How to: not become a "developer"
Advice by Lev Bratishenko, Mingjia Chen, Ewa Effiom, Melanija Grozdanoska, Rebekka Hirschberg, Harriet Powell, Thea Renyong, Duncan Steele, CoCo Tin, and Joseph Zeal-Henry
(Pair with Jay-Z’s “Feelin’ It.”)
As an architect, you might feel trapped in the role of a service provider, surrounded by crises but unable to say no to clients. That’s when the liberation of hyphenation beckons. Get your agency and confidence back with this one easy trick: Become an architect-developer and toggle your identities to best suit the situation.
Architect-developers work with investors, or for themselves, and seem to have more power to shape both buildings and the processes that produce them. And in many ways, they do. But this increased agency comes with risks. The higher you climb up the pyramid, the more you’ve got to lose. The more you invest in the system that keeps you and other architects down, the more likely it is that you become the problem. Can you hold on to your values if they don’t align with the mainstream? Must the pursuit of a more capital-intensive form of architect-developer practice double down on the inequities of access and opportunities already baked into the system? How do you manage your complicity?
A successful, lecture-circuit architect almost never talks about their relationship with money; it is implied that their ideas are so good that their finances just take care of themselves. The architect-developer, however, must defend their architectural virtue because their other values are much clearer. (Alternatively, they can keep their hyphenation a secret, and many do.) You could say that the architect-developer loses prestige because they embody a contradiction the unhyphenated architect pretends not to face. Or, optimistically and in reverse, since the unhyphenated architect claims to produce values beyond profit, a greater presence of architects in development could bring a shift in values.
Perhaps this isn’t a model of practice at all, but a space of invention.Are all architects really architect-developers? And is the unhyphenated architect actually the more recent invention?
These are some of the questions we are left with after three weeks of intense conversations with each other and with architects who allowed us to interview them. We set out to discover what kinds of architect-developers were out there, and particularly whether they had found ways to increase their agency without selling their souls. We found many, from different geographies and with different goals, working in individual models as well as in traditions like baugruppen and fideicomiso; but since they all share a globalized context where square meters can be abstracted, valued, bought, and sold with the same care as with any other commodity, there are enough similarities between them for us to analyze.
A three-week residency is just long enough for us to agree on what we like and what we don’t; to recognize those possibilities we want to run toward.
It’s time for a personality quiz
Apologetic Capitalist, Chameleon, Champagne Socialist, Ethical Landlord, Evangelist, Pioneer, Radical Intellectual, Stylist, Unapologetic Capitalist, or Visionary, which one would you be?
We received many questions from architects thinking about getting hyphenated and wondering what the risks were. We have some advice for them, and for you, but we offer it here to continue a conversation rather than as a final word. Context–who you are and where you are–will shape what hyphenation means for you.
1. How do I avoid greed?
Hello How To,
So the architect has jumped off the hobby horse, broken free from the ant mill, and wants to go from being-tool to tool-being in the architecture-development complex. How can we prevent architects from being seduced by the potential of personal financial gain despite all the goodwill they set out with? Is it possible to build in some sort of failsafe against greed? What could it look like?
From, Fan of Failsafes
The major religions would like a word with you. But if earthly solutions are okay, then social pressure will be your key. Bad behaviour usually happens in secret, so implementing radically transparent structures and processes, like publishing your financial records or regularly doing public audits—at the local bar or library perhaps—will make sure you have enough people to answer to inside and outside of your practice, your friends, and your family. Give as many people as possible the tools to keep you accountable.
Not ready for full financial nudity? Start small. Does everyone in your office know how much their labor costs to clients? Are some employees more expensive than others? Don’t be afraid to have a meeting where you ask the project team to raise their hands if they can afford a unit in the residential scheme they’re working on. The results might be depressing, but it’s a healthy first step. Increasing the financial literacy of your team could be a good first step towards solidifying an internal moral compass.
Deciding to keep your practice small can be transformative, though you will have to constantly resist the urge to grow and probably even turn down some lucrative opportunities—unless, that is, you can find temporary alliances to let you take them on without changing who you are. Growth doesn’t have to come from greed. Many practices grow just trying to find stability. How will you define success? Every practice has its own sweet spot.
