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August 18, 2015


America is approaching 400,000,000 souls. It has perhaps 70,000,000 viable detached single family homes. The 600,000 new ones built each year for the last couple of years double the nadir of the Housing Bubble Burst, but are perhaps 1/3 of the insane peak a decade ago.

All of these buildings have a “style”. That “style” is just another bullet point to be evaluated when thinking about where to live: like number of bedrooms, amount of land, taxes, school district, and if the place has a garage.

There are perhaps 70,000 licensed architects practicing in America today (out of perhaps 3 times that many who have professional degrees). All of us have done some home design work: its the common currency of design/building of all our friends and relatives. Like back pain for a doctor’s cousin, the home question is a constant talking point for architects.

But perhaps 1/4 of architects earn a full time living doing residential design. We do not fit well in the home design industry when you consider the millions of remodelings and hundreds of thousands of new homes that are built each year. We are not a “go to” option as architects are used for perhaps 5% of the work done.


We are conceptually inaccessible for most housing consumers. We cost money. We take time. But, more interestingly, we celebrate those who create buildings that have zero connection to context.

Forget about the number of bathrooms, or if there is a garage, we are seen as the missionaries of a cult of affect that endangers one of the bullet points people see on HGTV and HOUZZ: “Style”.

Very few homeowners are intimates of the design process, building codes or construction technology, but they “know” “style” – its a 2D pastiche that is the throw-off bullet point in all shelter media.

But architects obsess about “style”. The correct style wins awards, becomes exhibits, is the focus of 95% of architecture schools, splashes all over architect websites, becomes the “buzz” of a small fine-arts coterie.

But our religion is not worshipped by many.

“Style”, even the most “innovative” Starchitecture, is just context: it is a part of everything around us: it is not a celestial presence in a black void. Institutions, governments or business may love the strut of chest-thumbing hubris of the intentionally one-off tour de force building: but the inevitable failures of functionality, weatherability and cost when occupying sculpture are terrifying to most homeowners.

Homes are the American family’s biggest investment and biggest risk and 7 years after 30,000,000 homes, 40% of all homes in America, went from profit engines to machines of bankruptcy stylistic experimentation is just not an option for this generation of homeowners.

So a niche profession as perceived by most homeowners becomes a liability, not an inspiration. But architects can see beyond the bullet and talking points and can understand context. Even if it means finding more extreme ways to deny context, architects can see the reality of context better than almost everyone else.

Each home, each resident, each street, each tree on the site IS context. Style is context. “Traditional” is not brain dead, immoral or cynical, nor is “Modern” innovative, truth or the only moral outcome in building. Style is context once buildings are built.

Architects usually treat context as foil, because its easier.

Everyone else treats context as a place that they either like or don’t like: and then buys homes, because they like them, or at least their price tag. Sometimes we are asked to nuke existing home context (Ranches seem to offend), but mostly people have a reason they bought a place to live beyond money and neighborhood.

Listening is harder than talking.

Listening to those you work for, the home they bought, the “style” they combine to create context means creating to evolve context – especially when money, desire or necessity mean renovating rather than building new. Its so much easier to perform in a black box, on a blank slate, looking in the mirror.

Here are a few new efforts to take what is and deal with it, on its terms: “antique”:


Or “Contemporary”:


Or “Colonial”:



These are not aesthetic sound bites, despite the names. These are places where people live and want to make better with scary amounts of money and the ridiculous inconvenience and time in construction. People risk to create homes.

Can architects risk to listen to context, instead of “style”?






4 Comments leave one →
  1. Janice Gruendel permalink
    August 18, 2015 8:59 am

    For me, and coming from a different profession but one with a very significant overlap with architecture (i.e, psychology, and more specifically developmental psychology, the style – context challenge is a HUGE one.

    Context is, or ought to be the driver, because it is every changing, because it is often personal, because it runs along side of political and power, and because you have to listen and watch and hear to “get it.: It can envelope style, but rarely are we successful (for our clients) when we operative in the reverse.

    Style is a more permanent thing, like a “trait” — some important part of our external or internal knowledge apparatus — that is harder to change. Once it becomes, it just “is.” That is, it is us placed upon the world. In the hands of an insensitive person or professional, it can do battle with context as it seeks to impose itself.

    Context can, and must, invite style into a project, into itself, But, to my mind, style cannot impose itself upon context, at least not with the hope of client satisfaction and deep personal success. JMGruendel 8.18.15

    • August 18, 2015 9:35 am

      if this was not a change time – huge demo aging into a huger technological new world as 2 or 3 younger generations grow up in it a lot of these realities could be benign: but the mass connectivity of tech-facilitated hype that blew up and popped the housing bubble is the same tech that has killed print and is blowing up new media to a crescendo of hyped “truth” in a zillion affinity groups: one of those is architecture and our tone deafness is self-reinforcing in an echo chamber…

      • Janice permalink
        August 18, 2015 9:39 am

        Love the image of the echo chamber where one is only talking to (or at) oneself. Love you, too, partner! jmg


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