Pumpkin spice architecture

Pumpkin Spice: So “Nice”

Today, believe it or not, is the first day of October – which means we are fully entrenched in autumnal culture.

As I was putting fall-themed window stickies on the windows with my two-year old, I reflected on all the other wonderful things that come with fall: cooler air, football, changing colors, harvest, longer nights, beards (mine is in full swing) and of course pumpkin spice everything.

This post is not meant to be derisive regarding pumpkin spice.  I am one who enjoys the occasional pumpkin spice latte, with one less pump of pumpkin sauce and an extra shot of espresso, of course.  But I also enjoy drawing parallels between my professional work and seemingly unrelated pop culture trends like pumpkin spice.

So, this led me to wonder – what is “pumpkin spice latte” equivalent in architecture?

First of all, one needs to understand what makes the pumpkin spice latte so popular.  Essentially, it is popular because it is perceived as different than a base offering (i.e. a regular cup of coffee or even a plain latte), it is generally unoffensive and neutral, and, most importantly, very accessible to the point of ubiquity (a Starbucks on every corner).

A quick google search led me stumble across an article from a couple years ago at FastCompany that likens Midcentury Modern furniture in the interior design world as the equivalent of the pumpkin spice latte.  In terms of the rest of the built environment, however, this analogy doesn’t really appear to stick.  While many people enjoy the simplicity and accessibility of Midcentury Modern furniture and all the knock-offs that have come since (thanks, Ikea), it seems obvious that one would be hard pressed to find that same prevalence of predilection for the same type of “Modernism” when it comes to their houses, apartment buildings, and other pieces of architecture they interact with regularly on a daily basis.  Or is it obvious?  Maybe it is false?

“Design on Demand” or “Who Demands Design”?

Somewhat oversimplified, one of the goals of Midcentury Modernism in the built environment was focusing on function.  In home design, the movement focused on the democratic ideal of meeting the needs of the average American family.  While today it may be difficult to define what constitutes the “average American family,” I don’t believe that the notion architecture and design should meet the needs of the many has been rejected by any means.

It is true, the interior layouts of homes have changed throughout the decades to be more functional and adaptable with an ebb and flow that appears to favor open floor plans over more traditional separated interior room layouts.  Yet, at least regionally, the exteriors of the houses have hardly changed, except for the location and size of the garage or car port.  Why?

I see it as partly a product who makes the decisions in our built environments.  Last year at this time, I joined a group of 60 other emerging professionals at the AIA National’s Practice Innovation Lab in Washington D.C.  There we were broken into small groups to brainstorm and develop models for architecture practice in the future.  One emphasis was to investigate how to tap into currently untapped or minimally tapped market segments.  My group came up with the following general assertions:

  • Architects, generally, provide professional services to those who own property in some fashion.
  • The majority of “property” owners in the United States are single-family home-owners, who are not required to and generally do not seek the guidance of a professional architect for home design services.
  • Because of who architects generally serve, there is a stigma that architects’ services are too expensive for the general public.

Thus, our team developed “Design on Demand” – a hypothetical service that helped connect the general home-owner with design services at the moment of need, utilizing big data like Amazon Web Services or Google Analytics.  Essentially, it would tie into a user’s data they leave behind on various websites/social media and try to pinpoint those users who were clearly after some level of design work but maybe didn’t realize it. For example, if someone searched “can I remove a wall in my kitchen,” that would be a key indicator that someone was in need of some design insight.  Typical search results would pop up, but as part of those results, a pop-up may appear that suggests “It looks like you are working on a remodel.  Do you want to talk to Chase Kramer, an architect in your area?”  In our pitch, the first consult was free, but additional services thereafter (consults, drawings, specifications) were paid.

In the end, the goal was to connect architects and design professionals with a new market group that typically doesn’t engage an architect.  One of the other, underlying goals of this approach was to  educate home-owners on design.  In a true sociological context, it would also educate the designer as to what is really wanted from the home-owning public.

It turns out, some folks are already tapping into this idea.  The company Modsy (also mentioned in the FastCompany article), will take photos of your space, run you through a design style questionnaire, and then provide furniture layouts for your space using popular brands.  It sounds somewhat limited, but it is definitely in the same vein as “Design on Demand.”

It should be mentioned of course, that this approach still misses out on a key constituent – our friends and neighbors who don’t have the means to purchase new furniture, don’t own their living space, or in some other way are not able to pay for design.  How can architects and designers tap into everyone’s circumstances, so that the design decisions of architects are not only influenced by the few who can afford Crate and Barrel throw pillows, those with the position and money to build new buildings, or those with the capital to develop large suburban tracts of land?  This is where the role of “Citizen Architect,” shared back in August, begins to tap into how architects can reach out to the broader community.

My team’s pitch at the Practice Innovation Lab wasn’t the winning one (yes, there was a competition), but I’d argue it was the most hilarious.  I’ll plan to share more on that experience in a separate post later this month.  This post is focused on what the architecture of our towns and cities may look like if a more democratic process occurred in the design of the buildings that make up our cities and towns and how that process may occur.  Can we engage others better in order to learn what is desired of the “average American?” Would our architecture be more dynamic? Would it be cold and bland? Or would it be more in the middle-ground, maybe like a nice warm Pumpkin Spice Latte on a chilly Monday morning?

Please, share your thoughts in the comments below.

3 Replies to “Pumpkin spice architecture”

  1. Good thoughts, Chase. I have spent much of my career trying to figure out how to extend the benefits of good design to the average Joe (following your coffee theme). I still haven’t figured out how to do it and still make money.

    I have done a fair amount of residential architecture and have often said that house design in this country has been sacrificed on the altar of the three car garage. It needs to start on the planning level by designing lots that will allow more than a “snout” house.

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