Last week, the news of California Architect Michelle Kauffman's closing of her Pre-Fab Housing business was met with heavy hearts in the design community. Kaufman announced the closing on her blog, where news of the closing quickly made its way through the blogosphere, the Green /Sustainable, and architectural communities. I first read the news via Twitter.
There is no doubt that architect Michelle Kaufmann is a talented designer, and has done a lot (almost single handedly) to get the world to see the potential of pre-fab construction. Kaufmann demonstrated that sustainable design need not be ugly, nor sacrifice modern conveniences in the pursuit of being environmentally conscientious. While I have often told clients that "best practices" -- at least as I learned them at Berkeley, have always been "green", environmentally conscientious, cost-saving measures, it took, perhaps, one of Kaufmann's popular designs and the costs of a war waged over oil, before "green" resonated with middle America.
In the summer of 2008, my tree-hugging friends and I eagerly went to the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago) to see Kaufmann's Smart Home Exhibit which showcases sustainable design practices, systems and materials. (See Shantyworld.com post on the MSI/Kaufmann Smart Home Exhibit.)
ShantyWorld.com Visits the MSI Smart Home Exhibit (2008) -
However, as I read Lloyd Alter's interview with Kaufmann posted on Treehugger.com , I couldn't help but be annoyed about another missed opportunity for the country and the architecture & construction industries to take a step forward toward a more sensible way to design and build communities.
Alter makes an important point early in the Kaufmann article -- one probably missed by the majority of home owners and casual readers.
Alter says, "When times were good, Michelle could not find factories to build her stuff; they were making too much money building crap. When the crap market dried up, so did they. "
The problem I have found with many residential contractors (especially those with less than 10-12 years of business experience), is that they seldom seem to learn from their mistakes-- which are many and varied. I am fighting many of the same dumb battles with contractors that I fought 15 years ago: their refusal to follow the plans, and their continual quest to dumb down safety, performance, and long-term economies. Contractors are NOT interchangeable with Architects any more than EMTs can replace surgeons.
One would think that with the economic climate we had post September 11th, contractors would have been more open to different ways of thinking about customers & business in an effort to RETAIN and cultivate more business. But it seems many of them didn't learn much from that period. Housing contractors keep hoping the way they were gouging property owners between 1984 to 2007 (with the exception of a few months following September 11th), would NOT require they adjust the way they built structures going forward.
I had hoped that the economic climate after September 11th also would have served as a warning for the construction industry, but it seemed to be little more than an inconvenient interruption of the mortgage, real estate and construction industries' large-scale, 3-Card Monte Scam-A-Thon of the public. President Bush called on Americans to "go shopping", and a lot of Americans made no adjustments to their lifestyle, financial strategy nor their business practices. Instead, it seemd like the race was on by business to suck the most money out of the economy before another national disaster interrupted "the game".
British Prime Minister Churchill is to have said of Americans, that [we Americans] "..will do the right thing.. once all other possibilities have been exhausted." Among a major portion of the residential builder culture, they seem not to have yet exhausted all the wrong strategies. There is real contempt from contractors toward the greater public (as it relates to quality, value, price, and service rendered.) Many contractors don't seem to take pride in their work product-- they just want to "get paid" before their mistakes are noticed by home owners or the architect.
The seemingly infinite number of home contractor/builder horror stories doesn't show any signs of diminishing in number any time soon either.
While I admit my observations/opinions of "what went wrong" with Kaufmann's business are only based on the one TreeHugger.com interview, I can't help but also be severely disappointed at what appears to be some business mistakes that might have --from an outsider's perspective, been avoided. I know for Kaufmann it must be a regrettable financial mess for all those involved: for Kaufmann & her entire staff, the home owners/clients, the construction/material suppliers, and perhaps even Kaufmann's pre-fab manufacturer/s.
No economy can sustain a model for pricing housing as if housing is seen and treated as a luxury item available to the highest bidder. [Read ShantyWorld's post on what is wrong with Housing Valuation (i.e. costs) in the USA.]
Precisely because shelter is a basic human need, we have to discard these notions about trying to leverage our homes in a manner which will afford each owner a luxurious lifestyle and a net worth that is perpetually growing (environment be damned and debt levels be damned.) That is not the purpose of shelter and that economic model is not sustainable for any nation. Have Americans yet learned this lesson, or will we continue to exhaust all options before arriving at the proper solution: affordable, sustainable housing instead of McMansions ?
- Also read the ShantyWorld.com inaugural post (from 2006) on what is wrong with housing in America. See what we predicted would happen to the USA housing market (before it actually happened.)
©Shantyworld.com 2009. All Rights reserved.