The creative process in architecture is labour intensive. For many architects this process is not commercially viable: while the time spent on design is often proportional to design quality, it generally does not equate to the fees being paid. For many architectural practices, the practice of sweat equity during the creative phases of a client-commissioned project is further exacerbated by entering design competitions. In Europe and the Middle East, invitees to design competitions can reap five-figure sums to cover part of the expenses, but in Australia the fee and reward is much less generous – lest the building get built.
In the last decade, peer-to-peer digital media has allowed architects to be exposed to a greater number of work opportunities, and this has brought alternative ways to exploit sweat equity, including crowd-funding on websites like Kickstarter, Pozible or Open Source Architecture (OSA). The way crowd-funding works is as follows: projects are pitched on these websites to the public in order to attract financial pledges; in return, pledgers receive a gift. While the “client” is a crowd of several or seven hundred, the architect maintains ownership over their ideas without being bound to investors while testing concepts on the common market. The return can be high for little money upfront, but the key is that the project must be of interest to a broad group.
Crowd-funding stems from the idea of crowd-sourcing; that is, the distribution of problem-solving between various agents. What is unique about crowd-sourcing is that it depends upon the production and maintenance of the “commons,” or resources that are shared by a group of people – things of common interest (such as the maintenance of peer-to-peer file-sharing websites). There is not a monetary value placed on this production as it is undertaken for mutual benefit.
PlayLab and Family Architects in New York has taken up the crowd-funding approach with their self-initiated design for + Pool, a floating public pool in New York City’s Hudson River that also filtered the river water. The project was principally funded via crowd-sourcing platform Kickstarter, where PlayLab and Family Architects presented their ideas for the pool in a short video with an open call for financing. The public could donate anything from US$5 (to receive stickers and a name on an honour roll) to US$10,000 (to receive a poolside lounge chair with one’s name engraved on it). This generated around US$41,000 to put towards research into filtering systems and consultant fees, but not for any of the architectural design work. If, however, the + Pool is successful, there is the option for equity in the technology and licensing of the filtration system behind the project, an option which must have business legs, as global consultants Arup have sourced internal grants to also work on the project pro bono. For PlayLab and Family Architects, however, future equity is an aside. The results of being involved in such a project are manifold, with the professional network they have created, the public exposure, the future positive social outcomes and the resulting paid commissions they have received all creating value for them and their practice. While labour is often measured in economic terms, it must be acknowledged that there are intangible benefits that do not have short-term monetary value. Many emerging practices, including PlayLab and Family Architects, see their free labour as being of equal value to the relationships and networks they have formed in the process. However, there is no reason why architectural fees could not be included in the distribution of raised funds.
While crowd-funding seems an appropriate way to gain access to new funds, in the realm of architecture it necessitates more than just an inspiring idea. The physicality of the project demands involvement from many other stakeholders beyond the crowd, including government and the citizens affected by the project. Without engaging with these agents from the beginning, projects can easily fail. Dan Hill gave warning of this problem in his lecture “Trojan Horse, Dark Matter” when he described a crowd-funding project to erect a RoboCop statue in Detroit that had little relationship to its context, and was thus thwarted by the city mayor. As a critique of this inherent problem of crowd-funding, Sitra (an agency Dan Hill works for) has launched a prototype agency entitled Brickstarter. It promises to be a crowd-funding facilitator that does not depend upon digital self-organizing alone, but which focuses on physical communities by encouraging citizens to be engaged with local decision making. It does this via a “web service that provides a shared platform for citizens to suggest and build possibilities into proposals into projects.” Unlike Kickstarter, it hopes to align local and government interests while still unlocking the potential of crowd-funding.
More than an exchange of cultural capital, crowd-funding aims to contribute to a better common good that finds funds outside the state or private enterprise. This approach seeks value for work by putting responsibility for a good idea in the hands of the architect (or the citizen) to inspire a crowd and the people it affects, rather than waiting for the arrival of a single patron who may never come.