The problem of customization

The practice of architecture has a lot of problems, but the one problem that is sometimes an asset is the issue of customization. Look around at where you live, what you wear, what you drive, and everything else you consume and you’ll discover that hardly any of those things are truly customized for you.

You probably live in a developer built neighborhood, and before you purchased the home you got to tell the builder what kind of cabinets you wanted, if you wanted wood floors are carpet, or if the basement was to be finished or not. But the truth is the family that lives two doors down from you have the same house as yours (oh, but they went with the additional single-car garage with the optional man-cave work bench). Your car. your clothes, and even your food was selected from a predetermined “menu” that allowed minor level of customization (like picking the color of your car, the size of your shirt, or the amount of crushed pepper on your steak).

This idea came to me while reading an essay called “Innovate or Perish: New Technologies and Architecture’s Future (David Celento) in the book Fabricating Architecture. (Link to book) The problem with customization is that it’s time-consuming, typically more expensive (more time = more money), and generally hard to get right. It’s usually easy to make a decision when you only have a handful of choices, but when the number choices creeps towards infinity things get very complicated.

An interesting argument the author makes against the case of customization is the concept of branding. There are a multitude of reasons why we buy the things we do, and one of those reasons is the perception that the product conveys. If you’re familiar with Consumer Reports, you’ll know that Range Rovers are the biggest pieces of junk on the road. Look at the reliability chart and the road test scores for any Range Rover model, and they will typically rate well below any other manufacturer’s model. But people still buy them, because Range Rover exudes a sense of financial success.

(You can probably attribute Range Rover’s success to its marketing department, and the fact that they sell their vehicles at a premium price. If Range Rovers sold for twenty thousand dollars they would be considered crap, but since they sell for over forty thousand dollars they’re an exquisite status symbol that’s a piece of crap.)

The problem with having a truly customized item is that there’s nothing to compare it to in regards to status. Having a house customized for you does exude a status symbol worthy of the patrons at the local country club, but is it more than the person that bought a house in a newly built New Urbanism neighborhood that was furnished with Martha Stewart finishes?

Does this mean that the future of practicing architecture involve working at design firms associated with high-profile branding icons like Martha Stewart, Candice Olson, or one of those contestants from the myriad of reality design shows? Are we as a society perfectly content with three choices and are no longer interested in having anything customized?

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