Trusts, co-ops, and collective models of decision-making can also help since they instantly increase the number of people who would have to be tempted. Create permanent board seats for local community members. Formal codes of ethics are good but binding, legally-enforceable bylaws are better. You could ban profits, of course: incorporating as a non-profit or charity is supposed to do that. So be strict with yourself. You might enjoy it.
Yours, A Financial Exhibitionist
Architect-developers select and invent strategies that reflect their specific contexts and ambitions. The architect-developer plays the same game as the architect but with a different set of moves and fewer intermediaries between them and other players.
2. What are the limits of quantification?
Dear How To,
How can I prioritize within different kinds of capital (environmental, social, patrimonial) and balance them with economic viability? How can I use these other values against bottom-line thinking, for example through practices of deconstruction or reusing existing materials in new projects?
From, Questioning Quantification
Good news! You have a conscience. Bad news! Your question has great currency but no established methodology. Yet the subjectivity of ethics can be a productive clash against the false objectivity of our capitalist system.
Time is valuable so make $$$, yes, but how much? Be specific about the who, what, when, where, and why(s) of the impact. Invest where your core values are at. You can’t please everyone. Eternal growth is also a myth. Maybe projects aren’t supposed to be profitable forever. Design a responsible fade-out plan to curb your greed. Also, you said it first: reusing material can be a great way to trace the political economy of space(s) and reveal injustices that trickle up and down the supply chain. It might be even more radical to never build anything new again. Maintenance is a design practice too.
Do not underestimate the power of accumulated evidence. Each new project builds credibility of the model that produced it. Work with friends! Put yourself out there, and let others make decisions about what to value. You care a lot. But care and control are twins, so share the care (and the control).
Start by valuing all forms of labour. The dominant system tells us that everything can be priced, yet people like Jason Moore in Cheap Nature pinpoint the kinds of unpaid and undervalued work done by humans and the environment. Read works by feminist economists like Marilyn Waring and Vandana Shiva. Paying for carbon offsets and green premiums is only the beginning. These begin to compensate the environment for supplying fresh air, sunshine, and water. We may never know how crucial bee pollination is for our lives. Speaking of bees, cash is worth nothing to them. Here’s a revelation: maybe some value systems are incommensurable and that’s okay. Maybe it’s impossible to quantify trust, empathy, and kinship. The gifts of the environment are priceless.
Sincerely, Heterotopia Hippie
The Art of Manipulation, or How To Talk To Anyone
(Pair with Cleo Sol’s “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head.”) So you want to become an architect-developer? A world of self-determination and cradle-to-cradle project control awaits. But first, some training is required to expand your un-hyphenated architectural know-how. Repeat after me: I am no longer a service provider.
The professionals at New-Hyphen-Horizons are here to teach new skills and a new attitude. We are the market leaders in masterclass training for people who want to self-actualize as architect-developers. All seven of our previous customers say:
“Since attending New-Hyphen-Horizons masterclass sessions, I have found a new sense of agency and motivation.”
Part 1, Introduction
In order to become the most effective architect-developer you can be, you will need to learn how to maneuver your way through key conversations. This training will take you through a role-playing scenario between a group of investors and an architect-developer.
Learning objective: how to triangulate arguments to gain access to capital.
Part 2, Preparation
Be sure to sit across from the person in the meeting with the most money. Put the iPad between you and them for instant cost-cutting design decisions. If Paul R. Williams (the most prolific Black architect in Hollywood) can draw upside down, you can too. Don’t sit, and especially don’t stand, at the head of the table. You’re just as powerful as these people. Reap the rewards of hyphenation. You’re part of the money crew now.
Part 3, Practice Role Play
- – Do the Wonder Woman Pose in the bathroom for ten minutes.
- – Enter the room dressed and walking like power; this is the architect-developer decorum. Don’t come dressed in ironic workwear; no one in the room thinks you’re an artisan. You are an architect-developer now, so you have to dress like one. Ironed shirt and dress shoes please. (In the future, you may graduate into a Common Projects-wearing, artisanal-architect-developer, but all in good time.)
- – Bring an iPad Pro and a stack of napkins. Architects balancing A0 boards and cumbersome models are terribly outdated. Have a QR code handy so the audience can swipe through on their own devices.
