Shoeboxes, spec homes creating ignorant Americans???

The wife and I talked last night about real estate, newer homes versus older homes, realtors and so forth. And it got me wondering:

    Has the glut of poorly designed spec homes thrown up in the U.S. from, roughly, 1960 on created a cultural deficit in that Americans look for the wrong things when choosing a place to live?

Since we’ve started looking for houses, actually since our friends began buying [mortgages for] houses five-plus years back, it’s been interesting to observe their choices and listen to their reasoning for said choices. There are some who, like my wife and I, crave the character (details), craftsmanship and environs found in many older homes in established parts of a city, but many people seem to be exclusively interested in newer homes.

From what I’ve been able to deduce, this usually stems from a desire for a maintenance free home (which, by the way, does not exist). Buyers want newer appliances and utilities and roofs. What they often fail to realize is that you’ll end up in the same boat as if you’d bought an older place that’s been cared for after just a few years. Appliances and utilities aren’t built as well as they used to be and, unless you plan on living in a house for only five years (give or take) you will probably end up needing to repair and/or replace the heating element in an oven, install a new water heater or buy a new air conditioner. I finally replaced the shiny stainless steel fan/light/heater in our bathroom last year which was likely original to our 1955 bungalow; the new one will probably die in less than ten years and is hideous in comparison to its predecessor.

Some men don’t want anything to do with painting the outside of a house as the sun and snow take their tole on soffits and siding . . . which reminds me that I need to post this picture,

vinyl siding

a stunning example of why vinyl siding is not really better than wood. This was on the garage of one of the houses we looked at in Nebraska. It was shaded, as I recall, and on the East side of a house — not exposed to hot afternoon sun. I’ve also seen the stuff pop, warp, fade and crack and it’s just beyond me why it gets used so much. Painting every ten or fifteen years (assuming you use good paint, not the Walmart brand) is a lot easier than replacing siding every twenty-five years in my opinion. Further, slapping vinyl over existing finishes seems likely to encourage mold.

Does cultural wealth factor into this equation, where newer homes in the suburbs are representative of a certain affluence that some older neighborhoods don’t allow an owner to brag about? Perhaps young mothers are under the impression that the ‘burbs are safer for the kiddos. Maybe the entitlement some of us feel after growing up surrounded by such an affluent culture leads us to believe we deserve shiny new houses.

Regardless, I have to wonder if the suburban architecture perpetuated over the past five plus decades has resulted in a more ignorant culture. Is it possible that we don’t know what good design looks like anymore? We don’t realize what wasted space or good traffic flow is? And that we’re (somewhat intentionally) losing the ability to care for our own property under the guise of the “maintenance free?”

Older homes, by contrast, often excel in design and craftsmanship over new ones. Lumber used to build them was straighter and drier, and sometimes above and beyond what was required for the job. The 830 square foot house I was drawn to on our recent house-hunting trip employed 2 x 10s for floor joists. No wonder the place was so marvelously square after 75 years! Less space is wasted in homes of that age, generally, and built-in storage was more abundant. Sure, closets might be smaller, but are walk-in closets really all that great? Luxurious, yes, but they also encourage clutter in our consumerist culture.

Seasoned homes are normally, subjective as this may seem, more pleasing to the eye. It doesn’t take an inordinate number of complexities to make a house or community pleasing to the eye. Apparently a book titled A Pattern Language talks about how a house can be successful yet appear to be a fairly simple design (from the outside). I’ve been told many times by different people I need to read this book. It is on my Amazon wish list!

None of this is meant to imply that we should cease new home construction. Obviously, as populations increase and older homes that were not cared for (or weren’t built so well, or that highways or big-box stores are paving over etc etc) are torn down new dwellings will need to replace them. Why, though, should new homes perpetuate a bland, cheap, and unenduring suburban aesthetic? They shouldn’t, and they don’t have to. A friend of mine here in Siloam Springs hopes to found a residential construction company that will bring back the details and craftsmanship of the early 20th century. He started with his own home which includes such details as a breakfast nook and drawers built into the risers of the staircase.

