What does Value Engineering smell like?

It all began the other day while I was waiting for the train in the morning, staring at an ad for a motorcycle that I could win if I entered the NY Lottery. Let me say from the beginning that I am no connoisseur of motorcycles, nor have ever had any interest in them.  The thought came to my mind unbidden - "That must be the cheaper model..."  I have no idea if I am correct, but something in the picture gave me the sense that something was missing from the bike - the psychic residue of trim removed, or machined hardware replaced with stamped sheet metal.

I have long suspected that, as trained consumers, we have a subconscious sense of design, a sort of lizard-brain gestalt sense that is unconsciously weighing how valuable objects are.  I have no doubt that this lizard brain can be duped by advertising or tricked by slick salesmanship, but I think we develop our senses in parallel with the advances of advertisement, so we can't always be wrong.  If we can assume that cars (and motorcycles) are designed from the top of the line down - what are the Ford Fiestas and Toyota Echoes of the world [you can also glean here that I have not bought a late-model car in some time] but walking wounded,  with memories of their flashy concept-car pasts?

The typical design path  in architecture  is to design a beautiful creature that does not fit the initial budget and either bully the client into falling in love and producing more money or hack off limbs until the design fits the real budget.  In my experience, the initial design is a thoughtful labor of love and the VE process is grudging battle to hold onto at least the silhouette of the original concept.  This is often done skillfully and strategically, but can we sense the phantom limbs that are missing from the whole?  What about Norman Foster's building for City Center, which is missing almost half its height because of faulty concrete in the bottom half?

I was talking with a colleague the other day about hidden architectural signifiers of value - she was working on a design for spec home design and musing where to spend the most money.  My suggestion was to put the budget into the front door.  I grew up visiting my grandmother at a house that my grandfather designed, a lovely specimen of mid-century design, and my clearest memory of that house was the front door.  Wider than a normal door, it had a beautiful large door knob and made a soft, rich, "thud" when closed, like an expensive car.  The house had many other aspects, some successful and some not, but the front door was something you encountered daily.

There are some cultures that believe that the window into the body is through the pulse, others that examine its spoor for signs of internal distress.  We may sacrifice environmental performance, closet space and high ceilings and complain mightily, but a reliable front door reassures us that all is well with the domestic machinery.

Werner Sobek at Cooper Union

I attended a lecture by Werner Sobek at Cooper Union last night titled "Eco-radicalism - Architecture Tomorrow"  (part of the Architectural League's Franzen lecture series).  Despite the poor sound quality (even by the standards of the Great Hall), I found two interesting takeaways:

  1. Recyclable Buildings: Building material re-use has been something that we've been thinking about a lot lately.  We recently visited Build It Green in Queens, a building recycling and re-use operation run by Justin Green.  Though their warehouse is overflowing, I got a sense of frustration from  Justin that they were just skimming the cream off of the construction waste stream - a river of sheet rock and mangled steel studs that will never be recovered.  Sobek talked about banishing glue from the construction toolkit - materials should remain separate and identifiable within the construction matrix.  When I pressed him on this - material science seems to be moving towards more composite materials rather than fewer - he mentioned the concept of single-material composites: combining different forms of the same material (say, a woven material and a solid binder).  The composite could then at least easily be separated into piles of like materials.
  2. Substituting Energy for Structure: I admit this idea is still somewhat improbable to me - I think many conservationists have a deep suspicion of buildings that require power for vital functions.  Sobek rationalized "active" structures by pointing out that, given the realistic lifespan of most buildings today, energy saved in the construction process or kept out of the embodied "grey" energy in the building had a greater effect than energy saved on day-to-day operations.  His examples were a twirling umbrella-shade that avoided spokes by using the force created by the rotation to keep the shade open, and a railroad-bridge concept that used mechanical 'muscles' to pre-stress the structure when it sensed that a train was passing over it.

Re-theorizing the Glove, or, What’s Learned in Las Vegas Should Stay in Las Vegas

The glove, a functionalist stalwart from the beginnings of modernism, has been much maligned by the post-modernists. In the course of research for a studio project I began to look at gloves, and discovered something quite startling – they don’t fit the old modernist cliché anymore. I found myself looking at specialized motocross gloves by Troy Lee Designs (specifically, the “Pro Apex” model, available in black or white leather). Granted, these $80 gloves are not your typical fleece-lined “leather” one-size-fits-all winter glove, and RAMS would probably not be caught dead in a pair; but what could these gloves possibly tell us about the direction of contemporary architecture?

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