Published Commentary by Schindler and Critics


In Pencil Points, Oct. 1944, p.16 + 18, cont. Nov. 1944, p. 12 + 14

If we disbelieve the prophets of a revolutionary change in our economy after the war we shall be forced to base our plans for the immediate future of the architect on the trends of the prewar past.

On this basis, optimistic hopes for radically new city planning and government sponsored housing will hardly materialize. The increasing conservatism of the United States, as expressed in our Congress, eliminates the possibility that this body will top our billion-dollar debt structure by housing grants. But houses we shall need, and the only way to get them into the hands of the people is to reduce their cost to fit the average income. Improved construction methods, prefabrication, etc., may help, but will not do the whole job. It will be necessary to attack the complicated organization of the contemporary building industry and eliminate all unnecessary charges which make the home a life-long financial burden.

A few years ago one of our statisticians found that only six percent of all building was executed under the guidance of an architect. Our California Architects' Association took notice with a start and tried to convince the public of the architect's value by means of radio talks. The oncoming war blurred the effectiveness of this campaign and redirected the profession into another frantic attempt: to convince government agencies that we architects had something to Contribute to the war effort. Complete failure to accomplish this culminated in th advice to disguise ourselves as simple technicians when applying for public office.

In a way, this was no new disguise. The architect has always over-emphasized his value as a supervisor and policeman of construction work, with the result that his real social contribution is generally unknown. It can be understood why the owner hesitates to employ an architect for the portion of the job which any technician can apparently do as well at lower cost, especially since the law protects the owner against gross structural inadequacies and flagrant dishonesty. In most communities, plans and structures are inspected by structural, plumbing, electrical, and health inspectors, and in addition, the finance agencies (banks, FHA) check the construction at repeated intervals.

Unless the public will come to realize the importance of the architect's spiritual contribution, his standing in the building industry will deteriorate further. The weakness of his present position and his consequent feeling of inferiority can best be shown by comparing the services rendered and remunerations received by the various members of the building industry.

Starting from the end of the undertaking, we find:

1. The landscape architect: He plans the environment of the house, specifies the plants, and supervises their planting. His principle equipment consists of a knowledge of plants and locale, coupled with a feeling for style and enough imagination to give form to his garden. Little detailing is involved, since nature provides the units for his "arrangement. "

He charges the owner fifteen percent on the total cost of the job, and in addition collects a commission of about twenty percent from the nursery providing the stock.

2. The interior decorator: He purchases and arranges furnishings and textiles. Equipped with a sense of design and a knowledge of the market, he contributes taste and color to the interior. Because he deals largely with historical designs and with the products of mills and shops, his personal creative effort is reduced to a minimum.

Mark-up for his services: one hundred percent over cost.

3. The tradesman: The recipient of the so-called subcontract, he furnishes the various materials which compose the building, and through his technical skill and labor incorporates them into the building.

His profit on the transaction, besides and above expense and a salary for himself, should be at least ten percent.

4.The general contractor: He computes costs and manages execution according to plans and specifications. Provided these are complete, his knowledge of the building processes need not be extensive, which is increasingly the case. The contractor during the good old times, used to maintain mechanical equipment and possibly lumber and material yards. At present, however, his principal tool is the telephone. He signs the lump sum contract and promptly sublets all work to the various subcontractors, without having to contribute any special talent for the benefit of the owner. Union wage scales and price fixing arrangements amongst manufacturers prevent his helping the deal by shrewd trading. Supervision of the building process by public inspectors relieves him largely of responsibility for structural soundness of the building. The present form of the building loan, with its progress disbursement reduces to a minimum his financial contribution and his need for capital.

5. The loan agency: It provides the missing portion of the money needed for the building, charging interest. The government now agrees to insure the loan, thereby relieving the agency of mortgage risks. In spite of this, the agency usually forces the owner to build in the most conventional and commonplace fashion so as to assure quick resale in case of default. Thus the architect is prevented from anticipating imminent changes in building conception. This kind of control retards architectural development in general, and victimizes the owner in particular because designs produced under such limitations depreciate rapidly.

Present interest charges are about five percent plus fees. By the time the owner has paid off his debt, he has paid more than twice the amount of the loan. This final doubling of the cost of the house reduces into insignificance the brain-twisting schemes by which the architect tries to save a few dollars through structural short-cuts. Government bonds pay two percent. Why should insured mortgages cost more? And note here, that the FHA accepts in its valuations the usual profits of contractors and tradesmen (up to 15% of the contract), but refuses to allow more than four percent for architectural services despite the higher minimum rates published by the A.I.A.

6. The realtor: We need not dwell on the subdivider. His lack of social responsibility, coupled with his fantastic profits have started the current cry for scientific planning. But even the simple salesman who gets your signature on the lot sales contract adds another five percent commission to the cost of your home.

