Summer speculation

Architects have been getting hot and bothered this summer, most recently about – you guessed it – free-pitching. Prior to this, however, was a legal wrangle over spec housing, which, argues Sutherland Lyall, should be seen in its true light as a form of p

I tried very hard to get excited about the new Department for Education and Employment’s creepy attempt to extract free designs from the design community for its putative corporate identity. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a Government body renowned for devising imaginative interpretations of what constitutes unemployment. Anyway, who needs designers? I’ve got the symbol for them here somewhere: a begging bowl.

I also failed to get aroused by not-me-guv protestations from non-free-pitchers. Several years ago a bunch of sister professionals met at the Royal Institute of British Architects and vowed over the sacred bones of Sir Edwin Lutyens that they would never indulge in, not just free-pitching, but any sort of cut-throat fee-bidding. Some months later the press revealed that one of their number had made a zero fee-bid against fellow professionals. Naturally it got the job.

I don’t profess to understand the economics of free-pitching, but working for free seems barmy. Maybe I’m missing something, but basic arithmetic could be brought back as an entry requirement for the design profession, along with mid-career programs in professional ethics.

Naaah. Come on. That’s pathetically Calvinist and anyway nobody takes that professional stuff seriously – especially not clients. Who wants to fork out several million pounds for an identity he might not like? Much better to get a bunch of those artsy folk in to show off their wares and pick the one you like best. It also means you have leverage in the fee negotiation as the designers have “given” away the thing only they can do.

Something else the architects have been getting excited about this summer is the issue of spec housing. It was all set off by a lawsuit to do with copyright in a set of spec house designs. Briefly, a firm of architectural technicians, not architects, was involved. Architects really love architectural technicians who compete with them as building designers. And here they were at the cutting edge of professional legal history.

What we had in the press subsequently was the usual tired old crap about how current spec housing was gruesome and how employing architects in this area of design would make a massive difference to the environment.

I have news for promoters of this forlorn position. Most spec housing is designed by architects. And most of it is, indeed, gruesome. The truth is that spec housing is a branch of product design; its primary function is to woo people into buying it. And that stuff about home and hearth is to do with the occupants coming to terms with the too-frequently exigent physical reality of the dream they have bought.

Architects usually don’t buy the above thesis. Not just because things are tough right now. Look, they say, all the great architects, Andrea Palladio, William Kent, Le Corbusier, designed houses. And what about that Modern Movement housing designed for the 1927 Weissenhof exhibition in Stuttgart? There the apostles of Modernism sealed their approval on the design of mass housing.

The short answer is that the Villa Rotunda, Holkham Hall and the Villa Savoye – and indeed the Weissenhof stuff – are in a totally different world from those sad Victorian pastiches in that development down at the end of the village. Styled with bolt-on decorations to match the perceived kerbside-appeal preferences of house-buyers, they have bathroom and kitchen fittings, the styling and colours of which conform to current notions of desirability – established, it seems, by fashionable consumer homes magazines. Internal arrangement? Putting bedrooms in the conventional upper floor location and other rooms, not forgetting the entrance hall, on the ground floor and arranging their interconnection is not exactly taxing. And minimising the circulation areas and maximising the apparent size of the rooms, the housebuilder’s real design task, doesn’t seem to warrant five years at university.

The other vaguely architectural bit – choosing the materials – is done by a motley crew, including the market research team, which is to say the letting agents.

The real client, incidentally, is the marketing manager. Does this sound like product design? Of course. Spec housing might become less gruesome when product designers grasp that it is their proper field of work.

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