“In 1986 Carlo Petrini protested the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Piazza di Spagna, Rome and launched the Slow Food Movement. Carl Honoré explains in his book, In Praise of Slowness, that Slow Food “stands for everything that McDonalds does not: fresh, local, seasonal produce; recipes handed down through the generations; sustainable farming; artisanal production; leisurely dining with family and friends.” But ultimately the movement is about the sensual pleasures of food.
Thirty years after Carlo’s protest, organic produce, artisanal cheeses and craft beer are everywhere. Foodies flock to ever more specialized restaurants serving only food cultivated in their own backyards. Whole Foods is considered mass market and Michelle Obama is promoting farm-to-table in public schools. Carlo should be proud. He saved food!
Since then, the Slow Movement has touched almost every industry except ours. Slow Cities. Slow Aging. Slow Religion. Slow Cinema. Slow Education. Slow Sex. Slow Medicine. Slow Fashion. Slow Parenting. Slow Travel. Architecture, design and the building industry are conspicuously absent from the list. We find that strange. So we decided to do something.” – Slow Space Movement
This week at EntreArchitect Podcast, The Slow Space Movement with Mette Aamodt of Aamodt Plumb Architects.
Mette Aamodt is an architect, CEO and cofounder of Aamodt Plumb, an architecture, interiors, and construction firm in Cambridge, Mass. She’s a former AIA member, a design activist, and cofounder of the Slow Space Movement to promote good, clean, and fair buildings for all. She publishes biweekly thought pieces on her blog, SlowSpace.org, to explore ideas around slow space and slow architecture. She’s a mother of two with her husband and partner, Andrew Plumb. She was diagnosed with MS in 2002 upon graduation from Harvard’s GSD.
Mette’s story goes back to her parents, who did not want her to be an architect. Her father was an architect, and her parents taught her that architecture was a very hard business. She remembers the highs and lows and recessions.
She found her way to architecture through a long path through urban planning and ending up at the GSD. When she graduated, she was diagnosed with MS. There she also met her husband and partner, Andrew.
A week before her thesis review, she went blind in one eye and couldn’t hold the exactor to cut her model. Thinking it was stress, she pressed on. When she went to the doctor, she realized it was worse than she t thought.
Mette and Andrew were starting their careers as architects with this horrible diagnosis and no idea how it was going to affect them. They were unsure of what to do because they believed in the power of architecture to make an impact on people’s lives, but they saw how much it sucked to be an architect and what little value society places on architecture. They were faced with a dilemma: how could they do good work, have a good life, and make a good living?
Since then, the challenge has been to work to balance all three of those things. After a few years of working, they were lucky enough to start their own firm to figure out how to do things differently. How could they run their firm that was different from the way all the other architects were doing? How could they persevere to their triple threat: good work, good life, good money.
They began looking at other business models for good examples of how to run a company well. Through trial and error and their own learning, effort, and mistakes, they’ve gotten to where they are today. There’s no status quo, they’re constantly innovating on the design side and the business side.
They picked a speciality and chose to stay in their lane. The goal was to be profitable so that they could leverage that position to make a greater impact.
Recently, they became an architect-led design build firm to get away from the crazy, combative relationship with builders that’s often typical. Now, they have so much more scope out of the same client AND have found that their clients love it.
It’s a win-win. They don’t have to go through all the paperwork, it’s one hand talking to the other hand to streamline what’s a very overcomplicated process. When you start from a model that’s comprehensible to your prospective clients, you set yourself up for success. Before, doing the architecture alone meant that the projects had to be a certain size to make any money. Now, if they design and build, they have a better opportunity to earn more at the end while helping more people.
How do you provide the construction?
Aamodt Plumb brought in a partner who is a construction manager with a great interest in architecture. They’d worked with him as their builder on another project and found a great fit. They created a sister company that he runs.
Do you give your clients one fee?
They give one proposal for the entire contract, AIA has a document (A145) that outlines that. There’s an amendment after the design phase when the construction fee is known, and that triggers the start of construction.
Were there any surprises?
There’s so much that’s bad about the typical design build process, and they went through the wringer on much of that already.
Where did slow space come from and what does it mean?
For Aamodt Plum, it’s part a design philosophy and part practical social movement. Architects tend to know little about social movements, so Mette wanted to model the movement off of anther successful one. The idea of the “slow movement” fit so well with her philosophy on life; slow and steady wins the race. The idea blends so well with the interest in the experience of space as opposed to the objectification of architecture of recent. How do the spaces make you feel?
What were your goals?
Running a profitable firm and doing good is a challenge in and of itself. What they wanted to be able to do was to get to that point so that they could leverage that position so that they could to have a greater impact. Their mission is to improve the lives of one million people by creating good, clean, and fair homes. The number is intentionally large to get them thinking big and dreaming beyond what they could do. They decided on the bottom up approach: Starting a movement to change ideas and change minds. This is the genesis of the slow space movement. How much is wrong with our industry? How can we give consumers options and change what’s available? Can we help people build custom homes in a reasonable time frame?
Their philosophy is to build less but better. It’s a waste of resources to build buildings that will last less than 50 years before they are torn down and rebuilt again. If things are done better, buildings can be around for 100 or 200 years.
How do you serve a market that’s looking for the fast developer process?
First we have to change people’s hearts and minds. The slow food guys went out and protested McDonald’s. Architects need to protest this kind of fast development. The slow food movement is about the sensual pleasures of eating and the experience of sharing food around a table with loved ones. That part that translates so well to architecture because it’s about connecting, being together, and enjoying the sensual pleasures of being fully immersed in architecture.
Instead of competing with the builders, teach the clients that those houses are unhealthy and temporary, and that there’s an alternative for them to consider.
What are your tenants?
The ideas are good, clean and fair – which are borrowed from the Slow Food Movement.
Good means good design, human-centered around empathy. It must be beautiful; no one will take care of an ugly building. Architects used to be specialties in beauty.
Clean is a different take on the sustainability side. Are the things we’re building homes with clean? It might be a new silver bullet, but clean things like wood work great and have been around for as long as we can remember. Would you let your kids eat it? If not, should we be living in it?
Fair has to do with labor exploitation in the construction industry. People are being paid under the table, they aren’t paying into the social security system, and there’s no benefits. When workers get hurt, they’re out of luck. Many production builders are guilty of withholding wages unless workers come back to the job over long times. This lowers the bar for the whole construction industry that could be a great source of middle class income jobs. Changing this will take away the possibility of building a huge house for cheap: less but better.
How can we get involved?
To sign up for her mailing list, visit SlowSpace.org. Join the conversation. Start talking about these ideas and get them to more people. The more people who start asking these questions, the more the movement progresses. This is how change happens.
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