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The Philosophical Feud Between Architects and Engineers

5 min read

A philosophical feud over the soul of affordability that has been ongoing for most of a century may have reached a turning point.

The architect as dictator was first popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘architecture’s most irredeemable cad,’ whose Usonian house (1927) was a fantastic concept and is today remembered in 50 uniquely individual Wright houses around the country. But the cult expanded into a movement only in 1933 when modern architects led by the intellectual martinet Walter Gropius developed and aggressively spread a manifesto. In the Athens Charter, they staked a grandiose claim to the future of cities: architects, by building the living environment, would remake humanity into better people.

For the next 40 years, this model of architecture swept all before it, culminating in the 1950s’/60s’ boom of global Brutalism: poured-in-place exposed concrete high-rises of all configurations, especially housing, reaching apotheosis in Montreal with Moshe Safdie’s Expo 67 Habitat, a child’s-blocks approach to community.

In parallel with the architects’ visioning their claim to build the future, but both less visible and much less successful, was another group, the engineers. From Henry Ford onward, they dreamed of making homes as one made cars, via assembly line. A 1952 essay by Robert Heinlein predicted a modular-housing disruption within 20 years, and it would be auto executive turned U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary George Romney (father of Mitt, former governor of auto-making’s then-fiefdom Michigan), whose 1969 Operation Breakthrough sought to make manufactured housing synonymous with quality affordable housing…and failed spectacularly. Coupled with the stereo-type of trailer parks, for the next several decades ‘manufactured’ and ‘modular’ became hush words in affordable housing: once said, they could never be unsaid.

Between the two domains are a fundamental argument about how affordability could be created:

  • Architects made spaces smaller, more adaptable, more Zen-like (and more regimented), and sought to convince you that, as Mies van der Rohe said, “Less is more.”
  • Engineers made materials cheaper, evaporating away anything that smacked of construction entropy: materials waste, building irregularities and defects, down time and delay, labor and all time-related soft costs.

Today’s expression of the architects’ vision is the tiny house movement; of the engineers’ vision, the off-site controlled-environment factory and the plug-and-play sophisticated module.

The argument matters, because the architects’ ethos is baked into affordable housing laws, regulations and practices. Building codes generally operate on the presumption that in-situ is the only form of construction that can happen. Davis-Bacon institutionalizes the on-site unionized hardhat crew. Design review and public comment give locals the chance to play amateur architect for a day (or as long as they can protract the process) – to demand lollipops in exchange for their acquiescence. Qualified Allocation Plans incentivize features and add-ons; industry recognition celebrates design, so it’s no wonder that those who win either Low Income Housing Tax Credit allocations or industry awards are usually in the top decile on cost.

Meanwhile, in the parallel universe of conventional affordable market-rate housing, the architects never held sway; instead, driven by merchant builders and REITs, the engineers developed dramatic improvements in building technology. Revolutions in light-frame structural wood-making, many of them pioneered in wood-rich Canada, have enabled fully wood-frame construction to go to six stories, with concomitant changes in building codes allowing stick-built housing to go farther up. That’s a game changer, as is the revolution in building components – whole rooms, including kitchens and bathrooms, in off-site factories, loaded ready-to-assemble into a container that can be trucked to the site and crane-picked onto a rising structure. As a result, modern modular saves money in construction (five to 15 percent, maybe more); saves money in maintenance and operations (fewer latent defects); typically delivers better insulation (snug fit); enables easy higher-vertical density; and as such is better for the environment because it eases many side-effects of boosting the urban population. Simply put, it’s usually better.

Age and maintenance have taken their toll on the architects’ creations. Concrete is brittle; when a building settles, it cracks irreparably; its R factor is negligible; it’s inadaptable; it’s hard to cover or paint; it eventually leaks. Living in bare-wall concrete structures dehumanizes people. The affordable and public housing high-rises of America, Britain and France have largely been torn down, and in their place are wood-frame mid-rises with modular components.

A dwelling starts as a place and becomes a home when its occupant takes emotional ownership by personalizing it. Walk into the affordable or public housing apartment of any elderly resident and you are instantly greeted by a distinctive, welcoming and homey space. It is not the architect who gives us a home: we do.

After just short of a century of architects telling us how we should live, their final irony may be losing to the engineers, who strove for faster-cheaper-better and never told anyone how to live.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at dsmith@affordablehousinginstitute.org.