What is the Value of Design?

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Often, we only notice design when there’s something wrong with it—when we get our fingers caught in a door handle or our new cell phone gets poor reception. When things work well, we don’t have to think about them. They become a seamless part of our lives. No wonder that the value of design is recognized primarily in the breach.

The disappointing cell phone shows that design is about relationships, like the one between how you hold the phone and how the phone holds a signal. What is true of a phone is true of a building: its design is about relationships, not just “looks.” It’s about how look and feel, use and comfort, stability and durability come together to support one another. How light shapes space and space shapes light—and how light and space together suggest where we’d most like to sit. During the years of cheap energy, we were lazy about these things. No need to consider natural light; just add more bulbs! That’s a simple-minded way of thinking, just adding things up: frame a structure, add some walls, add a roof, add some windows and some lights and some fans—and just add up their costs, as well. But what if you arranged the windows so you didn’t need so many lights and fans? Design gets the parts working together, so the whole gives better performance for less money.

There are less tangible benefits, too, like the delight that people find in good buildings. And, believe it or not, delight can translate directly into dollars. In 2002, arcCA (Architecture California), the quarterly journal of the American Institute of Architects, California Council (AIACC), asked twenty-one non-architects from many walks of life what they thought about architects and architecture. The headmaster of a private middle- and high-school for boys recorded these thoughts:

“Thirty years ago, we were trying to build a functional academic building for the least cost on a limited campus. The result was useful, but it did not excite either donors or students. I was never congratulated for its low square foot costs or for the building itself. Fifteen years later, we spent a record amount on a grand athletic facility by a firm that specialized in such facilities. They convinced us that its openness and other somewhat expensive features would draw students into higher levels of participation. They were correct, and it also drew donors, excited by its promise. It has generated student activity ever since. I do not remember its square foot cost and am never asked.”

John Peterson, relates a similar story about the new home his firm, Peterson Architects, designed for San Francisco’s Homeless Prenatal Program in 2005. In The Power of Pro Bono (NY: Metropolis Books, 2010), he writes, “Months after we completed our work, Martha Ryan, the founder and executive director of Homeless Prenatal, told me a story. The organization had a long-term funder who had given on the order of $30,000 annually. The funder came for a visit to the new facility, walked around, and liked it very much. That person called the next day and said, ‘Please make your application this year for ten times the historic amount . . . .’ Martha firmly believes it was due to the design of the new facility.”
Leading for-profit businesses recognize the same benefits. Apple Inc. is an example, with its crisp, inventive retail stores, many of which have won AIACC design awards. While the “value” of design is sometimes difficult to quantify, it still remains an integral part of what architects bring to the process. So keep up the good work and the AIACC will continue to advocate for the “value of design” on your behalf.


Tim Culvahouse, FAIA

Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, is Editor-in-Chief of the AIA California Council and an architect specializing in the public communication of design ideas through his firm, Culvahouse Consulting.

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