Lessons from DeBeers- And the stainless steel range.

The other day I heard a discussion about whether we “like” things because we like them or because we are taught to “like” them.   This is especially interesting as a residential architect that is frequently confronted with the question of why it costs so damn much to build anything.  I break that down into 3 reasons- 1) Building codes that require more and more, and nationalize what used to be regional preferences  2) A bloating of the “needs” list 3) people have accepted the idea that they should spend the maximum they can afford- and builders/designers are happy to comply.

I like to point out that one of my favorite rooms is my living room where I have two lamps on my mantel that put out 50 watts each.  There’s not even a wall switch- you walk up to the lamp and turn the thumb screw.  The light is warm and cozy-  it’s bright enough to read, there’s no glare on the TV.   This lighting setup is a great example of how the codes and the “must have” balloon have conspired to run up construction costs without any real benefit.  Building code would dictate that we have at a minimum a wall switch to turn on the lights-  the receptacle concealed face up in the top of the mantel would be considered a fire hazard.  “Convention” would also most likely require 4 or more recessed fixtures- some sconces over the mantle wouldn’t be out of place, and you would certainly need a dimmer- these days it wouldn’t be unusual to have some grazing lights or wall washers to provide some drama.  No big deal right?   In new construction in our market it would easily add $3,000 in material,  and labor-  for a lighting scene that would arguably not be an improvement over my lamps.  Repeat throughout the rest of the house and you’ll see the impact of the “new” way of thinking.

And guess what?

I don’t have a tub in my master bathroom.

Scandalous!

Ask people with jet engine powered tubs how often they use their tub and 95% will tell you they used it when they moved in- and maybe once a year (they take too long to fill and make so much noise that it’s not especially relaxing).  We’re told “you need it for resale.”   I agree- most buyers have that big jacuzzi tub on their checklist too.  But me- I’m betting $10k that there will be another person like me who likes the bigger window and luxurious open floor space more than the unused acrylic bucket that “should” be there.  It’s a bet I was willing to loose.

I bring up DeBeers because they’ve fought a splendidly coordinated multi decade battle to ensure that: A) A diamond is the only proof of love B) Any apeman suitor knows the “4Cs” C) They control the supply chain to maintain exclusivity – oh and lets not forget D) the really preposterous “3 month salary” guideline.   They’ve indelibly ingrained the necessity of diamond purchases into the conciousnous of lovers around the world (which would mostly be everybody).  In most circles the mere suggestion of eschewing the diamond engagement ring will at best be greeted with polite sympathetic nodding by others that know better.

So what’s DeBeers have to do with our houses?  There are a lot of parallells that have organically crept into housing design without even a coordinated effort like the one by DeBeers.

As designers we usually start by talking with our clients about what they would like and what they will need.  Back in the cave man days I imagine that the conversation was pretty short.

Designer:  What would you like in your new cave?

Client:  Maybe something like a cave?  A Dry cave would be really nice!

The typical “needs” list of our clients has been ballooning at a steady pace.  Since the dawn of printing there have been design books filling clients heads with new ideas- but I target the real acceleration with a point in the 1980s when the commercial range became the must have domestic appliance.  From this point on the race has been on to one-up the Joneses- or maybe Martha Stewarts.  At some point people started asking for things they don’t need or even necessarily want-  they started asking for things that they think they are supposed to need.

Now don’t get me wrong-  This stuff is cool.  Diamonds are cool-  They appeal to our lowest level of [homer simpson voice] “Shiinneeey.”  Our family?  We cook.  We like our fancy kitchen.  Big tub?  Great Idea.  Stone Counters?  Great.  Wood floors? Home theater? Integrated lighting/AV/HVAC?  stainless steel?  Frameless shower glass?  Screwless faceplates?  Flangeless recess lights?  Green? Zero VOC paints?  Solar thermal?  Radiant flooring?  No problem!  And the flood of chinese “stuff” has made it all tantalizingly attainable.

All the latest “must haves”  are great.  But do you need them? Will you enjoy them?  Will you even notice them after the first couple weeks of living with them?

So when you build your next “need” list-  who is informing the needs? You’re realtor? Home Depot? Martha Stewart (or Dwell)?  Extreme Home Makeover?  Your Neighbors?  Are you starting with a big list and trying to edit down or are you starting with a blank sheet and trying to add up.  If you stop and think about what each item really means and what it really costs-  what is the real world joy you will get from that thing? –  you can get to a much better focused list.

You don’t have to be a monk- but you don’t need to be a glutton either.

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