What does Value Engineering smell like?
It all began the other day while I was waiting for the train in the morning, staring at an ad for a motorcycle that I could win if I entered the NY Lottery.
Let me say from the beginning that I am no connoisseur of motorcycles, nor have ever had any interest in them. The thought came to my mind unbidden – “That must be the cheaper model…” I have no idea if I am correct, but something in the picture gave me the sense that something was missing from the bike – the psychic residue of trim removed, or machined hardware replaced with stamped sheet metal.
I have long suspected that, as trained consumers, we have a subconscious sense of design, a sort of lizard-brain gestalt sense that is unconsciously weighing how valuable objects are. I have no doubt that this lizard brain can be duped by advertising or tricked by slick salesmanship, but I think we develop our senses in parallel with the advances of advertisement, so we can’t always be wrong. If we can assume that cars (and motorcycles) are designed from the top of the line down – what are the Ford Fiestas and Toyota Echoes of the world [you can also glean here that I have not bought a late-model car in some time] but walking wounded, with memories of their flashy concept-car pasts?
The typical design path in architecture is to design a beautiful creature that does not fit the initial budget and either bully the client into falling in love and producing more money or hack off limbs until the design fits the real budget. In my experience, the initial design is a thoughtful labor of love and the VE process is grudging battle to hold onto at least the silhouette of the original concept. This is often done skillfully and strategically, but can we sense the phantom limbs that are missing from the whole? What about Norman Foster’s building for City Center, which is missing almost half its height because of faulty concrete in the bottom half?
I was talking with a colleague the other day about hidden architectural signifiers of value – she was working on a design for spec home design and musing where to spend the most money. My suggestion was to put the budget into the front door. I grew up visiting my grandmother at a house that my grandfather designed, a lovely specimen of mid-century design, and my clearest memory of that house was the front door. Wider than a normal door, it had a beautiful large door knob and made a soft, rich, “thud” when closed, like an expensive car. The house had many other aspects, some successful and some not, but the front door was something you encountered daily.
There are some cultures that believe that the window into the body is through the pulse, others that examine its spoor for signs of internal distress. We may sacrifice environmental performance, closet space and high ceilings and complain mightily, but a reliable front door reassures us that all is well with the domestic machinery.