- – Pour yourself a glass of water—you don’t want to get hoarse—and take a few seconds to sip some H2O whenever you’re asked a challenging question. Seize this precious moment. Take your time. Recall your training and reply with an answer that shows you know how to make the finances stack up.
- – Start by drawing a diagram of the financial model that you’re working on. Nothing dazzles like an “impromptu” sketch. It’ll also remind them that you’re not all about the money; you went to architecture school.
- – Talk about key SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of the site you have identified. Nothing shows rigour like a well populated matrix. You’re welcome.
- – Remember: investors need to hear that whatever happens, their principal is safe. Cannily, you picked a major urban city where economic orthodoxy means that its government will do anything it takes to keep land values going up. Revel in this.
- – Present your pro forma. Pro tip: go straight to the money that you are offering them. Bypass all the fluffy padding of site diagrams, design intent, do-good jargon. Fancy renders are cool, but first the money.
- – Explain how aeons spent working as an architect have given you the edge. You can see where and how to introduce efficiencies. Flex your connections. Tell them that you are in direct contact with suppliers and contractors who have already given you low one-year-locked-in quotes. Make sure to mention that you’ve found a way to build with less material, which means a cheaper building. Sustainability is a bonus for their marketing campaign, not a premium.
- – Now that you’ve discussed the financial value of the project, show them the damn thing. Amaze them with photorealistic renderings populated with cheerful, diverse PNGs. Better yet, give them a tour in VR.
- – Finally, now that they’re sold on numbers and design, hit ‘em with your social impact agendas!
“Before I did the New-Hyphen-Horizons masterclasses I thought the architect-developer was just a career upgrade but now I realize it’s much more than that; it’s a state of mind. It gave me superpowers I didn’t even know I needed. I can’t wait to go out there and show the world what I can do!”
3. How do I recognize an architect-developer?
Dear How To,
After three and half years, I’m now $200,000 in debt with a masters degree in architecture. I know I’m not left with many valuable items in hand. A flashy portfolio, sure. An ostentatious CV with big names, check. (I definitely “worked” on that OMA project.) Some connections with practicing professors that could be really useful. So now what? People keep telling me to leave architecture for good. But what good will escaping do for me? I’m too invested, and I want to make a difference.
Should I go to work for a regular practice? I don’t know. I can’t really see how that will help me get out of my financial black hole anytime soon. I should’ve listened when my friends told me to do a real estate certificate with them. At least I am well trained in an intensive work culture and have slightly dorky taste … but how can I translate that into a career I believe in, if not financial freedom? Don’t tell me to start my own practice; do you know how hard that is?
Can you give me some advice on landing a job working for an architect-developer? I don’t really know what they even look like!
Sincerely, Questioning My Value
You’ve probably tried googling it. Didn’t find much? There’s a hidden cost to being known as an architect-developer, a sense that it could exclude your practice from important competitions or anything where the purity of your architectural virtue could be questioned. So most architect-developers are exceedingly modest about it. They’ve got to keep all options open, so they prefer to silently ninja in the shadows.
The good news is that almost all architect-developers will admit what they are if you ask them straight up. The trick is getting them on the phone. So pick a few of your favourite firms and call them up pretending to be a client looking for an investment project. (Can you fake an older voice? Do it. Explain you “don’t understand email.”) Get a partner on the phone and ask them to tell you about their experience managing the development side. Have they ever invested their own capital in a project?
Another sign that a practitioner is potentially an architect-developer is that their practice publishes loads of projects without listing clients. Or, depending on where you are, look for corporate information, which is often published online. If two companies share corporate officers or board members, you might have found a match. A development firm (a numbered corporation will use numbers for a name) that shares the same address as an architecture firm is another obvious hint. Some registries will even let you browse by location or search by address.
Good luck, Hunting
One recurring characteristic of architect-developers operating in capital-intensive ways is a high level of financial literacy. They can read a spreadsheet as subtly and tactically as they can read a plan, and are sensitive to the relationships encoded there and pressure points for argumentation and leverage. It is crucial that they can translate these documents for different actors in the building process, especially since those actors often have wildly different appetites for risk.
