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Newsmaker: John Morefield, Founder of Architecture 5˘

March 2009

By Brian James Barr

At the farmers’ market in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, people can’t help but ask John Morefield what he is selling. “We’re selling architecture!” he answers. “Have questions about your house? Kitchen too small? Bathroom not working? Drop a nickel into the cup.”

Architectural advice is an unusual service to be hawking at a Sunday market known for its organic produce. Then again, these are unusual times, and Architecture 5¢ is just one man’s way of weathering the economic crisis.

Inevitably, passersby see the 27-year-old Morefield behind his plywood booth—built to resemble Lucy’s psychiatry stand from the Peanuts comic strip. Intrigued, they slow down out of curiosity and Morefield explains his mission. More often than not, the person actually has a project they have been mulling over, such as remodeling their kitchen or adding a cantilevered deck. They drop a nickel into Morefield’s tin cup and he tells them if it’s feasible, and if so, how it can be done. If they are serious about moving forward, they jot down their name and e-mail address so Morefield can follow up with a proper appointment.

Morefield’s idea has brought him a fair amount of media attention, from local new outlets to National Public Radio. In an interview with RECORD, Morefield explained how the recession has allowed him to transform a clever gimmick into an entrepreneurship.

After getting laid off, John Morefield set up an advice booth at a farmers’ market in Seattle.
Photo © Mohini Patel Glanz
After getting laid off, John Morefield set up an advice booth at a farmers’ market in Seattle.
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Brian James Barr: Tell us a little about Architecture 5¢ and how it developed?

John Morefield: I was laid off twice last year and decided to go at it on my own. Frankly, there are no jobs out there anyway. I worked at the Pike Place Market selling fruits and vegetables one summer when I was in architecture school and fell in love with farmers’ markets. So, when it came time to drum up business for my own design firm, a farmer’s market seemed an obvious choice.

I’d had this idea for years as a way of bringing architecture to the people. Many people find architects unapproachable, or they think that their house in nowhere near requiring an architect, or that their project is too small. But a lot of architects, like myself, we’ll answer questions, most of us are approachable, and a lot of the people we talk to here have small projects that just need a little bit of guidance.

I built this booth and set it up shortly before Christmas just to see if it would work. On the first day, people were asking questions, then the local paper did a story on me, and people started finding me on blogs and Web sites. The word of mouth has been amazing.

BJB: How much actual business have you been able to generate from the booth?

JM: Everyone asks: “Well, this is great and all, but are you getting work?” Yeah, I am. My plate’s almost full. The projects are all small and they’re fast. I’m not nailing two-year-long gigs. I mean, I had an entire project that was budgeted for under $200—all it involved was just sitting in this couple’s condo with a cup of coffee and redesigning some things and finalizing their drawings. They DIY’d the rest of it. But then I had a project that involved designing an entire 3,000-square-foot addition for a house. Those people had found me through the local media and they told me, “We wanted an architect, but we didn’t know where to look.” But they read about me, found me online, and gave me a call.

BJB: A few years ago, an architect I know was venting about the misconception that hiring architects is something only the wealthy or upper-middle class would do. By positioning yourself in the farmer’s market, are you looking to change that perception of architecture as a more utilitarian service?

JM: From a public standpoint, I think that perception is true. I read a statistic that only 2 percent of the homes in the United States are designed by architects. Developers and contractors are doing most of the homes. If I can change that and we can get to a point where architects are designing homes for the middle class again, that would be amazing. We’d have better design all-around.

BJB: Obviously, you’re not the only architect in Seattle—or the U.S.—to have been laid off. What are some of your fellow architects doing to get by?

JM: I know some in Seattle that are working at Starbucks and Crate and Barrel. I’ve heard stories of architecture students heading straight into food service after graduation. The market is so thin right now, and the pool of talent is so large. It’s unfortunate that we’ve got recent graduates with no professional experience doing battle in the job market against 15-year veterans who need work just as badly.

