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The Deeper Housing Problem


Dig down beneath all the journalistic froth about the links connecting peak oil, mortgage fraud, deregulation and the current global housing crisis, and you'll run right into a massive, and as yet largely undiscussed boulder: most of the housing that was built in the recent speculative frenzy is so unappealing and poorly designed that no one--really--wants to live in it, or at least, not for very long.

This is the nature of speculative building: its goal is not to create communities populated by residents who intend to stay long enough to plant trees and gardens, start Rotaries and PTA's and fund arts groups, but to make money. In the last twenty-five years, this mentality has spread from housing developers to infect the larger society in a variety of subtle ways. Consider, for example, the concept of the "starter home," an idea that is preached as gospel by economists and journalists as well as realtors: why buy a small, well-constructed house and make a commitment to living in it for a generation, learning the sun patterns and microclimate, and making thoughtful additions over time, when you can purchase a particle-board box now and in a few years, trade up to a larger particle-board box?

Following this logic, it makes perfect sense for people to resort to jingle mail when the perceived value of their house falls below their mortgage price. What else, besides the price they think they'll get at resale, exists to keep them there? If they live in a typical subdivision, there are no tree lined streets to mark the change of season, and no local flora or fauna to come to know, or potentially mourn, when leaving: it was all razed and steamrolled when the housing was built. Long commutes and a lack of other connections often limit contact, and meaningful relationships, with neighbors. The community most likely feels interchangeable with many others: a lawn with a few sad accent shrubs here is the same as one somewhere else. As for the potential food security implicit in being landowners--which used to confer some right to grow vegetables and raise animals--the houses are usually so poorly sited that even a kitchen garden is difficult to manage; in addition, zoning restrictions and covenants create additional barriers (in some communities, CC&R's actually restrict food gardening because it is considered "unsightly"). And, a heavy reliance on a cash economy means most people lack the time and/or skills to garden, and thus don't consider solar access and soil quality important issues. The nature of the cash economy also means many people feel compelled to "follow a job" around the country rather than staying put and finding ways to earn a local living (though this may be about to change).

At a larger level of neighborhood scale, other commitment-generators are absent: there are no local merchants to befriend, or weekend flea markets to frequent, no orchards to purchase and pick fruit from, no local bakeries, and no local farmers to visit. And the houses themselves, through no fault of their own, are often lacking in the kinds of physical connections that were commonly seen at the turn of the century, when local materials and a regional building vernacular dictated how houses looked and functioned. Today's tract homes, constructed using substandard materials by underpaid, and often low-skilled workers, are, for the most part, unimaginative, uninviting, and unappealing. This lack of appeal has nothing to do with the number of square feet, the size of the bedrooms, or the finishes, but with the nature of speculative building, which emphasizes cranking out a one-size-fits-all housing model that satisfies banks and developers, but does little or nothing to create the kinds of homes, or communities people actually want to settle down in, and commit to for the long term. (See the film The Ballad of Jack and Rose for a thoughtful exploration of this theme.)

The issue of community commitment--and the role design plays in it--is likely to become paramount in coming years, as we face the challenge of mitigating the messes that have been created by the ravages of industrial farming, industrial educating, and industrial building. As we contemplate what to do next, we will have to begin to think about how to make our communities, and our houses, livable again. This involves exploring the difference between price and value, and making distinctions betweeen "standard of living" and "quality of life." It also requires learning how to create the latter rather than merely buying into the former.

What, for example, is the value of a window that is sized and sited to capture southern light, whether for warming or ambience? Or the value of a porch big enough to actually sit on, located on the side of the house where it will both shade and warm you at appropriate times of year? One hundred years ago, siting a house to take advantage of natural daylight was commonplace, and most people were familiar with the basic techniques of shelter-making: today, even most architects are unfamiliar with passive solar design and vernacular building methods. The ramifications of our shelter-related ecological illiteracy extends well beyond the realm of the technical-specialists involved in the world of design-build, for one reason: housing lies at the heart of community-making, and it is economic, social and environmental suicide to build houses no one wants to live in. That we have done so is a matter that goes far beyond the current economic debacle, and has implications for every sector of our society.

But there are solutions, beginning with insisting on policies that provide the resources to educate all citizens (not just homeowners and builders) in how to design simple, environmentally and regionally appropriate housing, and how to adapt their housing--both new and current--over time. This type of approach was successfully undertaken in Curitiba Brazil, and could be used here as well, to address housing and other community design-related issues...if, that is, the intention is to help people create communities that become richer over time, more reflective of local character, more economically vibrant, and more focused on community wellness.

Taking a "design approach" to the housing debacle cannot change the current housing situation--many people are going to lose the houses they presently occupy, and the population density is likely to reconfigure over the next decade as a result of demographic as well as economic trends--but as our collective energy shifts from recognizing the depth and breadth of the current problem to deciding what to do to resolve it, making a transition away from cookie-cutter building and development approaches, and moving toward an emphasis on learning and applying principles of good design is crucial to creating resilent communities, ones in which people have a sense of place and a sense of commitment. Good design can help make the difference between a place people care about enough to fight to keep, within a community they want to steward, protect, and enhance, and one they don't.