Design Ethos | On Luxury: Its many facets and Cognotations
Updated: Jan 25
The word luxury has become ubiquitous across billboards, social media and reality shows. Based on today's marketing it would be easy to surmise that there is a glut of luxury and we are somehow immersed in a new Gilded Age. We hear marketers, service providers and potential clients using this word incessantly to describe their products and projects in ways that isn’t immediately clear what is being implied and yet there is no kneejerk reaction to ask what is being meant. Instead we jump to our own conclusions which can oftentimes lead to confusion and eventually to disappointment.
It’s easy to understand why services and products across all industries would want to market themselves as part of the luxury industry since it often results in a higher price markup, and the building and construction sector is certainly no exception. This markup, however, comes with increased expectations and it is these expectations that we, as an architecture practice, want to deliberately prod at in order to be better attuned to our client needs and requirements and provide them the best services and results possible. Additionally, this exercise affords us the opportunity to position ourselves as a practice, and evaluate our capabilities and interests.
After some fruitful conversations and reflective musings between our clients and us, we’ve come to realize that luxury has become an umbrella term to include a host of different characteristics and expectations. The following is a list of traits and cognotations used in the context of the design and construction industry that are often associated with the concept of luxury. No single definition is more legitimate than the next, and most aren’t mutually exclusive- in fact they are often grouped, so it’s important to understand what combination of these a client is expecting when requesting a luxury project. Some of these describe the design process or delivery method, whereas other describe the final outcome. We have also included what could be possible challenges associated with this particular objective.
XL or Roomy: When it comes to buildings, there is an association between ample space and luxury. Larger projects allow for a greater array of dedicated spaces, and for each space to be roomier. This overall grandness in scale allows for more breathing room to circulate and the ability to accommodate larger furniture/fixtures. The scaling up tends to take place in 3D, not just in plan, often raising ceiling heights to maintain some sense of proportion. The challenge when scaling up will be maintaining the scale of the user within these larger spaces and ensuring there is an overall hierarchy of spaces with the communal more public spaces being larger than the ones meant for individual use. Supersizing every space in a project and losing any sense of hierarchy won't lead to interesting or welcoming spaces. Spaces of intimacy, domesticity, and healing such as bedrooms, a family room, hotel suite, patient room, a meditation room, should not feel like an airport terminal or an art gallery.
High Quality Material + Craftsmanship: Materials contribute to the sensory and experiential qualities of a space, as well as to its performance, therefore, it is no surprise that oftentimes there is an expectation for luxury projects to be made with above average materials and craftsmanship. Materials can be classified in many ways so it’s critical to establish a selection criteria with the client. Among the material considerations are: cost, durability/lifespan, color, texture, reflection, sourcing, sustainable lifecycle, health, flammability, acoustics. Likewise, how the materials are finished and assembled, can be just as important. The challenge is that focusing solely on materials and craftsmanship will not be sufficient in creating and defining a space, the material selection may be perceived as a crutch if the overall design falls short.
Imagery/Symbolism: The desire to imbue a project with a desired recognizable imagery that is distinct from its immediate time and geographical context could be understood as a luxury. It may be formal or atmospheric qualities that are trying to be emulated. The project in this case acts as a symbol of a real or fictional distant place, a bigone era or a visionary future. Prioritizing the positioning of the project within this extended context rather than its actual one could be perceived as thematic or cartoonish and out of place.
Designer Label / Exclusivity Within our global context, high profile projects have come to be regarded as marketplace luxury products or commodities. Guided by the Scarcity Principle, clients and stakeholders seek out exclusive design practices with recognizable branding to secure their investments in order to yield a payback- this could be in the form of garnering international attention to attract tourists or capitalize by selling at skyhigh prices. The challenge with this quest for a brand is that there has to be a very careful balance between the brand and the building. The least desired outcome would be one where the brand overshadows the actual project, neglecting the client’s spatial needs and wants and not considering the cultural and climactic context. Additionally, this dependency on brand can be precarious in the longterm since the brand may fall out of fashion or the design practice may produce many similar projects diluting the perceived value of the designer label.
Speedy Delivery: In our era of immediate gratification, speed is highly prized. Receiving a project in record time is considered a luxury. Projects delivered faster than conventional methods are greatly desired because they may provide relief money and timewise. After all time is money, and loans accrue interests and the client may need the project by a specific date. The challenge lies in the little wiggle room an aggressive delivery leaves for for due diligence relief measures, making changes along the way or to address any potential obstacles in permitting, sourcing or execution. The client will be required to sign off and commit to many final decisions very early on to remain on schedule and on budget. If the client is knowledgeable about the process and what is required of them from prior projects
Full Service: Clients may want to engage as little as possible with the process and expect the design professional to deliver a turnkey project, fully furnished and stocked for full operation by the agreed upon opening day. Whether it’s because they are a busy institution conducting groundbreaking research or wealthy jetsetters, being able to carry on with their work and career without having to worry about the progress of their high caliber project is a luxury. The challenge will be selecting a team of professionals that is able to meet and anticipate all the owners’ needs. This would transcend services rendered by a design professional conventionally and would require taking on a project management role where the architect acts on behalf of the client to make decisions. If the architect doesn’t prove to be fully aligned with the client’s expectations it could prove disastrous for all parties involved. This scenario would work best with repeat clients where a rapport and trust has been established so that informed decisions can be made and previous projects can serve as a reference.
Impossible Challenge: In this connotation of luxury we are looking at how a project that is seemingly impossible by most accounts from the getgo can become more than the sum of its individual parts. The ability to not just overcome difficult constraints but harness these to make a distinctly unique project could be considered an alchemy of sorts. These constraints could include: a very restrictive zoning code, aggressive project budget, rigorous sustainability certification process, culturally sensitive context, difficult terrain, or a protective neighborhood association. It’s the kind of project where the team needs to suspend their disbelief and start with no preconceived notions on what the final result could be. The challenge will be having no case study or manual to help weigh the pros and cons to determine the ultimate viability and realization of the project. There is a bit of a leap of faith and it will require an integrated approach by all parties to imagine the possibilities abstractly, be able to convey the vision and translate these to concrete terms.
So what is luxury in the design and construction field? As you can see, it means different things to different people, and this list is by no means meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive, but instead serve as a starting point for clients and design professionals to realize and understand where in the luxury sphere the project lies. Whatever the case, what is important is that the owner/client and design and construction team are on the same page on the expectations in order to make the project a success.