The perennial problem for the 99% of architects who are not stars is: how and where do you find work? There are many ways to look for work, but they often entail risky investments that don’t always pay off, or else not being able to sleep at night. You can try to win competitions, though even if you’re super talented the chance of winning and actually building still often remains slim. Besides, competitions are all too often rigged, and if they’re not rigged, then they are all too often beauty contests in which the most seductive rendering or visualization wins, as opposed to the best idea. Another way to find work is to kiss political ass, as many successful architects do around the world, so that ‘competitions’ are rigged in your favor by the powers that be, but that can also backfire if the political tide changes, as it’s doing in many places (just look at Spain, and Santiago Calatrava). Another source of work, especially during boom times, at least, are the kinds of commercial developers who build corporate shlock and junk space, but that can cause your conscience to weigh heavily. There are also ways to avoid having to actively search for work altogether, the best-known of which is to marry into a rich family (if you’re not fortunate enough to have been born into a rich family in the first place). But that can make your conscience weigh even more heavily. The fact is: in an economic system that privileges capital over labor, it’s very hard for architects to find work without involving either work given away for free in competitions, or else some form of prostitution.
But there is another way; one that was explained to me recently by my friend and Berlage Institute classmate Roland King, a registered architect based in Amsterdam you’ve probably never heard of. He is not from a rich family, he refuses to kiss political ass, he doesn’t work for developers, and he doesn’t waste his time participating in competitions. So how does he find enough work to net nearly 50 thousand euros per year during an economic crisis (after Dutch taxes) and still manage to sleep well at night?
He does it by designing and project-managing affordable home renovations for ordinary middle-class folk, rather than going after ‘prestige’ work. OK, it doesn’t get him into the pages of Dwell or even Architectural Digest; only into a lousy blog such as this one. But then again, he is one of those rare architects who is not obsessed with becoming famous, not even for 15 minutes. This has allowed him to tap into a huge market, a segment of the population that even many of the most well-intentioned, socially-minded architects have failed to reach: the middle class. Despite the fact that it’s shrinking, the middle class remains the biggest social class in the so-called ‘developed world’.
The reason this market is so hard to enter is because of a hard truth: most ‘normal’ people don’t trust most architects, and would never hire one. Architects are only for the rich and powerful, in their minds. They believe, probably thanks to some urban myth that is circulating on the internet, that the majority of architects are not out to satisfy their clients but are more interested in satisfying their fellow architects and their own egos, all at the client’s expense. Preposterous as this myth may sound, that’s largely the perception out there, and Roland has successfully gained the trust of these critical skeptics by avoiding pretentious-sounding architectural discourse and instead speaking their language: the vernacular.
OK, so we know that Roland does affordable renos. But he must surely do lots of them to rake in that kind of dough. The question still remains, however: how does he find so much work? The fact is that he doesn’t. People planning to renovate their homes or their small businesses find him. How? Through online search engines. Years ago, Roland taught himself how to design and launch web sites, and he figured out how search engine algorithms work: URLs containing the very exact words that people are searching for online are the ones that usually land near the top of a search (that’s why ‘sex dot com’ is the URL that most often lands at the top of searches). So rather than naming his firm some sort of obscure combination of numbers, letters and symbols, as if it were a secret password, Roland did something completely different: he made nearly twenty websites; each one with a URL containing key words that people planning to undertake a renovation in North Holland are likely to type into the search field. The URLs registered under his name, each with his firm’s logo and contact information, include: www.verbouwenarchitect.nl, www.kelderarchitect.nl, www.aanbouwmetarchitect.nl, www.amsterdambouwbegeleider.nl, www.dakterrasarchitect.nl, www.souterrainarchitect.nl, etc. The key words above are, in Dutch: ‘renovation’, ‘basement’, ‘home addition’, ‘building permit’, ‘roof terrace’, ‘interior renovation’, ‘Amsterdam’, etcetera, in addition to the word ‘architect’; words that someone looking for the kind of service he offers is likely to employ in an online search.
So, is Roland being an overly aggressive salesperson? Of course he is; but he is also being perfectly honest and up front about it. By focussing on renovations of existing buildings, moreover, he can rightfully say he practices a more sustainable kind of architecture. Similarly, by working for ordinary folk rather than for the 1%, he can even say he practices a more socially conscientious architecture. And those sorts of things are important when you’re trying to get some sleep at night.
Perhaps being middle-class client- and service-orientated is something that we architects shouldn’t fear so much. At least when we’re desperately in need of some work.