clarity often mistaken for simplicity, are extremely expensive to build.

In the decade after World War I, modern architects were interested in the "rational" use of modern materials (steel and glass most notably), the principles of functionalist planning, and the rejection of historical precedent and ornament. There was a widespread belief that building forms must be determined by their functions and materials if they were to achieve intrinsic significance or beauty in contemporary terms.

Okay - so put down that awesome issue of DWELL magazine - where the pages are adorned with the manicured images of kick ass looking houses populated by uber-cool, yet tragically forlorn, dual income homeowners. I am going to give you the starter kit of classic rules for modern architecture:

• adoption of the machine aesthetic
• materials and functional requirements determine the final product
• emphasis of horizontal lines
• express the structure of the building
• rejection of ornamentation - the simplification of form + elimination of "unnecessary detail"

and the most enduring, and most quoted rule of all:

Form follows function

What does this all mean to the 40-somethings that come in wanting a modern house?

Nothing … yet. I don’t need for them to understand the maxims of modern architecture --I’m just happy they care enough to hire an architect. My job is actually a lot more fun when I get to go through this educational process with them. This is a period when everybody loves each other --we’re meeting for coffee, I’m loaning them books on Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Things are going great and I am their hero --leading them from the dark ages and the soul-consuming blackness that is the gothic builder home and into the light.

When you introduce “cost” into the conversation, things start to turn like a pork sandwich left out in the sun.

Client: “It’s going to cost what? It’s a concrete box with glass walls on two sides”
Me: “But we’ve emphasized the horizontal lines”
Client: “There’s only 7 rooms!”
Me: “Form follows function”
Client: “I’m not getting you”
Me: “uummm, we’ve adopted a machine aesthetic and expressed the structure?”

These are the critical moments with your client that separate the wheat from the chaff. It would be so much easier to take the client to a modern style house that was poorly (or cheaply) built where every single flawed issue of craft is exposed. The skill level needed from the contractor to plan ahead and adjust for dimensional "nuances" so that the joint pattern of the tile aligns with the window layout and that there isn’t any remnant pieces of leftover tile just before you get to the corner. Ever noticed that the openings in brick walls are the exact same size of the windows? That no bricks had to be cut? That meant the placement of every window in that wall was perfectly located months before any bricks even showed up on site. These things take skill to execute and just like everything else, skill costs money.

I’m not trying to say that contractors who build traditional style houses don’t have skill. What I am saying is that the skill level needed to build a house without ornamentation is higher than traditional houses because there aren’t as many ways to hide errors or “nuances.” How many traditional houses have exposed concrete floors? If you are going to be covering them up with a wood parquet floor, why pay extra to get the concrete floor perfectly smooth and level? If you are going to be slathering texture on the walls, why bother floating out the entire surface with gypsum to make it flat. Ever wondered why those old Fox & Jacob homes from the '70s had popcorn texture on the ceilings? Aaahhhh --it's all becoming clearer isn't it?

The best rule of modern design is probably one you’ve heard before but you thought it meant something else:

Less is More


  1. Very interesting post. The more rooms I study the more I am drawn to contemporary interiors. I love the simplicity. I always enjoy "Life of an Architect". Really enjoyed this post!

  2. Brilliant explanation of what is somewhat intangible to certain folks. This ought to be printed off and handed to anyone considering a truly modern build or reno.
    Less IS More- love that

  3. An architect's perspective is often missing from design blogs but not this one. Thanks Bob!

  4. Ah, these are wonderful comments. I love modern architecture. Unfortunately, I live in a tract home and am destined to thus remain, but I love reading about the modern. I especially like the kitchen and bath designs from Europe. And the thought of having all this in a modern home just leaves me giddy!

  5. Thanks for the comments. When I learned Paul was going to run this I was very excited, so I decided to write a quick follow up. This new post is on modern showers - or McShowers as I have started calling them (not very clever - sorry). Another tale of conflict and struggle in modern design mostly gone horribly awry.

  6. can't wait for the post on modern showers

  7. modernmama - sorry to be confusing, the modern shower post is on my blog - Life of an Architect. You can find link Paul put in at the top of this post.

  8. Here's the link Jane: http://lifeofanarchitect.blogspot.com/2010/02/id-like-mcshower-pleaseand-supersize-it.html

  9. less is MORE. Bwah-ha-ha. Good line.

    It's easy to gently tease the hypothetical client in the story, but I admit as my husband and I negotiate with each other on how to update and adapt our Eichler for our large family, and our architect patiently understands as months go by before we take up the project again, there is a bit of anxiety. When push comes to shove, we do want the money to show. Yeah, uncool but true. I do worry the great design will get lost in the white noise of execution. I do recall, fondly, how much safer it was to build our little cottage in Indiana. Add some crown molding! Add a couple windows! Voila, great space! Now I'm loving those Henrybuilt kitchens, but ...

    The other thing about Dwell, is it can make you feel like a bumpkin client. Most the projects featured have owner/designers, or owner/builders, or owner who hired fellow artist. So they're always completely custom remodeling their home for less than a mortgage payment, because the owners are so savvy they picked up retro kitchen cabinets/lab countertops/gym floors that the Catholic School for the Blind was throwing out, or they custom built or inherited the furniture/art, or somesuch thing mere mortals can't do.

    I'm sure by May my husband and I will come to some agreement, about whether or not to move the kitchen, and where that addition should be.

  10. well dang paul...I am one step behind you...thought I found this really cool architect!! Then I pop over here to see what shenanigans you are up to on a friday night and voila! you have beat me to the punch! Actually was drawn to Bob's 'mcshower" post by an alert. Small world 'eh?? This is such great info! It is soooo true that so much harder in modern design..whether homes or kitchens or baths, to hide the "booboos" because less adornment and "gee gaw" as I call it. For example: rectified tile...whoa be the unsavvy client who insists guido can install ..cheaper than your guy..and then behold the large grout lines, uneven install etc. There is little room for error. Thanks for Friday night fun!

  11. Bob's a relatively new blogger and I'm helping him get some more exposure. Everybody needs to subscribe to his feed. You and I are cut from the same cloth Cheryl, so it makes sense that we'd both be drawn to his blog. He's a good egg, you two would also get along.

    I love everything he says about modernity and the nonexistent margin of error in modern design and architecture. That need for perfection is at the root of modernism's appeal to designers and architects, I'm convinced.

  12. Thanks for the ride everyone! Blogging is soooo much more fun when you have people who actually read what you write! The comment partiicipation is even better. You have great followers Paul.

  13. I surely do. Make that, we surely do!

  14. Very well expressed - the less is more ($) modern/clean aesthetic. Another graphic example of the fact that the upfront costs of same-old methods and attitudes of "design" and construction often mask short-sightedness and the true costs of the undertaking. The lost efficiencies, the short life-cycle costs, the soul-lessness of the dwelling, the drop in property value, the indoor air quality, ad infinitum. Analagous to the true hidden costs of our American gasoline addiction; what are we thinking?
    May common sense, good taste, and excellent design prevail!

  15. Amen brother! Thinking for the short term got us to this point from an architectural and design perspective as well as from a societal one. More short-term thinking will bring nothing but more of the same. The thoughtfulness embodied in Modernism is the anti-short-term solution to just about anything I can think of. Thanks for visiting and commenting Richard.


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