Architecture as Product

The first time I heard architecture referred to as “product” I was thrown back. We were meeting with our client, the developer of Station House (construction photo above). Various architectural design options we produced were referred to by our client as “products”. My natural impulse toward this classification was revulsion: How could our thoughtful, carefully crafted designs be demeaned by such a marketing term?

The classic Monty Python skit where the Architect presents a rather gruesome apartment building

Of course this position, to imagine a speculative housing development as something other than product, was somewhat naive. Architects are frequently substituting the economic reality of their projects with conceptual metaphors, drawings, formal studies, obsessions with parametrically designed building skins, etc. Speaking for myself, I have frequently passed over economics as simply the nitty-gritty, the uninteresting realities of getting stuff built. Whether or not the architect recognizes the nature of her design as product internally, the outward expression of architecture as product is seldom embraced.

Consider the above site drawing for the Station House project. We came up with concepts for the various buildings on the site, and sought to differentiate the architecture based upon metaphors such as Move, The Frame, The Engine, Stitch, etc. Each of these concepts encompassed both a visual language and a performance that we desired for the building. Along Wood Street, for example, we sought to make the building “stitch” into the surrounding neighborhood with raised porches and projections and proportions which more closely resembled the existing residential fabric.

These metaphors are useful for generating architectural form, but the reality of how our developer client saw the project was far different. I imagine the developer focused much more on the above site plan, which shows the units and the green spaces more matter-of-factly, and augmented this view with a spread sheet or pro forma. Our set of concepts had a purpose, but the underlying order of the project was not based on an architectural concept or a metaphorical “engine” It was based on an actual engine, an economic engine, which churns out housing – or products. Does that not make the architecture somewhat irrelevant?

What happens when the architect begins to see the built environment through the developers eyes and align her practice around producing products? This mode of practice stands in contrast to a service-based practice, where the architect responds to client needs and designs a building as one tailors a suit, fit to the exact need and size of the patron.

Nick and Diane giving a presentation to UC Berkeley graduate students

I recently posed this question at a real estate, design, and development seminar at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. I presented Baran Studio’s work on mini lot and infill housing in Oakland within the framework of this idea that the architecture we make is about taking a generalized product such as a 3 -bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom single family home, and adapting that product to different sites around the city. We looked at our earlier single unit developments and scaled up to look at our medium density housing infill projects.

Louise Street, 6 new units in West Oakland

One project we spent some time looking at is the Louise Street mini-lot development, six units set to come on the market this spring. The product adapts to the varying site conditions of front, middle, and back, as well as north vs. south exposure, open space, and privacy.

We moved on to a larger product, Gallot Lofts, which is under construction in the Jingletown neighborhood of Oakland. In this case, the standard double-loaded corridor is split to create a courtyard between the units. The product faces Chapman Avenue with large viewing and ventilation openings, and then turns a more reserved face toward the courtyard.

Gallot Lofts, a new 41-unit project under construction in Oakland

Gallot Lofts courtyard

Let there be no mistake: we are still architects providing a design service, and the traditional role of architect in relation to client and contractor is not changed. However, we do work with the builder closely, and the builder and developer are more of a single entity though they are separate companies. Developer, contractor, and architect are all working to produce the best product, one which will create a community that thrives and contributes to its surroundings. The product also has to make money for the developer and their investors, or else there wouldn’t be this sort of density happening to begin with.

The next step is to start proposing products which differ from the 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom model. Markets will get saturated, and a successful product-based practice must continue to evolve and adapt to the changing market. Moving beyond housing, we have recently finished an innovative retail and office building near MacArthur Bart in Oakland called the MacArthur Annex. The container itself stands out as a “product” but the unique thing here is not so much the container as it is the size of the space: approximately 7 feet by 20 feet. These boxes contain any number of uses, from a florist to a graphic design studio to a record shop.

Mac Arthur Annex – office and retail space constrained to a container’s dimensions

A product-based architecture pracitce is about putting a unique product out on the market, then seeing what bites. The more risk the architect is willing to take, the greater our ability is to innovate. We do not design in a vacuum, but rather the opposite. Thinking of buildings as products forces us to listen to everything out there, looking critically at what is being offered for people to buy, where people are able to live, what projects are better at building community, and how the value of what we design is actually experienced. Product makers must be excellent listeners.

Special thanks to Chris Calott for inviting us to give the talk at UC Berkeley.

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