Sea Glass

Sea Glass

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Shifting the Suburban Paradigm by Allison Arieff

Now that the housing market has bottomed out, what’s next? New ways of thinking about “home” are overdue.

Is there anything made in America that’s less innovative than the single-family home? While we obsess over the new in terms of what we keep in our houses — the ever-increasing speed and functionality of our Smartphones, entertainment options built into refrigerators, sophisticated devices that monitor, analyze and report on our sleep cycles, even the superior technology of the running shoes we put on before heading out the flimsy fiberboard door — we’re incredibly undemanding of the houses themselves. These continue to be built the same way they have for over a century, and usually not as well. Walls and windows are thin, materials cheap, design (and I use the term loosely) not well-considered. The building process is a protracted affair, taking far too long and creating embarrassing amounts of building waste (over 50 percent of all waste produced in the United States, in fact).

But the lack of innovation extends beyond the high-tech. Not so long ago homes were designed to make the most of their surrounding climate and terrain. Vernacular forms like the shotgun, in places like New Orleans, served a purpose that went far beyond aesthetics — they encouraged natural cooling by improving cross-ventilation. In Texas and New Mexico, thick adobe walls similarly kept heat in during the winter, and out during the summer. Houses were sited and windows placed to maximize or minimize sun exposure as needed.

No longer. Today, it’s essentially the same floor plan, sheetrock and construction that’s used coast to coast. Glossy brochures with stock images of smiling families advertise “Spanish Gothic” or “Tuscan Villa,” but what’s really on offer is the same dumb box with a stage set of a façade tacked onto the front. The reasons behind the advertised vernacular styles have long since disappeared, their function surrendered to ornament.

It’s not that the means don’t exist for better building. There have been significant advances in homebuilding: smarter, safer, more sustainable materials that contribute to healthier and more energy-efficient structures (less expensive to heat and cool); precision building technologies that reduce construction time and waste; and more enlightened planning principles that recognize the social, economic and health benefits of building homes within denser, more walkable neighborhoods (important as sprawl is associated with high levels of driving, which contributes to air pollution, and air pollution leads to morbidity and mortality).

Why? The reasons are complicated. Incentives received by commercial builders for doing the right thing are not extended to residential builders. But it’s also true that the homebuilding industry isn’t interested in risk or change, despite (in spite of?) dramatic slowdowns in residential construction, an anticipated surplus of thousands of homes, a market besieged by foreclosures and still-dropping home values. Even though there’s increasing demand for more diverse housing — especially smaller, more energy-efficient homes and multifamily units in more walkable communities — too many homebuilders are inexplicably committed to the status quo.

For many in the homebuilding industry, the current scenario is seen not as a call to action but as a temporary problem of the market (I found the same thing to be true in the world of shopping-center builders, who pine for — and fully expect the return of — a go-go consumer culture that is likely gone for good). To address current market realities, they don’t look to innovation but rather to an easier fallback strategy: a new marketing plan.

Five years ago, at the crest of the housing boom, I worked on a team consulting with a master planned-community developer who had asked us to help “revolutionize the way our homes are sold.” The developer had little interest in the work we proposed — namely, to revolutionize the way their homes were designed and built. That company, like most of its competitors, laid off nearly half its work force the following year, and ended or delayed most of its future development projects. Devoting energy to how best to market its inventory hadn’t been the most forward-thinking strategy for them then — nor would it be now.

But that’s what most developers continue to do. I read just last month about Fulton Homes, a homebuilding company that seems to be weathering the housing market better than its peers by selling homes the same way they’d sell clothing or computers, like any other retail product. In Builder online, Fulton’s vice president of operations, Dennis Webb, said, “If the buyer wants it, give it to him.”

Fulton hasn’t really changed anything about the homes they produce, regardless of what has happened over the last several years. They’ve simply hired more sales guys. No doubt you can “like” them on Facebook. In the short term, this has been a prudent move … but what about next year? The year after that?

Blu HomesDedicating millions to creating a better consumer experience for purchasing high-end single-family homes (like this one by Blu Homes) doesn’t help address the real crisis in housing the U.S. is facing.

Then there’s a company like Blu Homes, which has demonstrated a clear commitment to merging housing and high tech — to the tune of a $25 million investment, in fact. They recognized the tremendous inefficiencies in home-building and have developed 3D technology that allows for personal customization (clients can click a mouse to alter floor plans, choose green features and select finishes), as well as a proprietary building process and innovative steel-framing technology that allows their homes, as their Web site explains, “to be built to the highest aesthetic and environmental standards and be delivered quickly and economically nationwide.”

