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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

Hats Off to Quality

For my birthday, my sister sent me a Shetland Fisherman’s that she knit herself.

A similar hat could have been purchased online or at any number of stores. The knitting machines employed in the industry would have certainly been up to the task of providing the same colors and patterns. But, should I lose the mass produced product; I would simply buy another one. I will pay more attention to the hand-knit one and would grieve if it went missing because it is a token that has meaning beyond the object.

This hat, for me, is representative of quality. Not only is it beautiful and functional, it was made specifically for me by someone who is important in my life-it represents a conversation between us. This quality is represented by the object but is manifest in a psychological connection between two people that exceeds the dollar value of the physical object.

Years ago, during the battle for Obamacare, former Minnesota Governor and Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty  wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post denouncing the plan. I don’t remember the gist of the argument, but do remember being startled by the pedestrian phase, “…Americans know quality…”. It caught my attention because I knew that to be false: Americans, in general, don’t know quality, Americans know price.

Acceptable quality coupled with lowest price is typical of Americans’s approach to products and services. Walmart, Target and many others have ridden this knowledge to vast corporate wealth.

Years ago I was having coffee with a contractor. I asked him if he would ever want to do new home builds. He said ‘no’ rather dismissively. I asked why, and he responded that building a new house is a product - renovations and additions are a service. Most housing developers would prefer to do spec houses because they don’t have to deal with client personalities and demands. That points up the difference between the two: a product is a physical object; a service requires a relationship with another human.

Our system and business practices seem to have drifted more towards products and away from services. I recently received a designation as a Certified Passive House Designer. The Passive House model focuses on dramatic reduction in energy use and carbon production through increased insulation and air-tight envelopes, among others things. A modest increase in labor and material costs is paid back many times over in energy savings for the home owner with additional benefits to the environment.

Which developer is interested in spending more money up-front, out of their profit margin, so the home owner can benefit from energy cost savings after they’ve purchased the house? If the energy savings could not be capitalized, very few. As Calvin Coolidge said, “the business of America is business”- and business tends to be about maximizing profit.

The person-to-person interaction indicative of this quality has cost implications not only for the products of business, but for the conduct of business as well.

As an architect and business owner, I get emails on a regular basis asking if I would consider a dramatic cost savings afforded by having my construction documents or presentation drawings prepared overseas. If acceptable quality and low price were the most important metric, I would do it. It would doubtlessly be cheaper-the talent pool appears to be fairly even across developed countries and, with the internet and zoom, development and delivery of the documents would be easy. But these companies would be providing a product, not a service. This approach seems the definition of a ‘transactional’ relationship. I pay a (low) fee and the drawings of acceptable quality are produced. Soon AI may be doing the same thing. The people who produce them know nothing of the design process or the decision making that went into it, nor have they learned anything about the business of architecture; their careers have not progressed. I have received a set of acceptable drawings that can be used to secure a permit. I have not imparted any knowledge to the drafting team and have neither shared coffee with them nor told them my funny, funny jokes. I have the drawings, they have the money and that is the end of the relationship.

I ignore the offers because I love teaching and talking about architecture as much as I love the practice. I want to help develop architects that not only work in the community but are part of the it.

When I was teaching, I would often lament that I was not involved in building things. From time to time, though, I meet a former student who is licensed as an architect and working in a  design firm and I would smugly think to myself, “I helped build that”.

Whether a knit hat or a set of construction documents, the notion of quality transcends the object and fills the space between the objects and the people that create and benefit from them. Lowest cost and acceptable quality provide only that. A more thoughtful, socially responsibly provided service, is in general, what Americans would benefit by know better.

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