In May of 1990, my collegues and I built a demonstration house on the campus of McGill University, in downtown Montreal, to test a thesis of ours: if people thinking of changing houses could experience the advantages of high-quality, smaller, more flexible, and more adaptable houses, they might actually choose smaller rather than larger quarters. The Grow Home was small (1,000 square feet); it included unpartitioned space; it was adaptable to different households; it used good-quality finishes and materials. And it was a row house, only fourteen feet wide. The construction cost was about $35,000, which meant that the selling price in Montreal, including land and all development costs, would have been less than $60,000—about half the price of an average single-family house in Montreal at the time.
The house was fully furnished (by a Swedish manufacturer of do-it-yourself furniture), and it was open to the public for three weeks. Each day a stream of people made their way up the stairs to the porch and through the house. As they approached the house, their first reaction was usually "Isn't it tiny!" And the Grow Home was tiny—fourteen feet is unusually narrow for a row house. Its smallness was exaggerated by its site: it stood alone, like a slice of bread removed from a loaf, surrounded by large university buildings. The Grow Home resembled a doll's house, albeit an elegant one, since the facade was designed in the traditional manner.
Once inside—the first room was the kitchen—people commonly reacted with surprise at the amount of space: "It's much bigger than I thought; it doesn't feel small at all." Fourteen feet is narrow for a house, but it is not narrow for a room, and an eat-in kitchen fourteen feet square is spacious, requiring no compromise in layout or counter space. The feeling of roominess continued in a short corridor, which was wider than usual in order to accommodate bookshelves or, in this case, shallow cupboards. Immediately behind the kitchen (and sharing its plumbing) was the bathroom, which was large enough to include a full-size washer and dryer. At the rear of the house was a small sitting room with French doors leading outside to a pergola-covered deck. Like many of the features in the house, the pergola and the deck were part of a list of options that could be added according to the owner's wishes; one might choose a deck ($610), a wood-strip floor ($545), or varnished oak stairs ($800).
The staircase led to a second floor, which was an unexpectedly large space without interior walls, extending from the front of the house to the rear. Part of this loft was furnished as a baby's room; the other end was the parents' bedroom, with large doors leading to a balcony overlooking the front garden. Movable cupboards replaced built-in closets. It would be possible in the future to create a separate children's bedroom, and there was also enough space for a second bathroom, if one was wanted.
About 10,000 people visited the Grow Home. A questionnaire was made available at the door, and although the 636 responses turned in do not represent a scientific sample, the results were nevertheless revealing.
Understandably, the Grow Home attracted people with modest incomes: half the respondents said that their household incomes were in the range of $15,000 to $34,000. Also understandably, these were relatively young households: three quarters of the respondents were under forty-five. Just over a third were single, and about a third had children; almost 40 percent indicatedthat they were looking to buy their first house. Asked if they would be ready to live in a house smaller than 1,000 square feet, three quarters answered yes. An overwhelming 93 percent approved of the idea of a second floor that could be completed according to their needs. As for the quality of the materials and the finishes, 66 percent found it to be good or excellent, 32 percent checked off "Acceptable, considering the house price," and only three percent indicated "Disappointing." Did they think that the Grow Home was a good buy at about $60,000, including land? Sixty-nine percent said yes. The traditional appearance of the Grow Home appealed to almost all (94 percent) of the respondents.
The experience with the Grow Home suggests that our thesis about small houses may well be correct. The urge to be a homeowner remains strong in Canada, as it does in the United States, and young, first-time house buyers obviously understand that they will have to be flexible and make some compromises in their dreams of a home.
It is not really surprising that the grow home met with popular acceptance: the market and the economy have changed in ways that will make everyone compromise and be more flexible. The first of three seismic events that altered how Americans live—and how they must think about buying houses in the future—started as an undetected rumble in the early 1960s, just after the golden age of American housing. Almost three quarters of existing U.S. houses were built after 1940, many in the twenty years following the end of the Second World War. The overwhelming majority followed the same model: single houses for single families. The best-known example, which became a symbol of homeownership throughout the 1950s, was devised by the developer William Levitt. The house was small and uncomplicated, but it had a fully equipped kitchen, the lot was big enough for a garden, and at $7,990—no down payment and $65 a month—in 1949 it was a bargain. Homecoming GIs, impatient to get on with their lives, saw this little cottage as just what they needed.
