Shoeboxes, spec homes creating ignorant Americans???
11 June 2009 6 Comments
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,
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.)