Crowdfunding architecture?

Dong, Archie, and Jeff meet for coffee. Dong wants to talk about an oddly shaped, floating, filtering pool for New York; something that had never been done before and that would undoubtedly suck up way too much time. Archie and Jeff are crazy (overcaffeinated?) enough to say yes.”

Since this fateful meeting three years ago, Dong-Ping Wong, Archie Coates, and Jeffrey Franklin have gone on to make headlines around the world as the founders of + Pool, the first capital project to be funded through Kickstarter. After raising money to conduct initial tests of the floating pool concept in 2010, they have worked with partners including Arup, IDEO, and Columbia University to refine and develop their design, which involves using the pool’s walls as a filtration device, allowing the public to swim directly in the river.

We spoke with Wong and Coates about their second Kickstarter campaign, which launched this week.


Can you give a bit of background into what each round of Kickstarter fundraising has involved?

Archie: The first was a combination of things. The goal was to test the filtration system, for the most part. We were testing a series of geotextiles and running water though them, taking samples three times a day, testing 19 different parameters for ten weeks off of a pier at Brooklyn Bridge Park. That was the first time we were actually testing some things that we were learning from Arup and Columbia, trying to get actual real water results, some real science, some real data.

But it was also just to see if people would be interested on that global level to fund civic architecture. That was what was really exciting. We asked for $25,000 and we were were able to raise $41,000. The fact that 1,200 people were interested in the project — a project that had this resonance through the media, with people all over thinking that this was a really interesting idea — that was huge.

And now that we’re moving into this new stage, we’re realizing that in the past two years since we launched that campaign, + Pool has been a topic of conversation for community-built architecture and designers launching projects without a client. Being able to use that as a launching-off point to get to the next phase with + Pool, which is being able to test all of the filtration materials in the water, in situ, seems perfect.

What have you changed in this iteration of the Kickstarter campaign, if anything?

Dong: The first time we had a lot of fun with the incentives that the backers would get. We were basically building up this outfit, so you could buy like a bag or a beach ball or a towel.

Archie: Then we launched another campaign where we were just trying to get donations from the site, partnering with Storefront for Art and Architecture as our fiscal sponsor. Which was great, but there was no incentive for giving.

Generally the way it works here, at least with the things we’re not trained in — so everything outside of architecture and design — if something makes sense to us in conversation, we’ll just go for it. Because that’s how we’re testing, iterating, as designers.

This new campaign came out of the idea that we could actually sell individual pieces of the pool, kind of break it down as it you were looking at a building — brick by brick, a window frame, a sill. With the pool, the way we had talked about it is the tiles. The tiles would be the most prominent visual things for the future of the project. So the way this campaign is being engineered is that for $199 you get a tile reserved for you on the future pool as well as one in the mail engraved with whatever you want. So you can go to the pool and actually see your name on the pool.

That’s mind-blowingly exciting for us, because you get something amazing in return. You get something tangible and physical. And the physicality is doubled because you get to be part of this huge civic project that’s kind of a game-changer in the city and see your name on it, and you know that it was you that made that pool happen. For us, that’s a whole new narrative for this project, where it kind of takes it out of our hands and puts it in everybody’s hands.

And for that amount you also get what we’re calling First Dips. Basically we’re reserving a week before the Pool opens to the general public for the people that buy a tile during this 30-day Kickstarter campaign as a thank you for backing the project now. It will probably be the only time you’ll get to swim in the pool at half capacity, with pretty much just your friends and other people that believed in the project from the start.

So was this series of incentives something that you guys just hashed out, or was it something that you talked to the Kickstarter people or others about?

Dong: It’s a little of both. Kickstarter’s actually really helpful and generally very available for people that want to launch projects. All the incentive ideas were ours, and then we would just basically run them by Kickstarter. “Are these just stupid ideas?” And as long as they said, “No, they’re not stupid,” then we’d go ahead with them.

[Crowdfunding] seems a lot more robust than I had originally thought as a method for making things happen

The tile one is actually something we had in mind for a long time, simply because the whole idea of people owning the project translates really easily into the idea of people literally owning a piece of the project.

Since you’ve started this project, how has your perception of this idea of crowdfunding architecture changed?

Dong: I’d say it seems a lot more robust than I had originally thought as a method for making things happen. When we did it the first time, it felt like Kickstarter was the only option. It’s really interesting to see all these different versions of crowdfunding now, whether they’re for civic things or private things or medical things. It became this whole ecosystem of ways to make projects happen.

And the fact that we’re having this interview — the fact that a magazine like the Economist is paying attention to it — is something that, at least when we first did it, wasn’t something that we ever thought about.

I think the potential of it is huge. That it’s another model to build architecture is really exciting.

What’s nice is that as we’ve looked into other means of financing the project it always made this crowdfunding model the most appealing. That itself hasn’t really changed. When we initiated the project there was no thought for crowdfunding. I don’t think we even knew about Kickstarter — or we knew about it, but it didn’t really occur to us that it was applicable.

Archie: Kickstarter was almost unrelated to the funding model of the project.

What was the funding model for the project?

Archie: There was no funding model!

That is pretty unrelated!

Dong: When it started I think it was like, let’s put the project out there and hope someone else tells us what to do. Or just gives us money!

Archie: I mean, we had no idea what was going to happen.

