Should Architects Design Housing That Is Bespoke, Made to Measure or Off the Rack?

©. Sean Connery on Savile Row

In the Australian Design Review, and repeated in Arch Daily, Australian architect Chris Knapp writes about The End of Prefabrication. I was going to do a critique of the article, (there is a lot to critique!) but after I tweeted that I was going to look at it I got a reply from Knapp that changed the discussion.

@lloydalter @ArchDaily Yes, please do - bearing in mind the point made is that the architect's expertise is the bespoke, not the repetitive.
— Chris Knapp (@builtpractice) December 5, 2013

The last line of the article is an expansion of that thought:

Mass- production is the realm of the industrial designer and the process engineer – so let them maintain claim over that territory. The bespoke is the true specialty of the architect and the contemporary profession has more facility than ever to implement difference in the most intelligent of ways.

To North American ears, the word bespoke sounds seriously pretentious. Indeed, according to the Telegraph, "The word was coined by tailors on Savile Row, London, in the 17th century and referred to a suit which was hand-crafted from a single bolt of cloth without the use of a pre-existing pattern." The tailors sued to keep the term distinct from "made to measure" and lost.

One of the biggest problems with architecture and housing is this obsession with "bespoke", that every building is designed without the use of a preexisting pattern. Some architects are doing made to measure, where, in suit lingo, they use "a basic template which is then roughly adjusted to fit individual measurements." Most are doing the equivalent of fast fashion, just knocking off whatever appears to be trendy. That's why so few houses are designed by architects and why so many of them are lousy.

Modern computer technology goes bespoke.

What we need right now is some decent off-the-rack housing, mass produced at reasonable prices, properly sized, well designed, made from ethical and sustainable materials, built to last, locally sourced and toasty warm.

One of the reasons we don't have it is that architects would rather be doing bespoke design at high prices for rich clients. However the word belongs in a Savile Row tailor shop, not in the practice of architecture.