The 98%.

April 1, 2011 at 11:43 am Leave a comment

We may happily aim to diversify our architectural vocabulary, always be learning, better understand economic value, take an entrepreneurial approach, and work collaboratively with our clients – but the question remains of how to start doing all this now and ultimately, in the words of Mike Newman (co-founder of SHED Studio), how to better serve “the other 98% of people that don’t normally receive design services.”

In the “Learning from Communities” panel at the 2011 Structures for Inclusion conference, executive director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center Dan Pitera displayed a diagram of the current “design ecosystem.” Currently, the base of the economic pyramid and base of the design pyramid are at opposite ends, meaning that the vast majority of design services are going to a small minority of beneficiaries. Larry Kearns, a principal of Chicago-based Wheeler Kearns Architects, monetized the design pyramid: in his experience, projects usually cost clients $2/sf at design base and $200/sf at the point. So part of figuring out how to better serve the 98% has to be figuring out a model that makes a $2/sf project much more economically viable for the designer.

The Design Ecosystem, as described by Dan Pitera at Structures for Inclusion 10+1. Currently, most design work is done for a very small but wealthy portion of the population. The majority of the population commands little wealth, and also receives very few design services.

Platforms like Public Architecture’s 1% program or New York’s local desigNYC are encouraging designers and firms to entirely donate their services, in exchange for having the connection between the service provider and the recipient facilitated for them. Organizations like Designs 4 Dignity and local chapters of Architecture for Humanity are rallying individual volunteers to donate their time and expertise, so that the client receives upfront and schematic design services (often including production of fundraising materials) free of charge. There are also a growing number of 501(c)3 non-profit design firms including Project H Design, Public Architecture, Architecture for Humanity, MASS Design Group, and Structures’ own Design Corps, who are able to serve a wider range of clients because outside donations and tax breaks are supporting their efforts.

And while all of these organizations are doing amazing work, I still think that the design industry can do better. Which is April 1’s daily design idea and the final post recapping Structures for Inclusion 10+1, an annual conference focused on design for social good.

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Mortgages, product lines, and other things architects don’t talk about. Happy 2012! (and the upcoming re-launch…)

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