4. Is it okay to do one bad thing if it lets you do a good thing later?
Dear How To,
I’m a communist architect but I am being seduced by the bright lights and … increasingly have these thoughts … that I … WANT TO BECOME A DEVELOPER 😭😭😭 London is so expensive. And if we did just one project. Maybe we could get a house 😭 I am missing the secret ingredient to being a successful architect… I don’t have rich parents.
From, Communist Architect
You’re in a bind, comrade. Maybe pinning your political identity to an early twentieth-century concept authored by a member of the West London bourgeoisie is restricting your ability to develop more genuinely disruptive models of architect-developer practice? Could this be a moment to unlearn and consider how you best want to define yourself in the future?
Principles come at a price. Can you afford yours at this moment in time? Many can’t and instead make decisions based on what is right for their families and their wider communities.
There are models of development that don’t have to be economically extractive. Although it seems like you have no good moves forward, remember that your architectural training, at its best, is a practice of critical proposition. A design tool where you can speculate and then deliver an alternative vision of the future—this is what you should do now. Rather than seeing your work as a personal political project, approach it as a design project instead. If the biggest constraint is your lack of access to capital, which in turn restricts your ability to access land, then maybe owning land is not essential or even desirable for your architect-developer practice. In the longer term you can look at setting up a community-led housing organization. There are many models and forms this might take. Community Land Trusts (CLT) tend to be among the most trusted by public landowners in the UK. Therefore, it’s a good model for opening up more opportunities to access land and funding support. Find key organizations that you can partner with or that you can be supported or mentored by. Start with people that have already achieved what you are setting out to do—they will be generous with their time. Trust in people.
It is understandable that when forming as a group, people connect best to others with similar cultures, ages, and professions. Resist this urge. Commit to making your project as diverse and representative of the local area that you will be building in. More often than not, architect-developer projects locate themselves in new places with lower land values, accelerating gentrification, and cultural extraction. This will no doubt be scary and is not without risk. Document the process rigorously and share as much as you can with the public. It will help you stay motivated and you may even find another new community from it.
From, Providing a Public Service
Where You At?
We asked renowned experts in “knowing where you are” and “being a decent person” what the most important things an aspiring architect-developer should know are. Please take this self-scoring test before breaking ground.
Can you smell that?
- Where does the garbage and recycling go?
- What is the most common sidewalk planting on your street?
- Which way is north?
- Where does the tap water come from?
- Name five plant and bird species native to the area.
- How deep is your building’s foundation?
- Name five vegetables currently in season.
- Where does your electricity/gas come from?
- What was on your site 50 years ago? 150 years?
- Where is the closest park?
Hello dear friend!
- What are your neighbours’ names?
- How old are the buildings around you?
- What are the demographics of the area? (age, gender, race)
- Which public transport stop (bus, subway, bike share) is used the most? And the least?
- Where is the grocery store? Donation store?
- Where is the public toilet? Public library? Water fountain?
- Who are the closest builders and suppliers?
- Which bar is the local favourite?
- Where can you get a free mask/vaccine/COVID test?
Hold on, I know who to call
- Who are your local political candidates and what is their affiliation?
- Who are your regional/federal representatives?
- Which newspaper subscription is the majority preference?
- What is the local building standard?
- What are the local unions and co-ops?
- Who do you call (because you never call the cops)?
- What’s the local property tax?
- What are the highest and lowest ends of the income spectrum in the area?
- What’s the local minimum-wage law?
- How much has average rent increased in the past five years? What does daycare cost?
- What is the student-teacher ratio of the closest public school?
- Where/to whom are your profits going?
0-5 You seem a bit lost! Go outside and talk to people. Stop development until you get more in touch. Maybe return to the research phase.
6-10 Getting there, but still a ways away. Pause development until you score higher.
11-15 You know the basics! Delay the development temporarily. Maybe two weeks will do to deepen your engagement with the place.
16-22 Good job, you’re paying attention! Continue development but brush up on questions you couldn’t answer.
23-27 Green light! You really know where you are. Continue development, keep up the work, and stay attentive to any new changes.
28+ Wow! Have you considered taking a trip? Good luck, proceed to your deepest design desire.
So your score was good enough, does that mean you’ll get to become an architect-developer?
When all’s said and done there is a fundamental issue in architectural practice. In our interviews, we made a concerted effort to meet with a group more representative of the world we live in, both in gender and ethnicity, but this is in no way representative of architecture at large.
