David Goldberg: Crowd-Sourced Design

… Crowd-sourced design is taking other forms as well. Sometimes the “crowd” is not laypersons, but a swarm of professional designers, either collaborating or competing with one another to find the best solution. The Cambridge, Mass., startup Arcbazar chose the latter model when it launched in 2010, aiming to give ordinary homeowners the chance to have architects across the Internet compete for their remodeling or similar projects, at a time when there were precious few gigs for architects.

“For a kitchen, renovation, say, homeowners provide the square footage and basic parameters, upload some photos, and we open the competition worldwide,” said Ana Batista, co-founder of Arcbazar. Arcbazar suggests an “award” amount based on square footage, complexity and time allotted, but clients are free to offer whatever they like. The top three proposals receive 60, 30 and 10 percent of the award, respectively. “Homeowners who would otherwise have had to design their projects themselves at Home Depot or with a contractor get a wide range of possible design options,” said Batista. “These projects allow designers to build a portfolio. We have recent grads and young architects trying to build an office, or retired architects who still want to keep the juices flowing.”

Not everyone in the architecture world welcomed competitive crowd-sourcing with open arms. “The moment we started there was a tweet from Dwell magazine calling us the worst thing to happen to architecture since the Internet,” Batista said. “After that we had hundreds of registrations from designers. … The truth is, we pick up the projects that never would have gone to an architect’s office.”

Arcbazar’s style of competitive crowd-sourcing also can be combined with community crowd-sourcing, as Somerville, Mass., did when it was looking for ideas for the adaptive reuse of the abandoned Powder House School. The city used Arcbazar to set up a design competition, eliciting numerous responses that city staff then culled based on pre-established criteria. Those that cleared the bar were put out for residents to evaluate, and those with the most “likes” rose to the top of the city’s consideration.

Sometimes crowd-sourcing means allowing community members to vote with their wallets. In September, Portland, Ore., launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise $100,000 toward creating a shovel-ready design for a 38-acre park for off-road biking, called Gateway Green. As of press time, donations had nearly reached the $100,000 target, with Kaiser Permanente and Coca Cola jumping in to offer matches when they realized how much community support existed.

“Whatever form it takes, crowd-sourcing will increasingly shape the built world we inhabit,” Takemoto said. “It may be the ultimate extension of the democratic process.”

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