If such houses were uniform "little boxes made of "ticky-tacky," in the words of the scornful song, it was not necessarily the result of a lack of imagination but, rather, a reflection of a remarkable homogeneity in the size and composition of American households. In 1940 the typical number of occupants of a house was four: husband, wife, and two children. Their roles were predictable: Dad worked at the factory or office, and Mom stayed home, kept house, and took care of the kids, who played in the yard.
The composition of the family started to change in the early 1960s. In 1956 the median age at first marriage had been 22.5 years for men and 20.1 years for women, a historic low. Now young people started waiting longer before getting married, which, together with birth control (the pill was first marketed in 1960), affected fertility rates: people had fewer children, and had them later. The size of households shrank accordingly, and by 1989 the average number of occupants in a house had dropped to 2.6.
Households were not only smaller but different. Starting in the 1960s, for a variety of reasons, more women began to work, and by the 1970s they were entering the work force in unprecedented numbers; today in more than half of all families both parents work outside the home. At the same time, divorce rates have risen—it is now estimated that half of all marriages will end in divorce. Hence the increased number of single-parent families, most headed by women. More people are living alone, and single-person households now account for almost a quarter of the total, up from 17 percent, twenty years ago; during the same period married-couple households went down from 71 percent to 55 percent. The typical family—a married couple with young children—in the Levittown cottage is not typical anymore. Indeed, it is now called the "traditional" family, and makes up less than a third of all households.
The second event that changed the American home involved ownership. Homeownership is important to Americans, about two thirds of whom own their homes—twice the rate in France, Germany, and Great Britain. Throughout the postwar period the amount of money that the median-income family could afford to spend on buying a house exceeded the median price of a new house by several thousand dollars, a situation that persisted even though the average price of a new house increased to $16,000 in 1955 and to about $55,000 in 1978. Houses grew more expensive partly because of increased land values and inflation, but as long as family incomes also grew, the rate of homeownership continued to increase steadily. The rising numbers suggested that eventually all gainfully employed people could, if they wished, become homeowners.
During the late 1970s house prices continued to climb as before, while family incomes rose more slowly and inflation and higher interest rates reduced affordability levels. A graph of the chronological progress of the two numbers—median house price and median affordability—would show that until the late sixties the two lines climbed side by side, affordability above and price below. Then they began to converge, until finally, at the end of the decade, they crossed, and moved apart. The median price of a house began to exceed what a median-income family could afford.
The percentage of American households that owned their homes started to decline. The decline was small, but it was the first decline in fifty years. Throughout the 1980s the rate fluctuated, which led some observers to discount the idea that anything important had taken place. Nevertheless, after an all-time peak of 65.6 percent around 1980, ownership had fallen to 63.8 percent by 1988, and among the age group traditionally associated with buying a first home, people aged twenty-five to twenty-nine, last year it stood at 35.4 percent, a drop of eight percentage points since the previous decade. For this group the American dream of homeownership has been severely compromised.
The third and most important event was the October, 1973, energy crisis, with an aftershock during the 1980s. The streetcar, the elevated train, the commuter railroad, and the automobile had made inexpensive suburban land available to housing developers, and the rapid proliferation of single-family houses on large individual plots had been possible only because the rate of car ownership in the United States had been high ever since the 1920s. But for a short time during the winter of 1973 the world seemed to be turned upside down, and there was much talk of moving back to the city and of the benefits of energy conservation and mass transit. Eventually cars became smaller and cheaper to operate, home-insulation retrofitting suddenly became a lucrative small industry, and energy efficiency became a selling feature of new houses, though residential development continued to depend on the automobile just as much as before. Fuel prices declined, and things seemed to be back to normal.
The aftershock came in the form of a series of scientific disclosures about the deteriorating state of the physical environment, particularly global warming. Family cars, as well as power plants, were among the chief sources of carbon-dioxide emissions, so dependence on automobiles was seen as a problem once again. The more general issues of conservation of energy, physical resources, and land were also again raised, and critics were quick to point out that the suburban house lavishly consumed all three. The abundant resources that accounted for the success of the large single-family suburban house—unlimited land, cheap transportation, and plentiful energy—can no longer be taken for granted.
