Investing in Architecture

Architecture, the art of shelter, is burdened by an image of being beyond the reach of most people, financially as well as aesthetically.

As a kind of counterbalance to this bad but mostly accurate wrap, architecture also provides us with the subject matter of many books, pilgrimages, weekend tours, film, travel clips, not to mention Pinterest boards. Good architecture, mostly done by others, entertains, inspires, and generally raises our awareness of what’s possible in life with regard to our surroundings.

ARX Portugal

Nevertheless, its cost restricts most of us to the role of spectator. Most, but fortunately not all of us.

When certain favorable events in a person’s life converge, the prospects of living in a home environment uniquely designed for them, for who they are, start to come alive.

For some that prospect remains a distant star, an unattainable dream. And yet, a few will take pursuit. For even fewer, their dream will be inhabited  by images of home as a work of art, a quest even more challenging. Those who take up the challenge must do it with a determination to capture the dream and make it real.

Just as with other art forms the pursuit of building as art has to do with being able to experience home – or any other shelter – as an aesthetic experience, one that over time enlivens the senses and reaches deep within the psyche. As such, it becomes a lens for bringing life into focus, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

On the face of it, it would seem having a home environment that is also an art form might be a big attraction to many, one worth pursuing.

From what I’ve observed, however, I don’t think it is. As I’ve commented on in previous posts, many factors intervene to block, detract, or otherwise prevent people from wanting and getting more in the realm of their built environment. As prominent as buildings are in our lives, few of us will acquire one that will provide the experience uniquely offered by art.

One plausible explanation for this may be that the thought of living in an environment that’s also art is just too much for most people. It implies too many expectations and demands for it ever to be comfortably lived in. And, of course, if the shoe doesn’t fit there’s no reason to try wearing it. But there are, nevertheless, those for whom it does fit.

For those comfortable with the idea of living in an environment that aesthetically enriches, the main obstacle usually comes down to cost.

Building, whether a small room, a high rise, or the endless variety in between, carries a price tag, the contemplation of which can intimidate. I want to offer some thoughts I’ve had regarding this issue with an emphasis on architecture as an investment.

To reiterate, costs are the largest impediment, imagined or real, to achieving more from our built environments. Fear of losing money, on the one hand, getting buried in debt on the other, quickly evaporate fantasies one may entertain of pursuing a building that’s custom designed to ones unique lifestyle and that might also be a work of art.

Every building regardless of scale or scope begins with a consideration of what it will cost. And on average that is more than most of us have at our disposal to reasonably finance. From the very beginning the dream of building is pitted against this reality.

While there’s no way I can think of within reason to dodge this important issue, it is possible to give it some perspective and therefore a possible compass when trying for a soft landing of that dream. For my purposes here I want, as I said, to look at building as an investment.

First, a very brief primer in economics. For those of you with a background in that field, or who respond to it with extreme boredom, my apologies: this may be an exercise in testing your patience. Humor me if you can.

Everything has a certain value, both intrinsic and perceived, including the cost of producing it. That, plus taking into account its availability versus how much in demand it might be.

Yes, trying to set the price on something is far more complicated than that. But breaking it down in a way that satisfies current economic theory would be inappropriate here and would only confuse matters. My preference, instead, is to keep things as simple as possible.

Building, like a simple loaf of bread or a meal at a 5-star restaurant, is comprised of its materials and a series of steps or operations required to make it. These are the basis for determining its cost. That and its status in the calculus of supply and demand.

Some things are valued much more highly than others and in different ways relative to its social context. In the western world, at least, a diamond, of course, usually commands a far higher price than a teardrop of glass; a Ferrari more than a Ford; a home designed with special emphasis on realizing its potential to aesthetically enrich, more than a home mass-produced for accommodating  strictly practical needs. Another factor related to scarcity that may also drive up demand for something and make it seductively irresistible, is its publicly perceived status as a luxury item.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: buildings like everything else, to an extent that will vary from person to person, represent a choice regarding a calculated exchange of value – an investment.

In short, I have just so much money at my disposal. As a medium of exchange – of trade, my money is a lubricant so to speak; it facilitates an exchange of value – the value to me of what it has taken to acquire that money, in exchange for something owned or provided by someone else. When I buy something I want to know that it is equal to or greater in value than the money (or other medium) with which I’m making the purchase. I want to be assured that I’m making a good investment with my limited resources. Again, oversimplified, perhaps, but appropriate to my point.

Bear with me while I recap and build a little more context from which to view this issue.

Building, in simple terms, is a commodity that provides us with shelter. It’s valued by everyone and to an extent that varies as much as do our personal circumstances.

