A Window on the Economy

September 30, 2011

Most of the bad news about the continued economic slump has focused on the real villains of the story: the financial institutions and government regulators who brought ruin on the American Dream. An interesting story in the New York Times last week caught my attention, because it underlined the tireless efforts of a family-owned company to weather the storm without shortchanging its employees. Moreover, the company in question was a well-known manufacturer of windows, one of the key components of residential and commercial construction. Just how difficult has it been for such enterprises during the past four years? If the Marvin Window story is any indication, America should sound the alarm or face the collapse of some its most important manufacturers.

Marvin Windows has been at the top of the premium residential market for decades, mostly due to the things that make any successful company work: quality products, good marketing, outstanding service, and sound management. Unlike the many building materials companies that fell prey to LBO scams in the 1990s, Marvin retained its family ownership–indeed, descendants of the founder are still in charge after more than a century. According to Susan Marvin, the current president, that is not about to change anytime soon.

The company has not turned a profit in three years, but won’t bend on its core values. “Unlike so many other companies, Marvin Windows has neither laid off workers nor reduced health insurance benefits. And, its executives vow, it won’t,” writes Andrew Martin from company headquarters in Warroad, Minnesota. Recognizing that its very existence as a leader in the market is threatened, this manufacturer will not downsize to reflect low demand during a lull in building. If the factory loses its core of experienced craftspersons, the company will not be able to compete once demand picks up. There is no question that Marvin fills a critical place in the U.S. building industry now, and that any reduction in its capacity will not only hurt the bottom line but also the industry as a whole. The leadership at this small company doesn’t buy Wall Street’s skewed vision for American business, and thank God for that.

If the Marvin family’s care and concern for its labor force sounds like something out of a Frank Capra movie, it may be time for American business to wake up from its cynical pipe dream and go back to work. Bravo for those ice-fishing, hockey-playing woodworkers in frigid Minnesota. Perhaps they’ll show us how good old fashioned sweat and elbow grease can lift us out of our doldrums and start building a sustainable nation for the next century and beyond.


Big AE and BIM

September 2, 2011

We’ve all heard of Big Ag and Big Pharma. Have architects and designers ever considered their relationship to the industrial system that produces building materials and components the way critics have dissected the food and drug cartels? I suspect that, with very little digging, investigators would turn up the same kind of monopolistic, greed-filled and anti-competitive system in our part of the capitalist ecosystem that exists elsewhere. Would we also find a conspiracy to delude the public about safety, efficiency, and the transparency of the marketplace?

It is perhaps too soon to tell whether the current reorganization of architectural and engineering firms has yielded more quality, less waste, and a better work environment for design professionals. Now that AECOM has risen to the top of the food chain by buying up hundreds of smaller AE firms around the world, someone should ask whether mega-firms like it and Arup are indeed providing better design and engineering service to the world at large. Big Ag put millions of farmers out of business, and has diminished the diversity of crops available to the public. Will we see fewer choices in the building industry soon?

With the current economic slump, it seems clear that only the strongest, and largest, AE firms will survive to compete in the global market. We already have giant construction companies like Bechtel, Brown and Root (under the Halliburton umbrella) and Turner dictating the terms for big projects worldwide, not to mention similar nationalized companies in China. It is only a matter of time before these AE Walmarts snuff out their competition in the largest markets.

Another, more insidious trend has entered the design marketplace through a clever and apparently benign technology–software. Building Information Modeling, which one of my students anticipated years ago in a masters thesis, has crept into the mainstream with little fanfare. Though “high design” architects pretend it isn’t an influence on their creative output, the construction industry isn’t waiting to be told whether or not to adopt a cost-saving and logistical tool that can increase profits. Like AutoCAD’s primitive Architectural Desktop, BIM reduces the assembly of building components to a standardized palette, forcing designers to exclude hand-crafted, low tech, or custom elements from their built work.

Moreover, the largest manufacturers and holding companies in the construction marketplace can now insert their products into the palette via BIM, making it too easy to accept a limited number of choices among say, glass, brick, or curtain wall brands. Soon, the kit of parts we manipulate will be reduced to a kind of fast-food menu in the supermarket of industrial and technological products controlled by an ever shrinking group of multi-national companies. Already, longstanding manufacturers like Baldwin Hardware, Morgan Millwork, and several lighting brands have been acquired by such rapacious giants. The result: less service, poorer quality, longer lead times.

We’ve grown fat and lazy on plastic, fast food produced in giant industrial plants, taking little notice of the harmful effects on our bodies. Modern technology made such miracles possible. It’s time we woke up and looked around at what this system is doing to the built environment too.