Will my friend find enough of us who appreciate the details in a craftsman home to float his business? Americans seem to be dangerously content with lousy dwelling design. We’ve become afflicted as a culture with the Texas Syndrome, where as long as something is big or impressive it’s credible (Yes, I know that link isn’t precisely backing up my assertion, but it’s related and a good article.). We’d rather have a poorly designed 2,500 square foot house than a thought-through 1,200 square foot bungalow that functions just as well as it’s bigger brother. Shoeboxes with holes cut out for doors and windows litter new subdivisions and we eat them up. McMansions (and their smaller cousins in more modest subdivisions) flaunt ludicrously steep and wasteful rooflines, which wouldn’t be all that wasteful if the attic was actually used as living space. But it’s generally not.

My concern is that suburban design of the past fifty years has infiltrated our psyche, and that our aesthetic expectations have subsequently been wounded without our being aware of it. Some of this sentiment, thankfully, might be changing as Downtown, U.S.A., is revivified and younger generations move back into the heart of cities. But from where I sit, we have a long ways to go in many parts of the country, and a lot of people in the younger generations still aspire to a questionable suburban aesthetic.


(As always, there are exceptions to the generalizations I’ve made in this post. Keep that in mind when commenting.)


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

6 Responses to Shoeboxes, spec homes creating ignorant Americans???

  1. Jonias says:

    Oh! So much to say. For now I will point everyone to this short video about residential design – Note the comments on maintenance free and especially the one my Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “You maintain the things you love”. When we seek “maintenance free” it indicates we don’t care about that thing, we don’t care about our house, our environment, our community.

    If we choose care we engage our ability to select holistically and will reap long term reward and satisfaction.

    Vinyl siding is a direct result of the fall! 😉

    • pcNielsen says:

      Wow, I can’t believe the miniscule numbers suggested in the video for how long a house should last. IMHO it should be indefinitely, until it can no longer be modified to suit present day needs or is compromised in such a way that it can’t be repaired.

  2. Monte Mickley says:

    I can think of at least 3 advancements in the area of home design that should be improving or enhancing the home design aesthetic: 1) There has been a significant growth in the variety of engineered architectural materials which are now available to a designer or home builder. 2) There has also been an increase in the potential for building homes that are more energy efficient. 3) The tools available to the home designer are light-years ahead of what was available to designers in the pre-90’s.

    I will say often cost is given the credit for being the culprit which has been the factor robbing our aesthetic. However, in suburban architecture, why utilize only a drafter-design service or ready-made plans offered by a home-builder? Why not consult an architect on the design before building? Not all architects charge excessively for consultations. Often an architect can save a customer money in the over-all house-building cost. And, often architects can aide in making better choices on materials and design while still keeping the cost low. Could it be people select less informed design when building simply because the fear of cost?

  3. Tobias Davis says:

    A few notes on vsiding:
    I find it hard to believe modern vinyl siding could last even a full fifteen years without replacement, based on my own experience and observations talking to dozens of home owners. I don’t know what the life expectancy is, although I imagine it to be in the twenty years plus range, but my brother (Chester) used some form of concrete board siding and I appreciate it greatly: it is very rugged, it won’t be chipped by hail, heavy weather, and accidental bumps, it holds paint pretty well, and it is a good protective barrier.

    Interesting link (the Texas Syndrome) although they seem to place most of the blame on free-market ideas, when it should be instead directed to government controlled markets.

    I agree with the thoughts on the “cookie cutter house”, as I call them, I even consider suburban cookie cutter development to be a terrible blight. Looking at ariel views of these developments really drives in the ugliness of the layout.

    • pcNielsen says:

      As an inexpensive siding I like the hardi-siding (concrete siding) as well. A friend of mine has trouble with it from a philosophical point of view (it’s pretending to be something it’s not) which I can understand, it seems like a very durable product to me as well. CERTAINLY worlds better than vinyl.

  4. dcd says:

    I hope that the Green movement coupled with the recession will help curb the “bigger is better” mentality that is rampant with Americans and their homes. Well-designed homes can produce much more useful spaces without the square footage. These smaller homes, while initially costing more per square foot due to the craftsmanship, design and detail involved, can offer energy savings in the long term when compared to the 2500sq ft+ McMansions and their cousins.

    Recently read a book called the Not So Big House that I think you may enjoy.

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