Hobbling the Design Professions
In college, I had a professor, James Fitzgibbon, who was Buckminster Fuller’s partner for decades. Jim was a visionary too, and also an artist, architect and engineer. He and Bucky built structures in 93 countries. Jim was an outstanding educator who taught people to think beyond conventional terms and who maintained a deep concern for the welfare of his students after graduation. Jim told us of an excruciating ordeal he put himself through each year – serving on the state committee that reviewed the design portion of the architectural registration exam. The interesting part is why: Jim discovered that his best students were regularly failed if he wasn’t in the room to explain their designs to the other examiners. He was not always successful.
I am reminded of Jim’s martyrdom by our failed approach to shaping the design of buildings and the urban landscape in the United States – as closely observed in Seattle. We do not lack good designers so much as a stable and supportive environment. Ways in which government hobbles the design profession:
- Moving Public Health from the center to the periphery in discussions on buildings and the built environment. Rather than being the central question around which other issues are organized, Public Health has become a checklist of minimum standards. On the code side, industry standards prevail. On the zoning side, we worry far more about what a building looks like than about whether occupants have excellent access to natural light and air.
- Too many bureaucracies within government and the increasing use of organizations outside of government to perform quasi-governmental roles. The goals of various bureaucracies often conflict in unresolved ways. The goals of outside organizations are not always in the public interest. Conflict-of-interest issues abound. Few bureaucracies inside or outside of government are eliminated, streamlined or simplified in a meaningful way – they just reproduce.
- Complex and unstable building and zoning codes are counter-productive. The bureaucracies currently do not have incentives to be succinct. The number of words in our codes should be limited to a reasonable size. When one word goes in another should come out. Codes should be stable and revised – at most – once a year, all on the same date.
- Punitive fees, time-consuming submittal requirements and lengthy review processes together make up a substantial and growing percentage of building cost. Rather than deciding on the change we want and encouraging this change with inexpensive, expedient and reasonable processes, we treat all change with equal suspicion and obstacles. Time is money – and time devoted to unnecessary process is money that can not be spent on design.
The combination of standardized construction products, market forces, narrowly focused regulations and overall complexity contribute considerably to the rarity and expense of excellent design. In a series of posts, I will examine various ways we discourage, or fail to encourage, design excellence. The issues are complex: What is good design after all? I focus on quantifiable human issues, light and air among them, and ignore the vagaries of style and taste to the extent possible.