At the end of the six week ‘architecture for 1e‘ Rotterdam experiment our team had made a grand total of 11 euros. We spent it on a round of beers the day that we cleared out the gallery space that we had used as our ‘shop’. For six weeks we had had the benefit of a free shop-cum-studio space in the Roodkapje gallery on Meent, one of the main shopping streets in Rotterdam. Our team of seven architects worked there five days a week on a rota, Wednesday to Sunday, largely on other projects, but also taking time out to go out into the street to hand out flyers about the project and talk to passers by, as well as chatting to people who came into the gallery. We also recorded what happened in a mini-exhibition in the same gallery.
Eleven euros clearly isn’t a lot if you want to judge the project’s success purely in monetary terms. We had about twenty people come to talk to us in total and where our ‘clients’ weren’t always as proactive as they might have been in paying the 1e, some members of the team were more assertive than others in asking for the payment. Still not the sort of financial success that would lead you to take this up full time, although we did also win a small commission – a day spent creating a schedule of works for a house refurbishment done until now without the help of an architect. It was off track, mainly because the owner of the house didn’t have the necessary construction/project management skills to oversee the work of a series of sub-contractors and we helped to list and prioritise the works that needed to be done.
From the start we had goals that went beyond pure business, to look at the role of architects, how they win jobs and who they choose to work for. In terms of stimulating discussion amongst the architecture profession we were much more successful – the initial press releases yielded a piece on Architectenweb, a major news site for architects in the Netherlands and a comment piece on the blog of De Architect, the Dutch equivalent of Architects’ Journal or BD, as well as a short piece in the Architects’ Journal. Amongst the architects that we talked to about the project, some were enthusiastic from the start, while others felt that we were underselling ourselves and devaluing the profession at what was already a difficult time. Those reservations usually disappeared when we explained that we weren’t charging 1e for design work, but for a brief pre-commission conversation that would usually be done for free (and which we would suggest also undersells our skills to an extent).
So what did people come to talk to us about? The questions tended to fall into one of two categories – either they related to interior design questions, or to small scale domestic construction projects where the house owner wasn’t able to properly supervise the work being done and was concerned about its quality. The questions about house interiors were often about the narrow, deep house plans common in the Netherlands, where the centre of the house received little natural light. There was little we could suggest to help resolve this issue. A couple who had just bought a new build house that wasn’t fitted out wanted advice on the best place to put the kitchen, something that we were able to address more effectively. Where people were getting into difficulty with building works, the answer was often better communication with the builder – setting up weekly meetings to check on progress, for example.
As for our lack of ‘clients’, the main thing that we were missing was marketing. We had a prominent spot on a busy street, but it was really only when we went outside handing out flyers and talking to people that we persuaded people to drop by and talk to us. When we did that, on the first and second weekends that we were open, people came to see us. There were a few people who came to visit the gallery and then took the chance to ask about something they’d been wondering about for a while, but mainly people found out about us through the flyers.
Some people initially assumed that we were setting up this project because we didn’t have other work, but that wasn’t entirely true – some had full time jobs and were doing this at the weekend, others were self employed but had almost full time work, others had just left jobs and were considering their options. Being able to sit in the gallery-studio working on other projects and dealing with clients as they came in was attractive in that respect. Finally however, the fact that we were busy with other things probably compromised the success of the 1e project because we just didn’t have time to do the marketing necessary.
Our experience, and that of others, such as ‘architecture 5c’ in the US, suggests that there is a healthy market for this sort of small scale work. What we missed was the fact that in order to win the design work, there is a huge amount of advertising that needs to be done. People have questions about their houses and would love to be able to get advice from someone who knows about these things, but they have to know that that possibility exists.
Raising awareness of the project was a huge amount of work in itself and this is where ‘architecture 5c’, who set up a stall in the local market, had a major advantage. Standing outside at a market stall is cold and wet in November in Rotterdam, but crucially, it combines the effort needed to market the project, with the business of actually talking to people about their building problems. The guy who did that went on to earn something like $70,000 that year, off the back of a series of small commissions won via the market stall. It’s likely that he succeeded because he did the one thing that Architecture 1e Rotterdam didn’t – he worked full time on marketing himself to win work.