Peter Gluck’s Social Work

An outspoken architect points the way to socially responsible practice by building his own designs.

Peter Gluck has a problem with the AIA. He has a problem with architectural education too. Really he has a problem with the whole profession of architecture as it is currently practiced. Economic exploitation of youth. Big ideas in service of the highest bidder. Callow young CAD monkeys trained in archispeak. Designers who don’t know how to build. Engineers rescuing forms untethered from reality. He doesn’t seem like an angry person: he’s a sort of laid-back father figure with a gentle demeanor who appears to relish his work. But don’t get him started on the irresponsibility of architects and the way the profession is practiced. Or do get him started: you might learn something.

“I don’t belong to the AIA,” Gluck says during a BMW station-wagon tour of his recent New York projects, among them a campus for Bronx Prep, a charter school for 800 students in the South Bronx, and a center for the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service, a nonprofit that works with poor families and immigrants in East Harlem. “I think they’re the problem, not the solution. It’s a group of people who get together to promote themselves; they’re not interested in really looking at the profession and trying to see where its problems are.”

Gluck’s office is located on the second floor of an industrial building under the steel arches of Riv­er­side Drive as it rises above West Harlem, far from the architecture ghettos of downtown Man­hattan but soon to be displaced by a new campus for Columbia University. A graduate of Yale at the end of Paul Rudolph’s deanship in the late 1960s (one of the first schools in the United States to institute a modern design-build program) and an early adopter of computer-aided design in the 1980s, Gluck realized by the 1990s that his professional duties were being systematically outsourced to contractors and engineers. Architects were being advised to stop building things themselves: too much risk if something goes wrong. So he began hiring general contractors, in accordance with the standard adversarial process by which designers, clients, and contractors mutually deflect responsibility for their failures. But the contractors had trouble understanding his design drawings—all very specific in terms of use, structure, context, and intended social effects—and he had to put someone on-site full-time anyway. It’s a broken-down system, according to Gluck, that impoverishes the profession, adds a huge premium to the cost of doing good design, taxes building quality, and makes it almost impossible to do social projects affordably.

Like many ambitious architects with independent practices, Gluck has built a large number of upscale residences for wealthy clients over the years, their main social aspect being that he tries to mitigate their McMansion scale by sinking them into the landscape and dressing them in warm materials. But in 1992, twenty years after he founded his own firm, he established Architectural Construction Services in the reform-minded spirit of someone who had seen the CAD drawings on the wall. His goal was to bring the building process back under the firm’s control, reduce the exorbitant costs of innovation, and integrate idealistic work into his everyday practice. Roughly half of his portfolio is now made up of genuinely social projects, spurred by the development of a design-build capacity that produces efficiencies in the construction process.

Wedged into a mountainside on the edge of downtown Aspen, Colorado, the Little Ajax Affordable Housing development is Gluck’s most ambitious social project to date. He had done a few spec houses in Aspen a couple of years earlier—Charlie Kaplan, one of his longtime associates, used to live there—but when he found a brownfield site on an awkward slope at the edge of the city in 1999, he was determined to find a way to develop it as middle-income housing for the public employees and service workers who otherwise couldn’t afford to live there. “We just happened to find a piece of property that had these issues,” says Kaplan, who began working at Peter L. Gluck & Partners in 1996. “That’s where we can add value, when we find property with issues that we can solve that other people can’t.”

Fourteen units are arranged around a parking lot and a wide second-floor balcony to create a raised communal courtyard with two view corridors that extend through to the mountainside. The complex pivots about ten degrees between the two-story elevation facing the street, set back to align with a row of single-family vernacular homes, and the three-story volume behind, which steps up the base of the mountain and is oriented along an adjacent public hiking trail. Mine-waste rock with high lead content leftover from a silver quarry on the site was buried under the parking lot for remediation. Built for about $3.7 million and completed last fall, the development is proof that streamlining the construction process to eliminate the large margin of error priced in by contractors can bring a high level of design and quality interior finishes to affordable ­housing.

Gluck’s strategy is simple: once the designers have completed a traditional set of construction documents, they go on to isolate the scope of work for each trade, drawing up detailed individual plans for the steel, concrete, electrical, structural, framing, flooring, millwork, siding, and other work that clearly defines each subcontractor’s responsibility. Instead of fishing through an enormous set of drawings to figure out their bid, the subcontractors are handed maybe a dozen pages containing only the information relevant to their job. Each plan is accompanied by pictorial 3-D drawings that make it easier for them to see what they’re doing. It’s a commonsense way to avoid the misunderstandings and arguments that have become an accepted norm of the construction process, and the work gets done better, faster, and cheaper as a result.