Dong: Even then, it took us half a year to decide to go with Kickstarter.

Do you see downsides to the model in the long term, in the broader sense of getting cool things built, or getting necessary things built? Are there any limitations that have become clear?

Archie: It may be slower. I don’t know. I want to say it’s not as direct, but actually it feels really direct. Mostly because, money aside, you get to see the client — being the people who are going to use this project day in and day out all summer long — saying yes. They’re saying yes by giving a little bit of money or whatever it may be.

The way that a typical architecture project would work is that you would have funding from another source, and when it opens, that’s when the public gets to engage with it. There are a lot of architects that are sort of building worlds around their projects in different ways, allowing the public to engage with the project before that actually happens. It actually expands how great something can be.

Dong: At the moment the only downside I can imagine, which won’t be probably for a while, is that crowdfunding is dependent on people liking the project for it to get funded, and there’s a lot of work that’s important regardless of whether people like it or not. And so obviously either A, not every project can go this way, or B, you may run the risk down the road that projects that are simply not popular just don’t happen. I don’t think that’s really a problem; I think there are so many other ways that projects can get funded.

But that risk is so minor to me compared to the potential. It’s just a dramatic shift now that, like Archie was saying, projects are happening because people want them, not because individual clients or individual financers or individual companies want them. It’s such an interesting vetting process for projects at this scale.

Archie: We wouldn’t have even gotten this far if so many people didn’t want it to happen. Or it would have totally changed what the project was.

Projects are happening because people want them, not because individual clients or individual financers or individual companies want them

Dong: What’s nice is that I think as more projects go through the process it could be a lot more streamlined, so that when the funding happens you also have built in the public push. It actually helps with presenting to the city that it’s something that the citizens of the city want. It’s not just individuals fighting against what the public wants. So I think the process of getting stuff vetted, funded, approved, and built can actually even go quicker. There just have to be a number of examples that show how it can work. Obviously our hope is that + POOL will be one of them.

Have you had conversations with the city at this stage? How has that gone?

Dong: Surprisingly good. We’ve tried to meet with basically every agency that we know down the road will have to approve or permit this thing, let alone agencies that we just want to make sure are cool with it. So one of the first meetings was with the parks department, and that was a great meeting just for them to tell us what things to look out for, what the city’s role may or may not be. But we’ve met with both city and state agencies over the last two years, as well as private and nonprofit organizations that all have stakes and responsibilities on or around the waterfront.

The general rule of thumb is that they start out skeptical, and then halfway through the meeting there’s always a switch to being really excited about the project. There’s always a moment when people kind of finish doing their job in the meeting and then look at the project and think it would be really nice for the city and start talking to us about how to actually make it happen. So far every agency we’ve talked to has been supportive.

And how have they generally approached the crowdfunding angle?

Dong: Quite frankly, I think it’s still a little new for the city to grasp it. I think for most people it’s still kind of a novelty. My sense is that the city and state care less at the moment that it’s crowdfunded and more about how much money you’ve raised. They probably don’t really care if it’s private or investor money or if it’s crowdfunded.

I think it helps, obviously, that we can show them a list of backers. I think that it helps that they know people want it and that it’s not a kind of private-interest endeavor. But I think at the end of the day it’s about how much we’ve raised and how much we can do with it.

I know a guy [Bryan Boyer of Brickstarter] who worked for the city of Helsinki doing a sort of government-run crowdfunding initiative. It was the only time I’d heard of the government playing a role in crowdfunding. For them it was a way to vet projects. If you could get people to promise a certain amount, they would promise to match it or something like that. That model’s also pretty interesting. I can see it applying to other cities around the world.

One of the things that’s interesting to me is that the core of the project basically involves combining the idea of civic infrastructure with the idea of fun.

Dong: And in a way, it’s fun and it’s easy. It’s definitely not easy, obviously, but the intent of the project is one of ease. It’s just such a simple idea.

And even crowdfunding in a way, it’s just so direct. Like, you see who’s giving money, you see how much you want to give, you see where the money’s going to go — in an ideal world, a very transparent process. And I think that with something so complicated as building buildings or infrastructure, something that is not easy at all, it’s nice to have this entryway into it that everybody can be a part of.

Archie: The craziest thing is that we’ve found ourselves in the position of basically running a marketing team here, a communications department. We’re an architect and two designers trying to communicate what’s going on in our heads. One day we’ll be able to get back to designing — graphically, visually, structurally being able to make this thing.

But at this stage, we’ve had so many great people helping. Crowdfunding aside, before we even thought about the public wanting to make the project happen, it was Arup that came to us out of goodwill and wanted to see this project happen. And obviously become a client, right — I mean, there’s hope that money comes so that they can be properly paid, and that’s our goal as well. But I think it’s just so interesting that everybody that we meet there is really interested in this project happening. Nancy [Choi], I met with her for three days last week. It’s just incredible. That sort of energy a million times over, many people on different levels getting excited about it, is I’m sure what made the High Line so successful.

With something so complicated as building buildings or infrastructure, something that is not easy at all, it’s nice to have this entryway into it that everybody can be a part of

That’s what crowdfunding is about. It’s not about trying to tap into all these people paying, it’s more about showing them something, offering this thing as a gift, and seeing if they want to be involved in it. And then once you offer a way for them to get involved in it, the project kind of takes off.

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