Must the pursuit of an architect-developer practice uphold the current inequities and bolster the lack of access felt by those not white, not male, not cisgendered, not heterosexual, not middle-aged, not able-bodied, and not from the global north?
(Pair with Sylvan Esso’s “What If.”)
Our awareness of land is deeply shaped by the timeframe we think in. If you feel real responsibility to generations past and many generations ahead, you wouldn’t do the things you might if you were only thinking of the current tax year. While hyphenation can increase your temptation to take short- and medium-term gains, greater financial capacity can also act like a ballast, steadying you such that you’re able to take very long-term decisions. And operating outside the financial system has the potential for the longest perspectives of all, for thinking at the scale of communities and ecologies.
5. Which timeframe should I operate in?
Dear How To,
How can I deal with the short-sighted bias in traditional development models? For many developer-driven projects, return on investment is based on a two-year timeline. How can I convince investors (a bank, or a person) to address the lifespan of the building or contribute to the long-term care of a neighbourhood or block? How can I appeal to them?
From, Longterm Outlook
You sound like you’re ready for hyphenation. You already see the limitations of evaluating development only in terms of financial returns, but are you truly prepared to compromise your self-interest? Before embarking on this very long-term path, think about the impact on those close to you and discuss it with them. You will have to sacrifice money, time, and energy while watching your peers make easy gains.
Start by rethinking the “them” in your question. After you’ve realized how many allies you will need for a long term approach, reach out to those in your field and outside of it. You might meet smaller investors this way, but in the long run, the community will sustain you and your projects more than capital will.
Traditional financiers may be too fixated on short term gains to provide you with all the money that you’ll need, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help. Approach social enterprises and circular economy funds first, look for government support and other kinds of institutional grants that might take a longer view, and then go back to the banks.
Sincerely, Don’t Get Discouraged
To paraphrase Sara Ahmed: be a killjoy and start complaining. If the system is not working, make your own.
Radicalize the slow-building movement. It’s like slow food or slow fashion, but for buildings. “The most radical thing someone can do these days is to work slowly.” Do you have a friend that’s good at marketing? But not just good, like really good, convincing people they want to take out mortgages for studio condos-good? Get them to make you a campaign for the slow-building movement. Maybe pair it with a certification. It worked for LEED. The WELL certification was created (by an investment banker) less than ten years ago and it has already “certified” more than five million square feet of previously un-well space.
Have you considered alternatives to producing buildings as strategies of long term care? There’s been talk recently about a moratorium on construction as the only truly appropriate response to climate change. Maybe the best thing you could do for the long term is stop building?
Of course, short-term thinking can have its uses, revealing land or existing buildings that aren’t available to buy but could be used for a while. Watch out for focusing so much on the long term that you miss other opportunities around you.
Sincerely, A Slow-Going Go-Getter
For a Servile Creature. The unhyphenated architect passed on early Sunday morning after the saran-wrap parachute of academia failed to deploy. By their own account, the architect was born nine months after lintel first laid with pier, or sometime between the protozoa’s first foray onto land and SOLIDWORKS being released.
“Archie,” as they were known to their scant few friends, was a long-suffering, servile creature rarely seen outside of the office. Married to their work, Archie found the greatest joys in scaling back details, underbilling hours, and watching their schoolmates build summer homes for their parents.
With heavy hearts, they leave behind, in addition to their practice, a loving client and a gaggle of design associates, unpaid interns, digital fabricators, and consultants. Their casket is to be interred by the construction administration team so that they can be let down one last time after breaking ground.
Up-and-Coming Neighbourhood, Saturday Night You: On your way to the bank for another loan in your Porsche 911. Me: The blueprint-laden cyclist under your right wheel well. You set up Special Interest Vehicles for each of your projects. Meanwhile I took a special interest in your vehicle. You told me about your graphs, will you be my cutie pie chart? #4RCH13
Duplex Designer Finds Their Better Half in Subdivision Schemer
The architect, only child of locals Beau Zardt and Polly Tegnic, was wed to the developer, firstborn to Mark Ette and Dee Regula of Risky Falls, DE, on Sunday, 23 January.
