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.


Facing Our Future Well, By Design

P1010089.JPGDavid Orr spoke recently at the University of Washington. His message: modern society is balanced on the edge of several trends (including fiscal irresponsibility, peak oil, and global climate destabilization) that threaten the continuity of human civilization. Responding adequately to the challenges this represents involves learning to view our predicament not as a constellation of liberal or conservative agenda items, but as a series of design problems.

For those familiar with Orr’s work, or the subject of ecological design, this is not a new idea. But his talk underscores an awakening that is taking place across the political spectrum, as many people recognize that our habitual stance toward our problems is actually impeding our ability to solve them. This habitual stance—rooted in a politicized approach to our social, economic and environmental problems--offers little in the way of possibility and frequently leaves us stuck in conflict, overwhelmed with what is wrong. In contrast, what does a design approach offer? Can design help us turn the ship of modern life away from the iceberg of economic and environmental disaster floating dead ahead?

Design, defined. There is no single definition of design: it can be viewed as a creative activity, a concern with how things should be, or, as design scholar Paul Churchman puts it, “a conscious attempt to create a better world.” Architect Sim Van Der Ryn notes that we are all designers, constantly making decisions that shape our futures and those of others. Regardless of definition, design scholars make an important distinction between science-based problem solving, and design problem solving: science attempts to solve problems by developing knowledge about what is, while designers solve problems by playing with possibility and testing the edges of  what could be.  Science explains. Design imagines. Where science breaks problems into smaller and smaller parts in an effort to understand, the primary effort in design is to open problems up, to see them from new and unusual angles, and in the best outcomes, to discover surprising and elegant solutions.  Architecture for Humanity and Auburn University’s Rural Studio  exemplify the attempt to use design in service to solving complex, systemic problems. 

Design, applied.  Embracing a design approach would give us a new collective repertoire to work with in our communities and in our systems of governance, a repertoire highly complementary to the scientific method.  Science tells us that our agriculture systems are destroying our topsoil. Rather than continuing partisan bickering about the meaning of this information, politicians and citizens well versed in design communication could devise myriad ways--unique to individual communities--to  farm sustainably at an appropriate scale. Science tells us that our building and manufacturing methods are environmentally disastrous:  better design can help us improve how we build, live in, and deconstruct our places, so that ultimately, we can adopt  a cradle to cradle orientation in manufacturing and production, eliminating the very concept of waste. Science tells us that climate is changing. Taking a design approach toward this problem could provide us with insight into how to stop contributing to the situation without destroying ourselves economically. At its best, design—particularly collaborative design--can offer us win/win solutions to what are currently viewed by many people as insoluble problems.

Design culture. Acknowledging that we are all designers is a hopeful first step toward better problem solving. But unleashing design’s full power requires awareness of, and fluency in, design culture. The cultures of science and design complement one another: understanding their differences can help us determine which to adopt, and when. Scientific culture is exemplified by competition, skepticism, a willingness to embrace argument, and an emphasis on expertise. Design culture is exemplified by collaboration, openness, a willingness to draw freely from many points of reference, and an emphasis on creativity. We are all conversant with the culture of science: woven into our institutions of learning and governance, it is part of the air we breathe, literally and figuratively. We are not so conversant with the culture of design. Fluency in both is necessary, especially when dealing with complex problems: to attempt design from within the framework of science, or to use design approaches when scientific expertise is needed, sets us up for failure. But understanding design culture is only the beginning: we also have to develop design literacy.

Design literacy. Communication and collaboration skills are the foundation of effective design work. These skills are not particularly valued in our current school systems, with their heavy emphasis on competition, status, and knowledge acquisition. This emphasis has fostered a two-tiered adult population, with one group believing they are unqualified to contribute to the solving of serious social problems, and a smaller group—the “experts”--taking on all the responsibility. (Both groups have a contribution to make.) It has also marginalized our schools, and deprived our most energetic and idealistic citizens--our youth—of the opportunity to work on real community issues. And it has helped us create large unwieldy corporations and bureaucracies incapable of learning. Developing design literacy does not involve replacing science or math classes with classes “about” design: it involves changing how we structure learning. By integrating the collaborative design practices of inquiry and solution-focused action into school culture, by placing community needs at the center of our schools, and by embracing the arts for their ability to develop the creativity, originality and lateral thinking ability crucial to generative design, we can develop design literacy economically and efficiently throughout our communities.

As David Orr pointed out in his recent talk, we are facing a crucial moment as a species: will we face the unintended consequences of our actions—the toxic emissions, the habitat destruction, the sprawl—and learn to design for better outcomes? Many in the scientific community believe we have little time left--10 years perhaps--before the destructive path we are on becomes irreversible. It is possible to design our way out of our problems, and in the process collapse upward into a sustainable future. But it is equally possible to continue arguing, and to collapse downward into a more chaotic, violent one. The future is coming: how will we choose to meet it?

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