The Real Deal New York

Top architects at TRD panel: Non-union labor on the rise

Cost considerations cited as cause of "irreversible trend"
By Adam Pincus | May 15, 2014 07:19PM

The amount of non-union labor used to develop buildings in New York City is expected to increase, according to several leading architects. That’s despite such work in the past having been inferior to that of union labor, one said.

“I think it is kind of an irreversible trend,” Gene Kaufman, principal of Gene Kaufman Architect, said. He was speaking on a panel this afternoon that was part of The Real Deal and Luxury Listings NYC’s New Development Showcase, a daylong forum held in Chelsea.

“[With the] bottom line being the main issue for a lot of projects, this whole notion of trying to do things with less money is going to accelerate, not decrease,” Kaufman said.

John Cetra, co-founder of architecture firm CetraRuddy, told himself he would never work with a non-union shop again, after being burned during the prior construction boom. “Probably the worst” projects his firm ever did at the time were non-union, he said. But now the quality of non-union shops is improving.

“We went through a learning curve with non-union construction,” Cetra said. “Today the quality of the non-union is two- or three-times or more during it was during the upturn.”

The other panelists included Bjarke Ingels, of the Bjarke Ingels Group; Paul Whalen, partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects; and Betram Beissel, design and project partner with Ateliers Jean Nouvel. It was moderated by TRD architecture critic James Gardner.

The architects also bemoaned when developers choose separate designers for a building’s exterior and interior. “There is sort of a lobotomy where the connection [is lost] between the floor plans and the envelope. It’s almost like two different projects,” Ingels said.

In addition, the panelists ticked off their favorite new buildings. Ingels liked 432 Park Avenue and Cetra gave a shout out to 56 Leonard Street.

As for the worst building in New York City, Cetra did not name it by name but implied 1 Court Square in Long Island City was an eyesore, where “one building obliterates the view.”

Despite the fact that developers are worried about rising construction costs, architects on the panel said developers are more supportive than ever before when it comes to cutting-edge design, which they feel enables them to charge higher prices for apartments.

“The market for design is the best it’s ever been, so we need to capitalize on it,” said Kaufman.

Addition reporting by Stuart Elliott

  • cobblehilite

    I appreciate the work architects do but many work in a design bubble. developing, managing and holding good real estate in NYC is challenging, especially with more affordable housing being demanded. Union costs are very high, which inflates construction costs. Architects fee are very high as well and designs are done to maximize form not function. When building costs rise, rents and cost of units rise. Architects need to be more mindful of their rule in increasing inequality

  • nycdirt

    Prior comment is off base. There is a very broad spectrum of architects and firms across the city to service every level of design quality and budget constraint. If you want a cheap looking / but purely functional building, hire a cost effective commercially oriented architecture firm. But don’t be an idiot by hiring one and then get frustrated when they do their job (which is to design). Who gets angry about their attorney getting stuck in a ‘law bubble’, or their accountant getting stuck in a ‘tax bubble’? Nobody does, you thank them for the expertise they bring to the situation and move on. Take it or leave it, you’re hiring an architect to solve a problem – the fact you don’t know how to design and aren’t licensed to do so yourself. Don’t kid yourself that the housing affordability problem can be solved on the backs of poor architect’s fees. Puh–lease! Look at a real development budget and understand where the costs are allocated before you deride the cost of professional consultants and miss the value good architects bring to a project or suggest they should cut their fees. Celebrity architects and their condo buyers are not the root of the housing problem. It’s people who don’t understand how the economy of a global real estate marketplace works and want to spout off unsupported remarks that miss the point entirely. Construction costs will increase. Operating expenses will increase. Rents will increase. And yes, fortunately for the poor architects, design fees will increase. But none of these will ever skyrocket like the value of New York dirt. And thank god for that because this is America where property rights are truly sacred and the root of all wealth and well being (think about it).

  • cobblehillite

    nycdirt, your point is excellent and my comments were simplistic. I just had a bad experience with an architect and was venting my misplaced anger at this post

  • oxyrrhynchus_megacephalon

    The worst building in NYC is no doubt one of Gene Kaufman’s many monstrosities. Ironic that he was on a panel of architects…talk about an odd man out.