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“Lick & Stick”

October 27, 2015

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A very good architect Barry Svigals is building a prominent housing project in New Haven, marketed as “College & Crown – a center place”. Its possible to invest in this and other market-rate housing projects only because 2 systems of construction have been recently evolved to a sweet spot of affordability. “Wood frame over podium” structures are popping up everywhere: steel and/or concrete “podiums” and 4 or 5 floors of wood frame (just like the classic suburban Ranch or Colonial) apartments above that podium.

But economizing for a developer is not limited to structural approach. The interiors can be budget busters, and there is a Sheetrock and natural stone/wood surfacing that checks off that box, but those decorations, paper thin, have been around for several generations.

After structure and interior finish its the skin of any building can make it unaffordable at any scale. “Value engineering” is a term architects loath. Its builder/developer code for “do it on the cheap”. In cities the skin of many buildings needs to resist the possibility of spreading the fires of their nearby neighbors.

So solid brick or stone was often used to provide that resistance. But those materials are exquisitely costly, true budget busters. Since the criteria for selecting an exterior surface fire-rated material is resisting ignition, versus length of nearby burn (which can be handled cheaply with sheets of fireproof materials that are not weather worthy) paper thin products are making the exteriors of these buildings, including College & Crown, decorated versus constructed.

Veneers of concrete and clay are being painted on many structures everywhere. They can be added well, as Svigals does, but the blank shapes of the boxes they are glued to make for a large simple armature for that wallpaper.

The cross-purpose of affordable building and creativity have always challenged architects. Frank Lloyd Wright used zillions of cheap wood bits to build his version of a residential Model T Ford, the home for Everyman, his Usonian Homes. But that was in the Depression, when labor was at Third World levels of cost. Come a normal economy those 1,100 square foot homes became insanely expensive to built – it cost over $600,000, almost 20 years ago, to rebuilt one.

Building is, in fact, more laudable than cursing profit mongers: but when huge home builders create badly built homes that will rot and fall apart because they use hot glued together details to fill the curb-appeal list its cynical. For buildings like “College & Crown” whether these “Lick & Stick” tiles of concrete and clay will stay stuck is an open question.

But the metaphor is not strained when it comes to how humans can look at any aesthetic reality: its hard to know “how” (have 5% of those buying the College & Crown units ever heard of “wood frame over podium” construction?), let alone “why” anything looks the way it is.

The effort required to understand much beyond veneer is why humans are often satisfied with “what” something is. Exterior decorations that are the signature of his architecture are being added to Svigals design to change is “what” from “Lick & Stick” to “Svigals”.

The bigger question i, for me, is getting to the “Why” of things – not just architecture or spec building.

Style is “What”. Design is “How”. Culture is “Why”. The problem with architecture, today, and always, way before Wright, is “Who” substitutes for all 3 queries. Its a safe place when you opt for couture. But cheap couture is what Walmart affords.

Shopping for architects to build things means a track record of building, not just creativity – Svigals has that, in spades – but for most others there is the great divide: Banal and affordable and built en mass – using a “Lick & Stick” approach where plug-in “What’s” pass muster and make money.

The alternative are the “Who”‘s, Starchitects, who build without regard to costs, just like the couture fashion world.

So we are, in fact, left with 2 “Lick & Sticks”: unthinking building on the cheap with anonymous designs, or the “Lick & Stick” plug in of a Name Designer whose cost and often insanely impractical outcomes are justified by the raised return for rents, sales or simply the Viagra-ed ego of the patron who builds to validate.

The harder course, to describe, critique, teach is one that first asks “Why” and only then “How”…

Not found so much in history, but ever the hope of those of us who toil in that artisanal garden, away from agribusiness and the hothouse.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Freeman permalink
    October 27, 2015 8:47 am

    May be no way around the problem. C&C is built for rental not ownership. Rent rates are more like premium than “affordable market” rates. Money is back out by time serious deterioration begins. “Atlantic City” shorter-term outlook leaves New Haven residents in 2050 to watch another re-hab at C&C site – readily viewed at the time from the south side of the Taft Apartments building, b.1909.

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