The blushing architect, a graduate of Ivory League professional programs is more of a porcelain expert in their professional role arranging plumbing schedules—they intend to become a homemaker, now married.
The dashing developer, a graduate of LinkedIn Learning’s Vlookup and Xlookup Program can be found coordinating philanthropic efforts and making the most of the opportunities the twenty-four hour day provides everyone equally.
The pair connected over a shared disdain for NIMBYs and began a strategic partnership shortly after. “We don’t believe in traditional roles or arrangements,” said the developer “I sent them a request-for-proposal and they came right back to me with a proposal.”
The ceremony was held at Our Lady of Remuneration, REBNY officiated.
The architect and the developer of someplace near you have announced the birth of their first child.
The Architect-Developer arrived at 6:00 a.m. on Monday, 24 January, at Saint-Urbain Memorial Hospital, and had the place slated for demolition before the creature had been smacked on the bottom. It weighed its financial decisions shrewdly and measured its public pronouncements.
The Architect-Developer was welcomed home by both academics and underwriters. By some strange process of heterosis, the cryptic chimera emerged in a Patagonia vest with a full head of risk assessments. The proud architect went out for celebratory cigars and hasn’t been seen since.
Letter to the editor
I saw the obituary notice on 21 January 2022 and I take issue with the tone. I knew the deceased and remember him fondly. The travesty of Archie’s demise marks the end of an era, one I’m sure we will all greatly miss.
Archie worked tirelessly, often with drink in hand, and showed true dedication to the cause. He was tenacious, unafraid and spoke it how it is. His opinions sometimes didn’t adhere to prevailing fads but his heart was always in the right place.
There are those that called him arrogant or contemptuous; to them I quote the formidable Phillip Johnson in saying: “If architects weren’t arrogant, they wouldn’t be architects.”
He was a company man. One that would bend the very fabric of the universe for clients: cladding, affordable housing and all! Such an innovative mind! There were very few problems he couldn’t solve. At the tender age of 63, Archie was in his prime with a lot more to give, but it could not last. The good die young.
Lately, he struggled. Suddenly his cunning was no longer enough, his demise was inevitable. His patrons didn’t just want a service and this is something he just couldn’t do. Falling at the first hurdle of the profession’s new respectability test: “Who do you represent anyway?”
Rumour has it that even on his deathbed, Archie clung to the notion that his was a life of strife. I agree. If he wasn’t involved, it would have been much worse. It didn’t have to end this way. An upstanding gentleman; what base pleasures we did share were limited to Cognac, Polo, and Vanilla Ice, and I can’t think of anybody more suited to reflect the warm memories I have of my old friend.
Everything in this publication was made in about fifty hours over three weeks, entirely online, resulting in eighty-seven pages of notes with over twenty-five thousand words. It was only possible because of the dedication of the participants and the generosity of the interviewees: Verena von Beckerath, Teddy Cruz, Issa Diabaté, Elsie Owusu, Amin Taha, Louis Schulz, and Dijana Vučinić. They shared their time with us and then still answered our emails at all hours.
We are also deeply grateful to the colleagues and friends whose conversations and support shaped this project: Pooja Agrawal, Julia Albani, Alexis Blanchard Méthot, Giovanna Borasi, Monica Chadha, Karine Charbonneau, Charlie-Anne Côté, Alyson Drouin, Albert Ferre, Francesco Garruti, Martin Huberman, Iro Kalargyrou, Marie Kordovska, Ismaë Mallé, Marija Maric, Yimi Poba-Nzaou, Rafico Ruiz, Andrew Scheinman, Jack Self, and Martien de Vletter.
Special thanks to Hannah Medley for coordinating.
How to: not become a “developer” is curated by Lev Bratishenko, CCA Curator, Public, and Joseph Zeal-Henry, who co-founded Sound Advice with Pooja Agrawal to explore spatial inequalities through social commentary and music.
Since 2018, the CCA’s annual “How to” residency has produced interventions in para-architectural activities like publishing (How to: not make an architecture magazine), curation (How to: disturb the public), and awards (How to: reward and punish). The residency was conceived as a platform for rapid tool-making in res ponse to specific opportunities and needs, and in 2022 it begins a new three-year cycle focused on accelerating changes in architecture practice.