Originally posted on ArchNewsNow as "Crowdsourcing Design: The End of Architecture, or a New Beginning?", this article by Michael J Crosbie examines the furore around crowdsourcing websites such as Arcbazar, explaining why the criticisms against it just don't stack up.
A few weeks ago, ArchNewsNow carried an article from the Orange County Register about the increasing popularity of “crowdsourcing” architectural design. You might already be familiar with the crowdsourcing concept: using the Internet to gather solutions to virtually any problem or task from people all over the world. The idea has been used to generate solutions to provide clean drinking water in third-world countries, to creating entire websites such as Wikipedia. Such activities are generally regarded as “disruptive,” in the parlance of the moment, in that they offer alternative ways of achieving a result that has traditionally been accomplished through other means. (ArchNewsNow is “disruptive” in the sense that it offers an alternative outlet for architectural news that impacts the traditional architectural publishing world of print media.)
Read on to find out why this "disruptive" new trend is nothing to fear
The idea of crowdsourcing architectural design is pretty disruptive, some of its critics would even say cataclysmic. The object of their distress is a website, arcbazar.com, which came online in 2011 and offers an interface between people looking for design services and those in the design and construction world who might come up with a design solution. Arcbazar was started by Imdat As, an architect with a doctorate in architectural design from Harvard, who wanted to connect architects with potential clients – during the height of the recession a few years ago. Arcbazar was instantly coined the “99designs.com of architecture,” after a website that crowdsources graphic design services. (Full disclosure: As and I are colleagues at the University of Hartford Department of Architecture.) He notes that the architecture profession is involved in only a fraction of total construction activity, foregoing potential fees that As estimates at $22 billion. Arcbazar was designed as a vehicle for architects and designers to be involved in small projects for clients who would typically not seek design services.
The site started fairly humbly: the first design project posted was a bedroom closet, which the client wanted to turn into a study desk for his teenage daughter. The client posted some existing plan drawings and photos, and offered a design “award” of $150. Four designers signed up for the project, and two, a graduate architect in Pennsylvania, and an architecture student in India, posted design solutions. The winning design showed how the closet could be transformed into a study desk while preserving its storage space. The client got a design she liked, and the winner got a bit of cash for the effort (the second-prize winner got some cash, too).
Since its launch, Arcbazar has attracted about 8,000 architects and designers from around the world (most from the U.S. and Europe) to register on the site, and more than 500 projects have been posted. Clients can post a project for free, upload images, project information, a competition award (usually between $250 and $1,000, tied to square footage), and a deadline. Designers then compete, uploading their solutions for clients to review and rank. Designers can ask clients questions through a public wall on the site, with answers posted to all entrants. The designers and the clients remain anonymous to each other. The average number of design submissions is nine. The client then chooses first-, second-, and third-place winners, and the prize money is divided among the winners: 60, 30, and 10%. Arcbazar charges the client 15% of the prize amount. What happens next is really up to the client. They can engage the services of an architect to flesh out a design if they wish, they can hire a contractor to build it, or they can just go to Home Depot and do it themselves. Most of the projects (more than half) are small-scale renovations or additions to houses, also interior design, commercial space, and landscape design. But several projects have been more complicated. For instance, a town in Massachusetts posted a project to renovate a school building that had sat empty for a decade, generating ideas about what the facility might be used for. This public client had previously consulted with an architect and was told that it would cost between $100,000 and $150,000 just to mount and run a design competition. The online competition generated ideas from 80 designers worldwide that the town could then consider and pursue with local architects if they wished. It’s also possible that a top design idea can be further pursued “off-line” with the winner.
“The worst thing to happen to architecture since the Internet started,” Dwell magazine tweeted about Arcbazar when it launched (the tweet immediately drove traffic to the site). Since then, discussion groups, news articles in- and outside of the architectural press, and online comments have considered Arcbazar’s implications. Some note that it is simply driving down fees for architecture services and devaluing design. The scant amount of information provided by some clients and the inability of designers to visit the project site give others caution that the quality of some design solutions might be questionable, in violation of zoning laws and building codes, and that Arcbazar is perpetrating a possible hazard to the public good. In one response to the Orange County Register article, an architect warned that Arcbazar could be “aiding and abetting the illegal practice of architecture.” Another designer blogged that Arcbazar did not allow clients, architects, and consultants to work closely together on designs, that fees were too low, and the result could be “designs that do not relate well to their environment.”
Imdat As responds by noting that many conventional architecture competitions do not offer the possibility of project site visits, so it is not a function of the crowdsourcing protocol. The website allows designers and clients to communicate to clarify project details. Clients are free to pursue the design ideas as they see fit, and sometimes this might result in additional design services from the winner. Extensive renovations and additions will typically require a building permit in most jurisdictions, which should filter zoning and code violations.
As to the criticism that such projects foster the “illegal practice of architecture,” it is important to note that these are design concepts, not finished working drawings with extensive documentation. You don’t have to be a licensed architect to provide such a service, and most of the projects are so small or of such a nature that they do not require the services of an architect at all.
To the criticism that Arcbazar and crowdsourcing are driving down design fees, it should be noted that many architects today engage in RFPs for little or no compensation. The RFP process, which is essentially a competition, has become such a standard client expectation that architects put up little if any fuss about providing “free” design ideas in the hope of scoring a job. In this light, it is obvious that low design fees are not a result of crowdsourcing. Once again, the winning designs on Arcbazar are typically not elaborate, maybe a few hours’ worth of work, for which the designer might win a few hundred dollars. That’s more than most architects who win an RFP are provided for their trouble.
The crowdsourcing phenomenon broaches bigger issues – and opportunities. For young designers, the protocol offers a possibility to ply their skills to design problems that they might not otherwise know about, with the possibility of winning some cash and a little notoriety (Arcbazar posts a list of its biggest-winning designers). Also, clients who normally would not avail themselves of design services seek the expertise of architects and designers, and are willing to pay for the winning designs. The criticism that crowdsourcing is taking jobs away from architects doesn’t wash, either; architects in conventional practice would never pursue such modest projects by clients who would otherwise not seek out design services.
Architects are forever moaning that the public doesn’t appreciate what they can offer, but the public for the most part does not have a ready opportunity to seek and benefit from the work of architects and designers. The impact of practice overhead (including liability insurance costs) makes design-services costs prohibitive for most modest projects. Clients for small jobs don’t have a clue as to how to even find an architect (advertising is still frowned upon; you won’t see the face of an architect plastered on the back of a city bus, like you will that of a lawyer).
Crowdsourcing provides a way for architects and designers to connect with clients who wouldn’t typically use them, for young talent to test its skills and make a contribution to the built environment, to get paid for a winning design, and to raise the design bar (one hopes) for projects as humble as a teenager’s tiny study desk, along with the design consciousness of the public.
Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., FAIA, is Chair of the Department of Architecture, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering, Technology, and Architecture, and Professor at the University of Hartford. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form, a journal on religious art and architecture. He is the author of more than 20 books on architecture and of hundreds of articles on the subject. A licensed architect, Crosbie previously practiced with Centerbrook Architects and with Steven Winter Associates (one of the country's leading firms in the field of sustainable architecture). He is on the Connecticut Architecture Foundation Board of Directors, serves on the Advisory Board of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, and is a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.