I wrote this piece for Facebook several years ago after a very frustrating week. I used it again recently when Patricia Fry, principal of Plymouth South High School, asked me to share a little about my career, at the Vision of a Graduate ceremony. It celebrates students that are mindful learners, effective communicators, inclusive individuals, resilient problem solvers, and informed citizens. Fry felt my architectural practice espoused these values and asked that I talk about my work and career. I felt this old post summed it up. I just wished I could have gotten through reading it out loud without crying. Here it is, lightly revised by my Independent editor:

Yesterday when I got home, there was a new issue of one of those glossy architectural magazines in the mail pile. They have titles like South Ocean Home or New England Architectural. Ugh…They should read: Common Folks Look at Design You Can Never Afford. The subscription was a Christmas gift from a family member. I loathe these magazines. They showcase an architect’s project involving clients who have unlimited budgets and live in settings straight out of a movie. Every month, I swear I’m not going to read it and then succumb….and then regret it.

The feature article always begins with some drivel about the family needing to relocate from some exotic location in South North Asia or Coastal Western Europe. They discover an oceanfront piece of property they just must have for themselves, and as a base for future generations. They secure the property after much waiting and angst. Omitted from the article is the fact that the property has been in another family’s possession for 150 years, but they are forced to sell because they can no longer afford the taxes.

Next, the story details the search for an architect. The article explains that the architect and client meet at a soiree to raise money for abandoned pot belly pigs and a drive to build a new sanctuary for them. It was an instant match, right? The architect is chosen because his wife’s friend used them and now this client must as well. Or else they called three of the architects who spend 10k a month on advertising in these glossy magazines and went with the one with the lowest fee.

The architect waxes on about the difficulty of designing the house so every bedroom has an ocean view, the right spot for the Peruvian sculpture given as a gift from some late ambassador, or some mumbo jumbo about juxtapositions and adjacency.

What follows are several artistic photos of the kitchen, where the wife bakes her grandmother’s secret-recipe cookies (In reality, she never uses the kitchen and buys them at the foo-foo bakery down the street at $38 a dozen.) The master bedroom is this couple’s sanctuary, a place to retreat to after another hectic day. (Actually, the nanny has the kids and hubby most likely falls asleep in his exotic-wood -paneled study). The entry staircase clearly doesn’t comply with code because the railing and risers were removed after the final inspection.

The last piece of the article lists the project team. Under “cost,” it curiously usually states “withheld at clients request.” That’s probably because they haven’t finished paying for the work or they screwed several subcontractors along the way because they “just didn’t meet the standard we expected.”

Folks, this just isn’t real life or what 90 percent of my fellow architects and colleagues deal with daily. We bust our tails with tight budgets, unforgiving lots, and clients that truly need the help of an architect to guide them. We don’t design the sexy projects that make these glossy magazines. Our projects involve master bedroom additions, two-car garages, dormers on Capes, finished basements, new kitchens, or an in-law apartment. It might also be that first home for a young couple, the retirement home for a previous client, or a massive remodel of a family’s cherished grandparents’ house. It’s these projects that give me fulfillment, joy and connections with real people that have lasted my entire career. And every once in a while, I have a project professionally photographed to showcase it on social media.

Several years ago, a couple referred to me had just retired and were looking to add a master bedroom onto their first floor of a nondescript Cape in a nondescript subdivision. They were planning for the future…just in case. The budget was tight, the lot was tight. They needed a builder who could work within their financial limits. In the end, the project was completed, and everyone was happy. The finishes were modest. They chose black and white photos of their grandchildren as artwork for the new space. Those clients kept touch with me through Christmas cards and hugs when we see each other in the grocery store. The builder still cleans their gutters.

A few months ago, the wife reached out to me and requested a meeting without the husband. “Anything for you,” I said. When we met, she explained that her husband was facing ALS. They needed a ramp to provide wheelchair access the house. Her husband was too embarrassed to call. I told her we would take care of it. I designed the ramp at no charge. The builder installed the ramp at cost.

This is the kind of thing that should be celebrated in glossy magazines.

My circles of architect friends design projects that shape our lives. They design affordable housing on lousy lots so someone will have a home and plumbing that meets current code. They design the Dunkins, Starbucks, and McDonald’s buildings (because, you know, those $400,000 kitchens in the magazines never get used). They design office layouts that ensure Doris from Accounting has a comfortable chair in her space and color in an otherwise drab office. They design projects that they wouldn’t have otherwise taken but needed to make the mortgage, pay their children’s tuition, or cover their staff’s health insurance. They design speculation homes in subdivisions that become someone’s American Dream.

I even have a friend that designs refrigerated buildings so your grocery store can always be stocked. That’s something I can guarantee you’ll never see celebrated in a publication called Fine Design in Coastal Vermont.

Maybe it’s just sour grapes over the reality that I don’t have a glossy spread dedicated to my work every month. But maybe it’s the fact that I had such an incredible group of architectural professors that were champions of the common man and good design. Some of these professors worked for the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe but still realized that design should be for everyone.

I also had some amazing employers that taught the importance of good working design – everybody poops, everybody has dirty dishes, everybody has muddy feet, and everybody has photos of their families that need to be celebrated on walls of a home that will be lived in and not photographed for a pictorial.

I guess I’m destined to occasionally share a glass of wine on a client’s new pressure-treated deck in a subdivision. I’m more than OK with that. Those clients will always have that glass ready for me.

Architect Bill Fornaciari, a nearly lifelong resident of Plymouth, is the owner of BF Architects in Plymouth. His firm specializes in residential work and historic preservation. Fornaciari is also chair of Plymouth’s Community Preservation Committee. Have a question or idea for this column? Email Bill at billfornaciari@gmail.com.

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