Feature Article

Embracing the Economy as a Design Challenge

How architects, community developers, and others are experimenting with new models to support progressive design.

South Mountain Company designed and built these eight, zero-energy-possible, affordable housing units on Martha's Vineyard for a cost of only $175,000-$295,000.

Photo: Derrill Bazzy
The consulting engineers at Integral Group are accustomed to working with clients early in an integrated design process. Working with Kevin Bates, president of Sharp Development Company, was different, however. “The first meeting wasn’t a design meeting—it was a financial meeting,” said John Andary of Integral Group, of a recent project with Bates. “As long as [Bates] was meeting his ROI [return on investment] and capitalization rate he was willing to spend whatever money, even if he was planning to sell the building.”

Integral group is now on its fourth market rate, net-zero-energy project with Sharp Development, and has additional developer-driven net-zero-energy projects in the works in California and Colorado that aim to replicate Sharp’s success.

Whether it’s approaching existing financial structures more creatively, as in the Sharp example, or adopting entirely new corporate structures, projects and firms are busting out of the old, tired boxes. They are doing things that, in more conventional practice, couldn’t be done.

This article showcases a spectrum of solutions that are all about creating value in the most inclusive sense. These examples show that our economic system is not cast in stone, but is continually envisioned, implemented, and updated by people. By taking on finance and economics as a design challenge, we discover that many perceived barriers are not as immovable as we think.

Published April 4, 2017