But following a long line of V.C. types dabbling in housing, Blu has set its sights on a small slice of an already niche market — high-end modern prefab, which accounts for maybe half of a percent of the less than 5 percent of architect-designed homes in the country. Devoting this much R&D and software development to so few homes feels akin to installing a $250,000 solar array on a garden shed. Why not devote that energy to transforming cookie-cutter developer homes?

Lake FlatoWith Lake Flato’s partially prefabricated Porch House, traditional vernacular architecture is more about functionality, less about decoration.

I like what Texas’s Lake Flato is doing in this arena, combining vernacular style with precision building technology for their Porch House. Though the firm is building custom one-offs, they are also working on a number of larger projects — one, in Louisiana, involves building nine homes on two blocks of infill property in a historic Baton Rouge neighborhood. The concept is centered around making better use of backyards (less lawn, more sustainable garden) and using the traditional architecture vernacular for that area — the “shotgun” house.

Lake FlatoThinking about how homes work together is key to the future of suburban communities. How can these neighborhoods become denser, more walkable and less resource-intensive?

And even more promising in terms of scale is KB Home’s announcement of the ZeroHouse 2.0, a greener version of the company’s standard home, which is expected to eliminate monthly electricity charges for homeowners. Model homes featuring the ZeroHouse 2.0 package (it should be but isn’t yet standard) open this month in Tampa, San Antonio and Austin. (Now, if KB would just start talking with the architects at Lake Flato.)

KB HomesKB Homes’ new ZeroHouse 2.0 is a step in the right direction on sustainability. But energy efficiency should be standard, not part of a home-design options package.

Even more prudently, a company like Blu could be directing all that R&D to multi-family housing, currently identified as the only bright spot in residential architecture and, to my mind, the only real path to truly sustainable housing.

As architectural designer Aron Chang discusses in one of the more intellectually rigorous and thoughtful pieces on suburbia that I’ve read of late, which appeared in Places journal last month, it’s time we focus on “suburbia’s essential component” — the freestanding single-family house.

Chang writes, “The disconnection between the rising diversity of housing needs and the monotony of housing production speaks to the tenacity of the postwar American dream — the enduring allure of the detached house with front lawn and backyard patio — as well as to the profitability of catering to these aspirations.”

Chang sees this moment — with millions of houses now in foreclosure, many deteriorating or abandoned — as one to seize, and I couldn’t agree more. It is possible, he considers, that once the economy revives we will simply return to home-building-as-usual:

But right now we have an opportunity to rethink suburban housing: to make it responsive not to dated demographics and wishful economics but rather to the actual needs of a diversifying and dynamic population — not only to the so-called traditional households but also to the growing ranks of those who prefer to rent rather than buy, who either can’t afford or don’t want a 2,000-square-foot-plus detached house, who are retired and living on fixed incomes and maybe driving less, who want granny or nanny flats, who want to pay less for utilities and reduce their carbon footprint, and so on.

Housing can’t be equated with high-tech: a home is, or was, a long-term investment not beholden to the dizzying speeds of change and innovation that drive say, Apple, which must continually reinvent and redefine its product to meet consumer demand. But housing is woefully behind the times, and now it needs to see opportunity in crisis, not wait it out by launching pop-up shops and interactive Web sites that empower consumers to such revolutionary things as customizing bathroom tile and kitchen backsplashes.

I don’t care if we’re talking Le Corbusier, Cape Cods or Corinthian columns, we can’t make any progress in housing until we stop thinking about the home as decorative object and begin considering it as part of a larger whole. How does it work on the street? In the neighborhood? How is it served by transit? Is it adaptable, allowing for the housing of extended families or the hosting of an entrepreneurial endeavor? Can the owner build an accessory dwelling (a.k.a. granny flat) to do so? (Most zoning, homeowners’ associations and CCRs don’t allow for it currently.) What needs to happen to zoning, to financing, to our very notions of resale value to change the suburban condition — and by extension, the American Dream as we know it?

We’re beyond the point of a fresh coat of paint and a new sales pitch. If we’re going to continue to hold on to the single-family home, we need to transform it. There is a demand for smaller, more energy-efficient homes in less car-dependent neighborhoods; all aspects of the industry, from designers to lenders to planners to consumers, should meet it. In this era of anti-government fervor, subsidizing the American Dream isn’t an option; transforming it is the only one we’ve got.

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