Build America Great Again

On June 16th, 2015 Donald Trump stood in his eponymous midtown tower and, with his skin emanating a gilded orange glow normally found in the grease oozing from a 99-cent pizza slice, declared his presidential candidacy. Stabbing the carrot stubs he calls fingers in the air he, for the first time, yelped the phrase that millions chant and millions more whisper in secret: "Make America Great Again!"

Of course, many more of us find his message to be vile and hollow. Particularly those of us who remember The Donald back when he was just the swollen-headed scion of Fred Trump - a man who couldn't even surpass Sam LeFrak as King of all the Queens Slumlords. Make America Great again? Don't make Freddie laugh; he didn't build Donald's inheritance by offering repairs.

But as a New York City-based architect there is, admittedly, a certain resonance to Trump's campaign slogan. It makes me think about the fact that, in a strictly architectural sense, America isn't all that great. And that's because we can't build anything anymore as a regulatory morass and skills shortage have combined to erode our ability to efficiently conceptualize and construct projects.

The list of grand American civic projects in recent times is shorter than the 7 line extension. And what few there are, like the Bay Bridge's Eastern Span, Santiago Calatrava's "Stegosaurus" WTC Hub, the Second Avenue Subway, Boston's Big Dig, Denver International Airport, the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, LA's 405 widening through the Sepulveda Pass, New Orleans' new flood barriers, and Seattle's Alaska Way Tunnel have, or will, arrive years overdue, half-baked in execution, and stupendously over-budget.

And this construction stultification manifests itself across the architectural spectrum from our most ambitious megaprojects down to everyday ones. This hit home for me when I worked on a since-shuttered jewelry store that stood only a few feet from where Trump squinted his beady eyes out toward the hinterlands on that June day.

The Trump Tower jewelry store's construction was a collaboration between my firm and a group of French architects. As plans progressed, the client asked my firm and our French counterparts to prepare separate construction drawings for bidding on the millwork and showcases; one for local contractors and another for French ones.

But it would have taken the most discerning professional eye to tell that the two sets of drawings were for the same project. Our drawings, for New York City-area contractors, reflected the laborious and painstaking process of detailing and dimensioning every nut and bolt. Moreover, we showed how it should all be assembled with additional half-or-full size construction details. Once done, we also added myriad notes to protect ourselves against liability for all sorts of things that could go wrong all while warning the contractors of the dire consequences of straying from our specific drawings.

The French faced none of this stress. All they had to do was prepare a single, simple drawing prepared in only one scale that showed the basic dimensions and finishes.

So even with a more expensive Euro, and with the additional transportation and insurance costs, our client thought that he'd come out ahead with the French contractors.

He was right.

The French bids were lower and so it happened that all the showcases, millwork and woodwork were manufactured in France. Then they were shipped over where they ironically passed the Statute of Liberty en route to Port Newark before final assembly on-site in Manhattan.

How did we come to this? How have we fallen behind our European counterparts in economy and efficiency? Why is it that an American architect has to put in twice the effort of his European counterpart to reach the same result? Two culprits come to mind:

1. Regulation
People all across the land still take solace in Franklin Roosevelt's declaration that "... the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Well, everyone except American architects who quake in their Salvatore Ferragamos at the thought of being sued for errors, omissions, negligence, accidents, tripping hazards, or non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or any number of regulatory agencies and their respective building codes, fire codes and zoning regulations.

For example, if this project were on neighboring Madison Avenue rather than on Fifth, then it would need the Landmark Preservation Commission's approval in addition to the Building Department's. And, let's say that the client wished to add decorative sidewalk planters. Well, that little bit of green on a concrete canyon would require the approval of no less than the Department of Transportation, the DOT's Revocable Consent Division, the New York City Design Commission, the Parks Department, the Community Board, the district's City Council member. It's no wonder that architects think that Terry Gilliam's Brazil is a documentary.

James Brown spoke the truth about a lot of things in life, but who knew that he also spoke gospel about New York City construction? Because if you want to build in this town you've got to "Pay the Costs to be the Boss." A 2005 NYU study confirmed the Godfather of Soul in finding that per-square-footage construction costs are significantly higher than in other major cities. And it's not just Manhattan -- for example the study showed that a 15-story apartment building costs as much as $8 million more to build in The Bronx than in Dallas.

Every facet of construction costs more in de Blasioburg than in the rest of the country. But while it's somewhat understandable that certain hard costs like materials are rising it's harder to rationalize the skyrocketing costs of less tangible costs. For example, The Real Deal estimated that construction insurance premiums doubled between 2009 and 2014 and now comprise as much as 10% of an average project's budget.

And New York's government isn't any kind of ally. As the NYU study wryly noted, "The Buildings Department is still one of the major drivers of the high cost of housing in New York City, rather than an agency dedicated to reducing expense and facilitating development." Then there are taxes. Steven Malanga of the City Journal observes, "a hypothetical New York apartment building, going up on a plot of land bought for, say, $5 million, real-estate, mortgage, and sales taxes would add $1.6 million to the development price tag."

With the deck so stacked against economical construction it should come as no surprise that the New York's most powerful politician over the past 30 years wasn't George "0.0%" Pataki, Eliot "George Fox" Spitzer or even a Cuomo but rather plaintiffs' attorney and recently-deposed State Assembly Speaker Sheldon "Shelly" Silver. His sleazy reign mostly moved in silence as media indifference fed public apathy.

It's an environment where the public isn't told, doesn't know and worse, doesn't care about their government's role in carelessly inflating the cost of living. Which leaves us with a city where the blocks blur together like rest stops on a godforsaken interstate as only chains like Dunkin' Donuts, Chase Bank, Rite Aid and Subway sandwiches can afford to set up shop. After all, it doesn't take much aesthetic adroitness to build yet another Chipotle.

2. Education:
When Ohio State's star quarterback Cardale Jones tweeted "we ain't come here to play school," the sports media snickered. But Jones unwittingly spoke a profound truth about modern higher education. Never before have so many Americans been enrolled in college yet never before have so many been granted such worthless degrees. There are only so many jobs ghostwriting tweets for Wendy's or writing breathless press releases about an "awesomely artisanal hand-crafted" gastropub menu to go around for all those graduating with liberal arts degrees.

As a society we've put so much emphasis on the traditional four-year liberal arts degree that we've made a career in the trades seem as anathema as walking in the suburbs. As such, the U.S. trails the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in trade apprenticeships on a per capita level. Which in due course leaves us trailing Europe in craftsmanship quality.

So what's being done to meet the needs of a construction industry whose employment ranks will swell by 10% over the next eight years? President Obama launched a $100 million vocation education program to promote training and apprenticeships. In speaking about the program Vice President Joe Biden added "The middle-class is beginning to shrink...[Community colleges are] the best, most direct avenue to the middle-class for those who are struggling and those who are in the middle-class. Through training at a community college folks can transition to become welders, truckers, [and] pipefitters." Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg put it more bluntly, saying, "[t]oday, if your kid wants to go to college or become a plumber, you've got to think long and hard."


Deregulation and Education. It's a simple formula for a better-built America. With it, there can come a day when clients like mine at the Trump Tower will be comfortable in the knowledge that we can manufacture a product of the highest quality and craftsmanship in this country to match and hopefully surpass France or anywhere in Europe, and that two sets of drawings will not be required to test it.