Market-Driven Design

Volume 45, Issue 1

For years my professional portfolio has included providing resources and support for congregations that are engaged in all facets of an architectural project. By far my favorite interactions are those that occur at the very beginning stages of consideration, when questions such as “What do we need to do?” “How do we need to do it?” and “Who are our partners?” are the prevailing priorities. Design trends evolve, but the new building represents institutional culture, houses a community of believers, and embodies the true colors of the congregation.

The best formula for success is a healthy relationship between the architect and the client. It is a professional bond that, at times, has struck me as being unusually close–not surprising given that the foundation of the relationship is mission-driven. The client depends on the architect for professional expertise and aesthetic judgment, but also for the ability to transform the congregation’s vision and mission for the future into tangible physical space, interpreting the specific and inherent needs into a structure that is affordable, functional, and beautiful. We know that the relationship between architect and client requires a true meeting of the minds and hearts, trust regarding the expenditure of dollars, and an understanding of congregational dynamics.

Factor in that although a religious institution is a center of prayer, study, and communal gathering, its economic health requires that it be managed with fiscal responsibility. No matter how strong the imperative to keep a wise eye on “the bottom line,” supervision of a sacred institution’s assets is a trust, and its leaders, as fiduciaries and stewards of the community’s resources, must conduct business with scrupulous ethical integrity.

Regrettably, herein lays the tension and root cause for a shifting business paradigm in a market-driven economy: The architect’s fees, which are the lowest expense in any architectural project, are the most subject to negotiation.

In our present competitive market, the necessity for containing costs has created a climate where the architect’s fees have become a primary criterion for selection. In the absence of prior building experience (many congregations are first-time clients) and sophisticated knowledge of the full scope of services required, decision-makers often mistake upfront cost-savings as sound financial management.

Architects, in an attempt to remain competitive, submit lower bids, or are being asked to, reflecting minimal service and compromised profit margins. Michael Hauptman, AIA, principal at Brawer & Hauptman Architects in Philadelphia, explains that any project consists of three components: the program (square footage), the quality (level of construction and finishes), and the cost. The client ultimately has control of only two elements. If there are insufficient funds to accommodate the program, the project can take on different dimensions. If quality becomes the issue, solutions should be found in different building materials and details. Cost savings originate in re-thinking the project, not diminishing the architect’s services.

What incredible balance must be found between the sacred building and its architect to initiate and maintain a healthy professional relationship! The standards for business integrity are not necessarily higher in a sacred institution, but there is an inherent demand for respect, understanding the value of service and fair and equitable dealings. As Talmud teaches, “All Israel is responsible one for another.”

The author is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, and Vice President of the Faith and Form Board of Directors.