Can Architects Survive in a World Where We Have to Build Less?

Australian architect Jennifer Crawford has a different model of practice.

Crawford with fence
Jennifer Crawford.

Elin Bandmann

The key to green building is to use less stuff. In a recent post on the subject, I quoted engineer Scott Brookes' answer when asked how to promote using less stuff and still make a living: "By supporting a reduction in development, we reinforce the value of our consultant’s thinking time, innovation, and design creativity."

hierarchy of net zero design

Will Arnold

But using less stuff often means making less money, and engineer Will Arnold's hierarchy of net zero design has serious implications for the architectural and design communities. How do you make a living when your best advice is to build nothing, and your livelihood depends on clients who build something? It's a fundamental contradiction of a capitalist system based on constant growth, with many asking questions and discussing degrowth without many good answers.

Australian architect Jennifer Crawford has been wrestling with this issue, and recently tweeted her own version of the inverted pyramid where she describes the problem: Architects make the most money building new, but what's best for the planet is building nothing.

Jennifer Crawford at home

Elin Bandmann

After being laid off from her full-time job in April, 2020 she restarted her own business. It's an alternative form of practice, Our New Home Coach, where she advises clients about what to build. But also, "Jennifer is passionate about helping people build less so that they can live more."

Crawford's detailed website describes how she does consultations, right down to starting with: "I arrive at your house and say hello." She then listens, something many architects are incapable of doing, getting the story of the house. She starts with the "Powerball" scenario where money is no object, then gets real with budgets, and:

"After some consideration, we set out what your options are. Remember “do nothing” is always an option. Sometimes there is one option that works best; other times, there may be three, four, or even five. Maybe we draw things, maybe we measure it out in your house so that you can clearly get a feel for how it can all work."

Does the "do nothing" answer come up often? Crawford tells Treehugger, "Yes. I’m talking people out of stuff all the time. Many of my jobs are small. One of my favorites meant building 6 square meters (64 square feet) of floor space."

There are different levels of service. A two-hour consultation gets the client a written and graphic research report with a site analysis, review of planning, and design recommendations. That may be all the client needs.

The next level would be a concept design which "can be used for having 'in principle' discussions with builders or other designers." 

Leichhardt Project
Leichhardt Project.

Helen Ward

Crawford also offers what she calls "concierge service" reserved for a maximum of three projects per year, for Passive House projects only.

"For this service, I am involved at every stage of the project from initial discussion right until you move in. It includes design and modelling through the Passive House Planning Package, assembling the right consultant team, selecting the right materials, fixtures and fittings, getting the necessary approvals, finding and selecting the right builder and being on site as required during the construction process."

That sounds like a traditional architectural practice, and Crawford confirms: "Concierge is basically full-service architectural services rebranded."  

Why only three projects per year? "I have the limit of 3 projects because if you are doing serious Passive House, you need to focus on it," says Crawford. "You can’t do that with 20 jobs on unless you have a larger team, of course."

Birchgrove project
Birchgrove project.

Katherine Millard

Clients have written lovely testimonials on her website, but the most interesting one is from another architect, Michelle Walker, who writes:

"Only last week I got an email from a homeowner who was looking for some advice and wanted to book an on-site consultation. The project type was not likely to be the right fit for our practice and rather than decline, I was able to pass on Jennifer’s details. Jennifer met with them and they emailed me this week with thanks for the referral, as they were delighted with her advice and attention. So it was a win–win for me, the homeowner and Jennifer."

This is shocking ... like Macy's Santa Claus sending shoppers to Gimbels in "Miracle on 34th Street." But it demonstrates that there is room in the profession for different models of practice. Is it one that works? Can you make a living being a sort of Marie Kondo of design, showing people how to live with less space and less stuff? Crawford tells Treehugger, "I hope so. Work in progress."

The late great architectural thinker Lance Hosey wrote about how the image of the architect in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" still haunts the profession, the attitude that “I don't build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build!" Building stuff is what the profession is all about, what architects do. But the profession has to evolve in a world where we have to build nothing or build less.

Crawford shows us a different model, not based on a growing practice of doing bigger buildings, but one based on sufficiency, on meeting the needs of her clients as well as her own needs. She tells Treehugger: "I just want a good sustainable business that pays the bills. I’m not looking to build an empire." Words to live by.