BJB: You built the booth yourself, and you have to pay a fee to set up at the farmer’s market. How much money have you sunk into this venture so far?

JM: The booth cost a little over $100 in materials. I’ve been at the market probably eight times—a little over two months—at $40 a pop. I make probably $3.65 each week in nickels, but all of that I donate to the Ballard Food Bank, as well as the “digital nickels” I make online at www.Architecture5cents.com, where people can come to the Web site, drop a nickel, type up their question, and hit “submit.”

Honestly, the Web site is where 95 percent of the jobs I’m getting are coming from. They may have seen me here or picked up my card, but something about them coming to the Web site, it’s like they’ve already made a commitment to hire an architect. I can sit here are talk to people and get them jazzed about their project, but then they leave their e-mail address and I follow up with them and they’re, like, “Mmm, we’re gonna hold off a little bit.”

BJB: Besides using the booth to hustle up work in lean times, do you have a larger goal for Architecture 5¢? 

JM: My goal is to take the booth to a national level and have Architecture 5¢ Manhattan, or Boston, or some smaller neighborhoods like the Bronx. And the online system I’ve set up of communicating with clients and just using the booth as an overall marketing approach, seems easily replicable. Of course, there’s a lot that goes on in the back end that makes it look simple on the front end.

BJB: Such as?

JM: Just the way the Web site works and keeping track of how many visitors come in and come out.

BJB: Did you design the Web site yourself?

JM: I did. It’s all DIY. I built the booth, I designed the Web site, and rolled them out the same day.

BJB: Your idea is trademarked, I assume?

JM: It is. I hired a couple lawyers to help me. And during this whole time, I’ve been working with a group called Washington C.A.S.H. (Community Alliance for Self-Help), a small-business entrepreneurship organization that’s been assisting me with basic business planning. Working with them was really the biggest turning point for me. I was in a Washington C.A.S.H. interview, where they teach you basic business skills like how to do financing, how to pay your taxes, how to do profit forecasting, how to do marketing—all things you need to run a business but they never teach you in architecture school. It was that moment that I realized the business of architecture was not special. I came out of that interview knowing: I’m an architect, I offer a service, and that service needs to be run just as well as any other service-related entrepreneurial business. And no offense to the people who originally laid me off, but that’s where I saw shortcomings, the business side of things.

BJB: One factor I think a lot of people don’t realize is that when an architect is hired for a job, other people are hired for a job—contractors, electricians, painters. Currently, those people are in need of work just as much as architects. Has Architecture 5¢ been able to provide work to locals in those fields?

JM: I’ve been preaching the ripple effect. One nickel turns into one conversation, which turns into one local design job, which is billed by a local contractor who hires a local painter who buys from a local supplier. So, every local dollar that’s spent in a neighborhood is worth three-fold in the economy. If I can start as many ripples as possible in Seattle and assist others, like me, in starting other ripples in other cities in the U.S., we can start a wave of opportunity to carry us through this.

Some people come to me at the booth and say: “Do you know a good landscaper?” Yep, I do. The ripple effect is real and it will be a driving force in what fixes this economy. The construction industry especially—the more money that goes to construction, the more money that goes to designers, to municipalities, to suppliers, to contractors, to painters, to delivery truck drivers, to concrete pourers. The list goes on and on, and all those people take their money and buy groceries and pay their gas bill and buy new trucks.

BJB: Because you only charge a nickel, have other architects criticized you for devaluing the profession?

JM: Yeah, the impression they get is that I’m only charging 5 cents for architecture. But I’m not issuing legal drawings from this booth or from my Web site. The nickel is just my way of starting conversations with potential clients. Every architect has had those times at parties where a friend of a friend comes up and says, “Oh, you’re the architect. I have a question for you.” I’m doing the same thing, only I’m collecting a nickel for it and donating it to the local food bank. At the end of the day that nickel will hopefully turn into a client that will be on a normal, billable rate. 

Read more economic news in our Recession and Recovery special section.

 

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