Truth in Numbers
They call it their rallying cry: architects design just 2 percent of American homes, a figure that logs five mentions in the new advocacy treatise Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism (Metropolis Books). Its inverse, “Designing for the 98% Without Architects,” was the title of Design Corps’ 2000 conference and serves as a working motto for the nonprofit studio. The phrase has become a shibboleth in the profession, the conscientious architect’s “God and my right.” The trouble, of course, is that the statistic is pretty much wrong.
In point of fact, architects are responsible for about 25 percent of new homes—or 5 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent, even 100 percent, depending on whom you ask and how you phrase the question. “The problem—and I hate to be Bill Clinton here—is the term design a home,” says Kermit Baker, chief economist of the American Institute of Architects. “Theoretically, an architect could say, ‘I designed a model home for a builder, and they made 5,000 of them. So did I design 5,000 homes or not?’ There is a huge continuum, and that’s why it’s so difficult to put a figure on it. To some extent, it’s one hundred percent; to another extent it’s as low as two percent.” The most accurate number, if we’re talking about new single-family houses that have “significant architect involvement,” is 28 percent, according to Baker’s 2001 AIA report based on the institute’s survey of firms and U.S. Census data. That the low estimate has emerged as something of an industry meme owes more to sloppiness than facts. That it has emerged as a stand-in for assorted occupational ills—architects’ refusal to build middle-class homes, their insularity, their inaction against the Orange County aesthetic—is something else entirely, the activists’ rebuke of the solipsists in the profession.
Consider the figure’s many permutations, excerpted from Expanding Architecture, edited by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford: “architects directly affect only about two to five percent of all that gets built”; “private architecture firms only serve as little as two percent of the population”; “in all likelihood only two percent of buildings are designed by architects”; “The often-mentioned statistic regarding the small number of homes actually designed by architects (usually cited at around two percent or less) illustrates the narrow role played by the discipline.” It’s like a sophisticated game of telephone. So how did the number spread?
Blame it on Bell’s success. Design Corps’ esteemed founder has, since starting the organization in 1991, become the Noam Chomsky of architecture, barnstorming around the country in the name of social justice. As Bell recalls, a 1995 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer claimed that just 2 percent of new home buyers worked directly with an architect. (He wasn’t sure whether this meant purchasers of new homes or first-time buyers.) “That seared into my memory, because it backed up the feeling I had about the exclusivity of our profession and the vast number of the general public that weren’t being directly served,” Bell says. It soon became his favored call to arms, something to drop into his lectures—something to shock colleagues into giving a damn. He admits, though, “I kind of abuse the statistic.” (A recent search through the In-quirer’s archives revealed only a 1999 article that said 2 percent of homeowners consulted an architect before undertaking renovations. The story didn’t cite a primary source.)
Not that similar watchwords have begun more auspiciously. “Design for the other 90 percent,” a newer motto—and a decidedly more optimistic one—spread virally throughout the industry last year, when the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, mounted a much publicized exhibition of the same name. Paul Polak, a nonprofit magnate and self-declared “professional troublemaker,” explains its provenance: “I was invited to be one of the participants at the Aspen Design Summit four years ago. The very first day, there was one of those things where everyone was supposed to stand up for sixty seconds and say who they were. Without thinking about it, I got up and said, ‘Right now just about all the designers in the world are spending all their time working to address the problems of the richest ten percent of customers, and before I die, I want to see that silly ratio reversed.’ That’s where the name came from. As you can see, I wasn’t thinking about precise numbers.”
Thus, it seems, “Design for the other 90 percent,” was never meant to be taken at face value. “Designing for the 98% Without Architects,” on the other hand, originally made a specific claim about the grim state of American housing, and in doing so joined a rich tradition of professional hand-wringing that predates the industrial revolution. According to the late architecture critic Robert Gutman, writing in Good Deeds, Good Design: Community Service through Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), the AIA, shortly after forming in 1857, listed middle-class access to architecture among its top priorities. During the Great Depression, the institute worked through a small-homes bureau to make low-cost, architect-drafted house plans available to regular citizens. And in recent years, architects have, via how-to books and miscellaneous outreach programs, attempted to bring their trade to the wider public—and largely failed. As Gutman writes, when firms looked to their bottom line, design for the masses bottomed out. So it is that activist architects have hastened to embrace a dubious statistic: it confirms the decades-old truth that architecture caters to a chosen few.
If there’s a moral to the story, it’s not that activists need to brush up on arithmetic (though it wouldn’t hurt). No, these do-gooders have their hearts, if not their numbers, in the right place. Take the AIA’s data as Holy Writ, and a sweeping 72 percent of single-family homes bear little, if any, mark of an architect. To peer out on Columbus, Ohio, or Mission Viejo, California, amid all the beige stucco walls and Nantucket elevations, is to see that architects don’t wield nearly enough power—at least not the right kind. “In each house, there are 1,000 design decisions that impact people’s lives on a daily basis,” Bell says. “It’s our failure that has allowed people to think the important choice is, ‘What color is the countertop?’” In other words, the onus is on architects—not developers, or clients, or governments—to fan their services beyond Park Avenue to Skid Row and Wisteria Lane. It’s safe to say the whole profession can agree on that. Well, maybe not all architects. Let’s just say 98 percent of them.