Architects love to complain about the failures of their contractors, but Gluck puts the blame squarely on the architects themselves. “Most architects have no idea how a building is laid out, let alone how to put in notation that is compatible with existing equipment,” he says. “It’s amazing if you look at a set of drawings by one of these guys; some of the dimensions are of absolutely no value. If you’re not overseeing the job site, you have no means to understand that. All architects are certainly capable of it, but there’s never any opportunity for them to know. They’re basically forced to be ignorant, which I find inexcusable.”

For Little Ajax, the bid for the corrugated-steel cladding came in at about $160,000: the subcontractor wasn’t sure how to cut the sharp angles of the building’s corners, where the street line reconciles with the mountainous landscape. Project architect Jason LaPointe, who served as the de facto contractor, decided to build a saw by hand that could cut the steel on-site. He spent $3,500 on the saw and reduced the steel bid by $100,000. “It’s one of those projects where you don’t have a lot of money to play around with too much design, so you have to figure it out ahead of time,” he says. “The process we use really helps to define the scope of work for each subcontractor, which in turn gets you a better price, and there are a lot fewer change orders. The drawings that they see don’t have additional information for someone else, which usually leads to fudge factors in their numbers. And with the architect on-site doing it, construction just comes down to doing it right the first time. It’s not that ­difficult.”

LaPointe now lives in one of the units, part of an agreement Gluck worked out with the city of Aspen. The two- and three-bedroom apartments could easily have gone for more than $1 million each at market rate; the city sold them in a lottery for $190,000 and $290,000, respectively. Yet despite support from the city and a public desire for affordable housing in Aspen, it took six years for Gluck to negotiate the demands of antimodern, anti–middle income neighbors and get it approved by the city council, adding a huge cost to the project, which barely broke even. “Really the neighbors didn’t want any project to go there, so they complained about every aspect,” LaPointe says. “Every time we went to the city council they changed what they wanted. We could’ve built three single-family homes on the site without asking anybody anything. That wasn’t the point. They just didn’t want anything across the street from them.”

Partly for that reason, private homes remain Gluck’s bread and butter—in about one-third the time it took to complete Little Ajax, the firm was able to build a 6,000-square-foot house in the mountains surrounding Aspen, a spectacular supermodern building clad in FSC-certified Ipe wood and immersed in the landscape with a roof deck that spans its entire length. He’s also working on a 20,000-square-foot house in upstate New York on the shore of Lake George for Dan Lewis (brother of Peter Lewis, the famous Frank Gehry patron who paid $40 million for a house that was never built) that is half-buried in the lakeside to reduce its environmental impact and energy consumption. “Private houses are a great way to experiment,” Gluck says. “They’re very complicated buildings, especially if you look at them as conceptual pieces as opposed to a series of rooms for people to live in.”

They’re also great training for the young architects in his office, which functions like an unofficial postgraduate program for discontented designers who actually want to learn to build something. It’s part of his ethic that they need to get up to speed pretty quickly, learn to do shop drawings, and go to the site to manage their own projects. “One of the biggest problems is that architects spend so many years in such a refined, isolated world—one school environment after another,” he says. “They never really get out into the real world.”

Gluck’s harshest words are aimed at the masochistic educational and professional system that trains architects to speak like idiots but fails to train them to build. “It usually takes them a year before, all of a sudden, their verbose language disappears,” he says. “After they’ve been in the office for a year, they don’t talk so much anymore. It’s either there or it isn’t there. It isn’t that there aren’t narratives to our buildings, but the buildings either express what we’re trying to do or they don’t. So the learning part of it is frustrating because I wish people had the knowledge to start with, but they don’t.”

The poor state of architectural education also explains why after paying more than $100,000 for a degree, graduates are forced to apprentice for three years while other people sign off on their work, and are finally charged another $2,000 to get a license that a professional degree should prepare them for in the first place. “That’s the kind of shit the AIA would do,” he says. “The profession is already built on the backs of young architects—if they were really concerned, the last thing they would do would be to punish young people coming into the field.”

Gluck’s office is expanding rapidly, and he’s constantly on the lookout for young architects sick of the game of social networking and self-­promotion, as well as for opportunities to design and build social projects. He has plans to develop affordable housing in New York once he finds a piece of property whose value isn’t outrageously inflated, and he already has another school under construction in East Harlem. It’s clearly gratifying for Gluck to walk into a building used by hundreds of people every day and have faces light up when they see him, as they do when he walks into Bronx Prep—every student in the first graduating class was admitted to college last year—or the Little Sisters building, on East 115th Street, where every square inch is packed with volunteers, kids in ESL classes, and a very Spanish Harlem–style thrift store on the ground floor. “These projects are critical for me,” Gluck says. “I don’t think I could just do multimillion-dollar projects. They’re doing great work here. You could take great photographs of the facade and win tons of awards, but this is what’s meaningful.”

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