7. And finally . . . the architect: We have reached the man whose performance determines whether the whole undertaking will succeed or fail financially, structurally and spiritually. He must know all materials and techniques and choose among them wisely. He must understand the owner and the neighborhood sufficiently to make his design an asset to both. He must sense the meaning of life and have a vision of its future. His imagination must enable him to take a pile of building materials and create an organism which will function and live.

His plans must cover every detail, must cope with the increasing complication of our mechanical development, and convey all necessary instructions to a host of skilled and unskilled workmen. He must supervise their performance and be responsible for the outcome.

The A.I.A. says that this contribution is worth a maximum of ten percent of the cost of the building if the architect can get it. And hold on ! - this charge is not profit, but must cover the architect's livelihood, the expense of his office, and the amortization of his education, consisting of at least five years of college and five to ten years of apprenticeship. Where is the architect's profit?

Is it any wonder then, that one architectural firm confesses that all jobs under twenty thousand dollars wind up in the red and serve only to maintain connections? That less scrupulous practitioners try to make ends meet by copying precedent instead of solving problems, by asking tradesmen to work out details (for which the owner therefore pays twice), and even by accepting secret commissions from contractors?

The A.I.A. further analyzes the value of the architect's various services: "supervision" of construction (which is largely delegated to employees) is valued at two-fifths of his total fee; "working plans" (again largely executed in the drafting-room) another two-fifths and "preliminary plans" trail at the valuation of one-fifth of his remuneration. Here is final proof that the lack of public appreciation for the archtect's work is exceeded only by his own self-abasement.

The "preliminary plans" are the very crux of the architect's contribution. They embody the over-all conception of the building and represent a complete synthesis of the architect's gifts, schooling, and experience. They should be the result of minute and lengthy studies of functional, structural, financial, and cultural problems entailed by the human needs and physical and financial limitations involved in the building.

It is for this main creative effort that the architect earns the smallest portion of his fee.

A further paragraph in the A.I.A. contract allots the architect an additional four percent of the cost if the building is executed without a general contractor, on a "subdivided contract" basis. Why four percent? No self-respecting contractor will undertake to execute a building on this basis for less than ten percent.

The architect must realize the importance of his contribution and demand sufficient payment to permit proper performance. However, building is already overburdened with the charges listed above, and must be relieved. It is senseless for a family to spend years saving for the "down payment" and then occupy "their" shelter burdened with twenty years of debt bondage.

The only solution, both for the owner's over-indebtedness and for the architect's under-compensation, is for the architect to take charge of all building processes himself. His designs should include interiors and landscapes, to be executed by experts and subcontractors working under the architect's guidance ( In the planning of "contemporary" buildings, this procedure is a necessity.)

Complete management of building operations will not add much to the architect's tasks if he is in the habit of supervising properly, and need increase the percentage rate of his fee only slightly. It will bring him into closer contact with craftsmen and give him greater knowledge and control of costs. I have found it advisable to compute material schedules for all sub-contracts separately. This eliminates the slip-shod and "come-on" bid, and protects the owner against eventual litigation. Coupled with a little extra care in certifying payments, it makes expensive bonds unnecessary. The owner has insight into the use of his money, and the element of uncertainty and distrust (justified or not) which the general contract creates, is eliminated. The increasing complication of our building processes allows so many variations from any norm that the lump sum contract becomes more and more a gamble in which the owner can lose but never win, since an excessive estimate will not bring him a refund, though a low estimate can lead to claims for "extras," poor and halting execution, and even a summons to court. The general contract makes "building" synonymous with "trouble" and induces the buying of ready-made speculative buildings which do not satisfy individual needs. Building a house should be a major and stimulating event to the prospective owner.

I think this proposed simplified procedure will lower costs by concentrating charges and responsibilities, and at the same time still allow proper recompense for a key person.

It is further important that subdividing be taken out of the speculator's hands and be guided by considerations of social need and of sound economics. The architect's vision for future living conditions can be a definite force for improving this field.

A lowering of costs and a concentration of rewards will enable the architect to enter the small house field - which he must do if we are to develop an architecture representative of a national culture.

Should the architect fail to regain leading position as a builder, his outlook is dismal: the public will pay any amount for services of a commercial nature, but is unwilling to recognizing cultural contributions. Similarily war housing operations show that the government prefers to deal with large businesses and contractors who give the appearance of financial responsibility. It seems certain that the speculative builder and large manufacturer will become increasingly more powerful economically, and the bureaucrat more so politically. If he does not take steps to prevent it, the architect will end up as their hireling, and his art will suffocate under a blanket of commercialism.

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