Profit and Loss

Lately I’ve been thinking about a couple of events in my life that I never previously thought about together and it’s kind of interesting.

First Anecdote: Yeah, About That Bill…

In the rapid downfall of real estate development that precipitated the Great Recession of ’08/’09, my employer at that time had been working with a developer who abruptly closed up shop and walked out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of the firm’s bills. The people behind this development company had other ventures in different markets to fall back on and today operate all sorts of random businesses around town. Almost every architect eventually runs into a client that walks out on all or part of a bill. If you’re diligent and lucky you can file a lien and maybe you’ll recover pennies on the dollar for that debt in a couple decades as a part of some transaction on the client’s property. In this instance, the developer client’s unpaid bills caused extra harm to the firm at a time when most of the other clients were having to call off or indefinitely pause their projects too — layoffs and pay cuts were the worst they’d ever been in no small part due to this client’s enormous outstanding debt — people were put out of work specifically because of these unpaid bills. Such is the way, and it’s one of the many risks of our business. You’ll even find opinions that are sympathetic to the client as their work dried up and they went out of business — it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “it’s an unfortunate situation all around” or, “nothing you can do in a catastrophic economic collapse like that.”

Second Anecdote: Go Directly To Jail

Here’s a story from even further back in time. In the early years of my architecture career (we’re talking more than 20 years ago now 😳) I worked a lot of overtime. The extra pay was helpful to my situation as a working young adult who was still living with and financially supporting a parent. One weekend I had to skip the OT on a big project in order to drive out to the edge of town to pick up someone from jail. This person ended up there after a depression-fueled perilous financial situation made them desperate enough to write a few bad checks for things like groceries and gas; and those checks added up to a sum just large enough that it was a crime punishable by a short jail sentence since they were broke. I had a lot of time to think on the long drive out to the jail. I wondered what it was like in there. I wondered why a few days in jail was considered a suitable punishment for this particular wrongdoing — it felt like a medieval holdover, something a king’s court would order upon a commoner. Of course, I wondered what this jail was going to look like (I could ask about what the inside looked like too). There were lots and lots of questions, I’d never had to do this before.

The jail and attached buildings were a relatively new government campus at that time. The exterior was done in Minnesota’s trademark Kasota limestone, and like every half-assed Kasota design before or since, that meant it was paired with a red clay brick. It’s an enormous property, with courthouses and other government infrastructure and all the bells and whistles. There’s no doubt it was a big, big project for the firms who did the original design and the subsequent remodels since my visit. I navigated the sea of asphalt and signage pointing me in every imaginable direction all at once and eventually found the sidewalk where this newly freed person waited and helped them into the car. I asked about some of the stuff I had been wondering on the way there and I learned that they were in a corridor of jail cells where there was no one else around for the entire time they were in there. It was very quiet, but also incredibly lonely. A guard would come by with food (sometimes it was fast food drive-thru burgers), and that was about it for human interaction unless you count a TV. They said everything was painted white and the cell they were in was smaller than any bedroom they’d ever had. They kept referencing how lonely and isolated it made them feel. We ended up changing the subject for most of our ride back to civilization because they were feeling really stressed out by the ordeal and needed to think about something different, so that’s about all I learned. In the months following the jail stint, this person ended up spiraling deeper into poverty and was even briefly homeless before they got help to rebuild their life. Such was the impact of those few days sitting in the brand new jail out amongst the farm fields past the edge of town. I haven’t shared this story in a while, but whenever I tell it, there’s a decent chance someone will say something critical like, “they did basically steal so that has to be punished in some way, right?”

The Design of Human Warehouses

The cold, hard truth is that for most careers in architecture, a lot of the day-to-day work is nothing like what one imagined it would be when they initially thought, “I’m gonna be an architect when I grow up.” Society needs all sorts of buildings and many of them aren’t fun or glamorous at all, but they pay the bills. I thought about that a lot this time that I worked on a ginormous waste treatment facility (un-ironically referred to in the industry as a WTF) that basically dried poop to be bagged up and used for fertilizer or something like that. There are many more unglamorous building types out there, but someone’s gotta design them, right? Maybe this is how one gets into the jail and prison design business — after all, someone’s gotta design those too.

The two stories I began with represent two of the ways our society chooses to deal with debts for goods and/or services that go unpaid specifically when the wrongdoer has run out of funds. For a poor person with mental health issues who writes checks for groceries when they don’t have money to cover the checks: go sit in jail and, in the process, get a stain on your record that makes it almost impossible for you to get a job or housing once you’re free. For a profitable but over-leveraged company in an economic bubble who takes hundreds of thousands of dollars of A/E services without paying for them: maybe you’ll get less money from the sale of your building that was made possible by those services; no biggie though, let’s move on from this unfortunate episode. One punishment is ridiculously harsh and the other is surprisingly lenient, but that harsh one creates a steady demand for a building type, among other things…

…As architects design more and more human warehouses (an apt term I’ll use for the remainder of this article) to put more and more people away for things like not being able to pay rent or stealing hedge trimmers or passing bad checks to pay for groceries, there’s a whole economy of businesses that provide goods and services to the human warehouses, thereby contributing to the enormous cost of keeping people locked up. It’s US taxpayers at the federal, state, and county levels paying for this multi-billion dollar industrial complex, and I’ve previously written about how much money’s out there for architects willing to do this ghoulish work. For these architects in the human warehouse economy, I’m sure it’s very good business. After all, the government ain’t gonna walk out on the bill and it wants the really large, well-built buildings that command the big fees too — that’s a win-win from a business standpoint. It’s a safe bet that the firms involved in the design and remodels of the human warehouse I visited out on the edge of town have had some great years provided by this line of work where staff got good raises and maybe even some nice bonuses. It’s the money alone that brings architects to this building type. It’s not glamorous and no one wakes up in the morning and is like, “pRiSoN deSIgN iS mY PAsSiON” before they head off to work. The problem though is not that this is unglamorous work for architects, it’s that these human warehouses do real harm to people.

How do you get something that’s really bad to stop when that something also makes people a lot of money? It’s gonna be really hard. In the architecture community, we have to make a moral and ethical choice: profit or health, safety, and welfare. So far, we’ve been unable to let go of the profit, and that is our collective shame as a community.