In recent years, the residential design and construction industry has experienced a dramatic transformation. Simply, in the current environment, there are many more complex decisions to be made, even more constraints, and genuine economic, environmental, cultural, and social implications to consider. In addition to micro-level demands, a recession-induced paradigm shift of development principles has emerged that will, in part, remain in place for the foreseeable future. Unquestionably, the complexity of recent technological advances and building science principles, sustainable design opportunities, and implications of the current economic conditions on housing trends warrant an increased involvement of consultancies now more than ever.
We have all heard facetious claims of very complicated homes being constructed with little more than sketches scribbled on napkins or a one-size-fits-all plan purchased on the internet; anyone who has recently been involved in a large-scale renovation or new construction project knows that this may be increasingly far from the truth – particularly from the standpoint of managing expectations and long-term implications. Conventionally, as a result of client requests, market demands, and perceived costs for consultants, builders have been forced to become generalists, sometimes detrimentally.
Without a doubt, there are some very talented, passionate, and responsible builders that have provided very high quality homes without significant client involvement or ancillary support, but there are many others that have left clients with buyer’s remorse.
Market Adaptation and Outlook
In the years leading up to the recession, the residential industry suffered from the effects of suburban sprawl and the impending production-oriented environment, a loss of historic architectural detailing, and a tendency to focus more on building large than building well. Current trends and the transformation of the market signify an overall correction and a resurgence of more sustainable ideals. As a result of the tough economy, the housing industry has seen a widespread reduction in activity in the last few years; interestingly, according to a recent National Association of Home Builders publication, the share of “spec” homes has declined from nearly 80 percent of the total number of housing starts to less than two-thirds during that time. This higher relative decline may partially result from credit tightness and other factors, but also signifies buyers’ reluctance to embrace conventionally developed homes. As stated by Melina Duggal, senior principal with Washington, D.C.-based real estate research and consulting firm RCLCO, the recession has changed Americans’ home-buying preferences in many ways. It has put an end to ultra-large McMasion-style dwellings and brought on a resurgence of interest in smaller homes with modest finishes. Among other trends, pursuit of smaller homes, smaller lots, lower levels of finishes, energy use reduction, walkable communities, and traditional neighborhood developments have all influenced home-buying preferences.
Fortunately, conventional homebuilding and development are being scrutinized and New Urbanism has met green consciousness, but many progressive ideas are still superseded by the pursuit of value and the quest for security of investment. According to Duggal, as the economy stabilizes many of the recession-induced ideas will remain intact and others – green building, more extravagant finishes in smaller homes, luxury housing for the wealthy, and so forth – will undoubtedly play an important role moving forward. As the economy rebounds, all changes will undoubtedly be client driven. Consumer demand will dictate builder practices, fuel the progression of more economically, environmentally, and socially sensitive design, and continue to perpetuate the evolution of the residential industry.
Case for Architectural Services
Architectural design services, if embraced, provide immeasurable benefits. There is no substitute for the aesthetic of architectural design or the functionality of a home designed to inspire and provide comfort for its inhabitants. Architectural design not only focuses on form and function, but also strives to establish relevance rooted in style and a sense of place. Unfortunately, many homebuilders have adopted a design-build mentality and often claim that architectural services are an invaluable or unnecessary service that that will cut into their bottom line; many potential clients are unaware of the benefits or discouraged by the complexity of the process and the perceived costs. In both cases, inadequate research often leads to uninformed decisions regarding design and construction.
In actuality, experienced designers provide many diverse services and ideas that ultimately culminate in more cost-effective and pleasing projects. As a result of evaluating lifestyle considerations and anticipating future demands, maximizing layout efficiency, considering energy and resource efficiency, and reducing on-site changes resulting from mistakes or lack of foresight, the cost savings, immediately and long-term, often more than offset the architectural fees.
Many common issues that often arise during design and construction can be avoided, or effectively resolved, by simply encouraging a multi-disciplinary, collaborative approach rather than a more conventional linear arrangement. By valuing client’s desires and maintaining a receptive approach, involving all project stakeholders throughout the process, and considering how each individual design element affects the overall design and interrelated system, designers help to ensure that client’s expectations are met. Integration, on all levels, is very important, but may be even more critical in relation to building science principles and sustainable applications.
Sustainability as Part of the Process
Green building initiatives reduce energy consumption, facilitate resource conservation, enhance occupant comfort, and diminish many of the harmful social, economic, and environmental effects of conventionally built homes while decreasing life-cycle operating costs and increasing value and marketability.
Unfortunately, in the current market, many sustainable design efforts are add-ons and not an integral part of the overall process, lessening the effectiveness and undermining the economics. In addition, incorrect applications are often counter-productive or even damaging. There are many varying levels of implementation, but all can benefit from the services that experienced designers or specialized consultants offer in relation to establishing goals, prioritization, quality control, evaluation, and certification – if desired for instruction, support, and substantiation.
There is a genuine need for a stronger integration of the services that designers, consultancies, and contractors provide in respect to all green building initiatives. Even with the best intentions, a breakdown of any of the involved entities creates significant strain on the overall efficiency of the process, the feasibility of potential monetary and environmental benefits, and the ultimate comfort and satisfaction of the client.
Every project is unique and the optimum level of consultant involvement is a function of many factors. However, in an effort to maximize potential, it is very important to investigate all options prior to a project’s inception. Unquestionably, some services and initiatives may necessitate initial cost increases, but those costs are often justified when considering decreases in operating expenses that positively impact cash flow and money saved by eliminating design inefficiencies, reducing the number of mistakes, and anticipating future demands. Furthermore, by involving consultants with a vested interest in their respective specialties, assurance is provided that the most current, appropriate, and responsible solutions are provided that will increase project satisfaction and positively impact the built environmental, in general.