It’s everywhere around us and in most cases intimately affects us while we’re in it. Our perception and moods are continually under its influence. In short, it’s a big deal. But often it’s taken for granted. And seldom is it changed. Yet it’s always there.

For the most part, as I suggested before, the possibilities of altering our built surroundings, of building anything, much less actually living in ones dream-environment, get derailed by the spectrum of what it might cost.

So, as a consequence, few will ever make the next move. But, there are some that do. For them cost, rather than being a deterrent, becomes another of life’s essential calculations. In considering its feasibility they will carefully weigh a project’s pros and cons on its merits as an investment; they make a serious effort to understand its real value to them.

Building, as an investment can then, very broadly speaking, be approached in two ways (there are, no doubt, other ways as well).

  1. Building, as a long range investment that pays back in terms of the positive value derived from it. In other words,  as an investment, the building is regarded as an asset whose return extends over time. The payback can be in terms of simply owning it, as well as in ones experience of living there, of enjoying the day to day pleasures that only this kind of environment can offer. Or, as another possibility, the payback can be in the way of future cash flow. Whereas its cost will be impacted by most of the same factors affecting the viability of building pursued strictly as a business (see below), it will pay back the investment largely through its unique aesthetic as well as utilitarian rewards that extend over time.
  2. Building, as a one time commodity to be quickly sold at a profit. Here, all the factors affecting cost – demographics, land cost, cost of borrowing, cost of regulatory and other code agency approvals, fees, construction labor and material costs, design complexity, project delivery time, ones ability to survive a protracted selling period, etc., come strongly into play. More than any other single factor, the prospects for a profit will be at the mercy of the project delivery time. All building projects are affected to some extent by these factors, but none to the extent as when pursuing building as a business. Succeeding with this option is difficult and is more commonly taken up by either someone with deep pockets and fortitude to spare, or by developers who have mastered the art of building as a business.

On a residential scale, because of the severe limitations of pursuing building as a business opportunity, few venture into this area. And far fewer, still, produce built environments for quick profit that come close to providing the experiential benefits of work that’s custom-designed by talented architects, although there are exceptions – David Hovey’s Optima in Arizona comes to mind.

But as can be expected, producing built environments – housing in particular – as a profit making enterprise, makes it affordable to a much larger number of people. By doing so, it also becomes the first step up the ladder toward eventually investing in ones bigger dreams.

So then, what can be taken away from of the above?

Building, and particularly those built environments that go the farthest in providing us with the greatest return, experientially as well as practically, require of us a serious effort to identify our priorities. We need to treat our dreams with respect, while also taking responsibility for being honest with ourselves regarding the extent of our reach. Is it within grasp?

Prior to chasing the dream we need to decide whether the investment is for a return that’s more immediate, or one that will be paid back in the long run. If it’s long term, and it will be for most of you who venture into this arena, are you financially capable of managing it? And, of course, how much is the prospect of owning and living in this special place worth to you?

If you choose the custom-design route, it’s essential that you have a clear idea of your risk-tolerance, i.e., how much you are willing to take on. An important piece of advice here is to limit the scope of your building wish-list accordingly.

Keep in mind that a living environment custom-designed for you, i.e., shelter that nurtures experientially, as well as protects, follows a different path in its delivery than does a mass market production home. And in most cases this will be reflected in what it costs.

If where you invest your resources is important, if you are looking at buildings as a viable place for that investment, if you are financially able, and if you are looking for the best possible return in terms of your day-to-day experience over an extended period of time, then by far your best option is to pursue an environment that’s custom designed to your unique requirements.

Architecture is the art of building that brings with it all its potential to add significant value to your personal life. But, from the beginning, its success as a viable project depends to a large extent on accurately calculating what is wanted from it versus its potential benefits. It needs to be seen as an investment.


4 thoughts on “Investing in Architecture

  1. This made me think of another reason for the problem you address: that it’s difficult to commit to a long term experience when we are not sure of what we value. The other day I ran across a comment from Henry James about ‘the terrible fluidity of self-revelation’, but I think he was actually describing the terrible viscosity of self-revelation. It has taken me a dreadfully long time, in some cases decades, to know what I really love…

    • I think that evaluation – my emotional responses – fluctuate according to the inner rhythms of my being alive of which they’re but an integral extension. Fluid or viscous, discovering more about myself and what it is I really like or love and how much, apparently needs nothing more importantly than the space to breathe.

  2. Pingback: Taking Off…part 1 of 2 | WARREN LAWSON

  3. Pingback: Taking Off…part 2 of 2 | WARREN LAWSON

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