When I used to be in school I used to villainize the citizens for the repetitive buildings around me. The rhetoric of school makes it seem like “the people” don’t want innovative architecture and that you can only achieve that through these mystical one in a lifetime wealthy clients who are willing to break the mold. As an architectural intern I quickly realized that is far from the truth. Since then I have done a lot of informal polls through social media to see what actual citizens think about their cities and built environment. I was pleasantly surprised that citizens throughout the U.S are not only wanting better architecture, they are craving for it.

So, if it’s not the average citizen’s fault as I had believed — why do we build the same buildings over and over again? Well, I bet you won’t be surprised to hear that it all has to do with money. I will break down — very broadly some of the economics that involve building things in the United States of America.

A conceptual representation of parcel lines that are often found in survey maps old and new. Illustration made by Author

Land Acquisition

This is the first-ish step. I say -ish because there is a lot of research and admin work for a developer to choose a site and then decide to purchase it. The developer already knows the building type they want based on market studies and desired profit margins and the analysis that drive those decisions deserve and article all on their own. During their land search they have to look at zoning and if the land they desire doesn’t have the appropriate zoning they have to make sure that they could potentially rezone the land to fit their purposes. If that is not possible then the financial plan they have presented to the investors won’t pan out and the whole idea will crumble. There are many more considerations and struggles to be had in this process but for the purpose of the article we are going to bypass that, and just assume it was a simple monetary transaction that perfectly fit all their zoning needs. It is important to know that when you acquire a piece of land there is plenty of paperwork to be done and all of this costs money and time — therefore before they even call the designers the developer is already on the red.

Preliminary Site Analysis Work

For the architects and engineers to get to work there needs to be a land survey and a soils report that is certified so we know scientifically know what the land has to offer and is capable of doing. Is the soil sturdy enough to support the intended structure? What is the topography like? How much dirt do we have to move around to start the process? Is there demolition work to be done? These are just a few questions that need to be addressed before design is even on the table. Usually though, developers have an idea of what they want in terms of programming, size, and shape the designers & engineers need to take that and make it into a reality.

Soils reports are done by inserting a hollow tube and pulling a cylindrical sample in which determines the percentage of soil composition. Illustration made by Author

Design+Collaboration

This is the part where the designers do the heavy lifting. The quality of your client relationship will dictate their overall comfort level with new ideas. Some more seasoned developers are more aggressively set in their ways and know exactly what they want, but most of the times developers are open to some (cost saving) innovative ideas, within reason. And this is where both the developer and the designer fail. Very few times is a firm only working on one project making the need for projects to be “churned out” as fast as possible. From the architects and engineers perspective the faster the project gets out the better because we can tackle new projects and the client is happier. The is developer is in huge hurry because the more time they sit on an empty lot the more they have to wait to get paid in addition and so they look at it as loosing even more money if projects to stay on schedule (which they rarely do). So everyone is in a hurry and often times there is little time to let things sit. Permit Set reviews can take 3–12 months depending on the city so just because you have finally solidified a design doesn’t mean the city is automatically going to accept it, comments will come back and you have to re-do this process until you are finally approved. The architects and engineers get paid and the developer is still on the red.

Reasons behind Form, Program & Material Selection

While I have had the pleasure to work with both money hungry developers and developers who really care — both are very concerned about money and hesitant to spend it on things they don’t understand. As a designer on the field and an academic I am aware of so many amazing products that are revolutionary and would really benefit the built environment as a whole but are the developers willing to invest in the time taken to properly research it for this application? Are the engineers/consultants going to increase their fee exponentially because of it? Does the firm have time to properly research these new applications to properly guide the contractor? And most importantly, do local contractors and builders know how to make this happen?

I spoke with the head of sustainability in the city of Denver at the beginning of 2020 and asked her why don’t they offer free classes to builders to get acquainted with new sustainable technologies? Her response was they did but nobody showed up. They considered these attacks to their livelihood — why couldn’t they just keep doing the same thing they’ve always done? Why was the city trying to change the ways things were always done and wasting their money making time with classes?

The Economy of Building — Effort post Design

The labor done by architects, engineers, and development teams are no small feat. Without it there definitely wouldn’t be buildings as we know them today — but hats off to the people who actually do the work, interpret our drawings and build the thing. The structure of builders revolves around one key figure: the contractor. The contractor are the brains of the entire building operation, they direct, organize, source, pay, and manage all the subcontractors that specialize in the different areas (like electricity, mechanical equipment, plumbing, roofing, fixture installers, tile installers, wall applications, framers, etc.) that make up a building. The best contractors really imbibe the drawings, don’t make any assumptions when things are unclear, and strive for a good relationship with the subcontractors, architect and client alike. After they do all of this work they have to generate an Owner’s Manual that explains basically every function installed on the building as well as all the warranty information. The contractors are hired based on their previous experience successfully achieving something similar as the aspiring finished product. They almost never market themselves because word of mouth gets them plenty of work. So using a lot of innovative new materials, unconventional forms, and complicating things by using cutting edge mechanical equipment is a lot of effort that might even require further education for subcontractors, possible errors with material that would require ordering additional stock and all of these items would be at the contractor’s expense and to be managed by the initially quoted fee.

Conclusion

Simply put, building the same thing over and over again is the most inexpensive, fast tracked option for everyone involved. From the planning scale its easier to leave antiquated unequitable building codes than re-write them, even if they were generated with racist and classist principles carried over from the 20th century. This has been prescribing developments in ways that are often rooted discriminatory practices and outdated data. Then the process of real estate is incredibly costly influencing the developer’s desire to keep a tight purse through the entire design and building process — since they’re profit could be 3–5 years away (sometimes even more!). The schedules are so tight because of the city’s absurdly long review times, making the workflows of all the consultants involved have added pressure of the developer- due to land sitting idle is costing them money without tangible return on sight . After all these obstacles are bypassed and you finally get permit approval from the city and you have to hope that there is a contractor willing to build the ideas within your drawings and hope they do it to the best quality possible at a reasonable, budget friendly fee. So obviously market logix will dictate that is absolutely way easier to just build the same thing over and over again, regardless what the actual users and citizens want out of our cities and spaces.

Solutions

For every new development there needs to be a minimum of 1–3 community meetings. This is a process done by the building department as a very crucial step for developers to get their things approved. I have personally attended multiple as a designer accompanying a developer and more often than not (actually all of them but one) nobody showed up.

As a citizen you hold incredible power, and it is your job to keep yourself informed on the built environment, show up and be vocal. Demand what you want out of your city officials and local designers — people have power even if everything around you is trying to convince you that you don’t. Next time there is a design related conversation go ahead and listen and be part of it. Voice your opinions, open your mind to learn about the local construction industry, and become an advocate and co-author of your city’s futre built environment.