Architecture is a slow profession. Fundamentally, since shelter for human life is best built to last, even the simplest single-family dwelling is complex enough to require the coordinated effort of multiple people, resources from far and wide, and months of planning and building. Any attempt to hasten this inevitably compromises some step in the process: at best it reinforces the opaque anti-democratic bureaucracy of acquiring a building permit, at worst it leads to negligent engineering that puts human safety at risk, and almost always it results in generic design that engenders a lost sense of place.
Everyone intuitively understands the balance at play: as illustrated by the Scope Triangle, reducing the TIME spent doing something necessitates an increase in COST or resources, or in a reduction in work QUALITY. Interestingly, this triangle is often approached with the mentality of reducing things (going faster, cheaper), and it is used to reinforce to people the fact that something’s gotta give. But what if we approached it with the opposite mentality? Say we have a wealth of time, and are interested in exploring the effects that has on the balance. How would our building or development project shift if its conception, gestation, construction, occupation, and demolition were deliberately stretched out? Do not build the massive tech campus within six months– build a clearing the first construction season, then send everyone home, then connect the utilities (water, sewer, and electricity) the second building season, then send everyone home, then build one building at a time, one detached building per season, allow people to occupy them a little at a time (starting with the security guards, then other staff, then residents, and so on), and cut the ribbon only half a decade later. Open the door slowly and welcome inhabitants incrementally, instead of throwing them open like Black Friday floodgates. The reason for even considering this is to subvert what Jane Jacobs calls “cataclysms:” sudden changes or influxes of cash which screw up a community’s homeostasis. People need time to adapt to changes in their environment. More time also means less cost upfront: expensive, large-scale projects are paid for in more-affordable chunks. Ideally, these chunks are paid in cash by the community, so that they “own” the project once it’s completed, instead of having a large debt to pay off to some bank.
But how do you build something in pieces? Logistically, this is nearly impossible to achieve. The construction profession works best like cities & towns do: in bursts of coordinated activity. You can’t build just the windows, then come back later and add just the roof, then come back later and add the plumbing. A building, park, or street is composed of parts that connect and interact. All those connections have to be planned in advance and executed at once. Right?
This is exactly the challenge in Lexington, NY, a town of less than 1,000 sliding off the northern slopes of the Catskills into the eastbound Schoharie Creek. Alex, a New York City dweller and Greene County visitor since childhood, found himself purchasing the town’s central plot of land, on which the historic Lexington House hotel sits, along with other land across Route 42.
Not taking it lightly, he is now engaged in a ginger revival effort: meeting neighbors, organizing events, hosting visitors, raising funds, with the ultimate goal of refurbishing the Lexington House and injecting new life into the community. He has, after a suggestion from me, adopted the Strong Towns framework of taking “small bets” and building financial stability over time. One would think that the renovation of a 3-story, 10,000-odd square-foot house would be straightforward and merely a question of marshaling enough money and resources, but there’s the rub: not only is that amount of money (~$5,000,000 by my estimation) far beyond Alex’s immediate means, but an injection of that sum into a community, even if it were just to renovate a single privately-owned house, would be one of those Jane Jacobs cataclysms, producing damaging knock-on effects like inflating property values or driving a sudden influx of automobile traffic through the town (during and after construction).
It looks like an impasse, doesn’t it? Cataclysmic spending is the standard way to fix the house, but it also undermines the community’s democratic development. How do you resolve this Catch-22?
One solution begins with the realization, like Alex and I had, that houses are not isolated. They are also composed of: the road they owe their address to, the river feeding the tap, the town green with the bulletin, the gas station, and the post office. Safe roads, good lighting, groceries, and gathering spaces are as much a part of good housing as the housing itself. So while a building may not be buildable in pieces, those external “pieces of town” are. This is Strong Towns principles to a tee: improve the shared stuff little by little, and value will snowball. So what are the “pieces of Lexington” that could be improved?
A second realization is that each of these pieces feeds and builds up to the next one. Imagine establishing a “Lexington Fund,” or a pool of money dedicated to capital improvements to the town. If a low-cost “Phase I” improvement performed well financially and brought back more money to the pool than it took out, then those profits could help fund a higher-cost “Phase II.” Profitability or economic growth in a small, non-cataclysmic percentage would be a prerequisite of any project that the town decides to undertake.
Kiosks are simple wood bulletin boards that mainly house flyers and news from around town, but also have important contact information or even historical posters. As objects, they are sometimes almost sculptural, encouraging you to get out of your car and approach. Profitability is measured by a slight increase in visitors and spending at local businesses (gas station, general store, food, etc).
Sidewalks are the heroes of public space. They are what allow people to access things without use of their cars. Weaning a town off motor vehicle dependency is an essential ingredient of Strong Towns. Cleaner air, safer roads, and most importantly space to see and encounter each other. What use is a destination town if you have no safe & accessible way to get around it? A simple sidewalk can be constructed of layers of dirt, gravel, or a synthetic mat purchased in tiles. Profitability is measured by an increase in visitors and spending at local businesses (gas station, general store, food, etc).
A simple way to make use of a building without necessarily entering it is by using an exterior wall for projecting movies. Very low-cost, and a good way to inject the town with some night life. If word gets around, people from nearby towns will show up. Profitability is measured by ticket sales or donations. As a matter of fact, Alex has a GoFundMe campaign up currently which seeks donations to restore the facade.
In more rural areas, open space is more plentiful. Any town worth its salt will have a “town green” or a central field of some sort for various gatherings. Arranging pickup sports on such a field is a low-cost way to get people together. If word gets around, people from nearby towns can show up. One could arrange a tournament pitting town against town. Profitability is measured by ticket sales or donations.
Something of a combination of the sidewalk and the kiosk, an art gallery (indoor or outdoor) is another simple way to bring people together. If done indoors, in the Lexington House for example, only electricity and a working bathroom are needed. Lexington and other towns along the Schoharie Creek have a rich history of arts to tap into. Profitability is measured by ticket sales or art sales (the Lexington Fund would take a small cut). As a matter of fact, Alex has a GoFundMe campaign up currently which seeks donations to restore the facade.
Very similarly to a gallery, a partial renovation of Lexington House could make it useful as a set for filming. Electrical and plumbing connections are needed, as well as purchasing some permanent equipment. Aspiring filmmakers rent the space. Profitability is measured by this rent. As a matter of fact, Alex has a GoFundMe campaign up currently which seeks donations to restore the facade.
These last two are particularly intriguing because they directly involve artists. Alex, myself, and other members of the Lexington development group have identified both the area’s artistic history and the unique way in which artists can create value out of almost nothing. In this sense they are entrepreneurial and opportunistic, requiring little physical space and relatively cheap materials but producing things that, at best, help others to see the surrounding world in new ways. The topic comes up frequently in the weekly conversations he holds on Zoom– the talks are free and open to all, and the link can be found on the Lexington Arts & Science website.
All these pieces ultimately strengthen the infrastructure around the town. They give passers-through a reason to get out of their cars and look around. They lead to more face-to-face encounters between people, which further strengthens community ties and perhaps even to money spent. But The most humbling of all is that this stuff can be built without Registered Architects (RA’s) or Professional Engineers (PE’s), those professionals who we thought were indispensable gatekeepers to changes in the built environment. For most of these, all it takes is a generous donation, a trip to the lumber yard or trading post, and a few willing and able-bodies neighbors to show up. Since they are composed of many people living close together, towns and cities are also best built one piece at a time.