A short history of the American house since 1950 would have to include a chapter called "Bigger and Better." The Levittown house had two bedrooms, one small bathroom, and an eat-in kitchen; all its rooms were arranged on a concrete slab whose dimensions were twenty-five by thirty feet (an unfinished attic was often converted into additional living space). William Levitt's strategy becomes apparent if one compares his house with earlier designs for modestly priced houses, such as those included in homes of Character, a pattern book published in 1923 by the Boston architect Robert L. Stevenson. The porches, vestibules, entry halls, and dining rooms (or at least dining alcoves) that were standard domestic amenities in the twenties were absent from the Levittown house, which lacked even a basement. It was bare-bones living.
The prosperity of the next two decades was an opportunity to recover some of the lost space. Not surprisingly, new houses increased in size. In 1963 the average new house had 1,450 square feet (the Levittown house had 750 square feet), and over the next decade another 200 square feet, the equivalent of two bedrooms, were added. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average finished area of a new single-family house in 1989 was about 2,000 square feet, and thousands of houses were even bigger, often 3,000 to 4,000 square feet.
Houses became bigger in the sixties and seventies both because rooms were larger and because there were more of them. Kitchen appliances such as dishwashers, food processors, and microwave ovens required larger, more elaborate kitchens with more counter space. Bathrooms proliferated throughout the house: powder rooms, guest bathrooms, private bathrooms attached to bedrooms and equipped with whirlpool baths and separate shower stalls. By 1972 half of all new houses contained two or more bathrooms. Ten years later nearly three quarters did. It became customary for each child to have his or her own bedroom, and for the parents' room to be larger than the others (in Stevenson's plans there were no "master" bedrooms—all bedrooms were roughly the same size). During the sixties most houses augmented the traditional living room with a family room, or rec room. This allowed greater informality in living arrangements—a place for children to play, and a place to put the television. The rec room was also a sign of the growing privatization of family life, which was a reaction to the disintegration of the public realm. The home was becoming the chief locale for family leisure, as it had been in Victorian times.
In a consumer society, houses not only shelter people but also are warehouses full of furniture, clothes, toys, sports equipment, and gadgets. It is a measure of the growth of consumerism that one of the things that immediately dates a house of the 1920s is how little storage space it has. In the 1920s a bedroom cupboard three feet wide was considered suffcient; today most bedrooms have a wall-to-wall closet, and master bedrooms are incomplete if they do not have an extended walk-in closet, often grandiloquently called a dressing room. There may be fewer people in the American house of the nineties, but there are a lot more things.
There is a price to be paid for this expansion, however. Bigger houses mean more time and money spent on cleaning and maintenance—work traditionally performed by women. Betty Friedan characterized the single-family suburban house as a "domestic trap." The bigger the house, the bigger the trap. Even if one maintains that houseproud homemakers are satisfied to trade their free time for extra housework, what about the many women who now also work outside the home? In TheSecond Shift, Arlie Hochschild studied working couples and found that, on average, women performed three quarters of the housework. She estimated that during the 1960s and 1970s housework and child care accounted for roughly fifteen hours a week of extra work for the working woman. Obviously, working women are ill served by the larger house.
The growth in the size of houses is also at odds with the shrinkage in the size of households. Why do families that are, on average, smaller require twice as much space? To some extent the expanding American house reflects a crude, bigger-is-better mentality. Homeownership is a sign of social accomplishment and status, and just as the most prestigious cars were once the Cadillac and the Continental, which served as models for cheaper (but equally bloated) Fords and Chevrolets, the houses of the wealthy—in particular, Hollywood celebrities, whose sprawling Beverly Hills villas were prominently featured in fan magazines—were what the average tract house strove to imitate.
The increase in the size of the average new house, and in the level of amenities it contained, naturally cost money, and prices rose accordingly. Of course, the homebuilding industry was propelled by the same economic imperatives that drove the automobile industry, and found it profitable to furnish the market with more-expensive houses. And like the automobile manufacturers, builders resisted reducing the size of their product dramatically—even when inflation, higher interest rates, and low household incomes (especially those of single-parent families headed by women) suggested that it might be reasonable to do so.
When land prices, labor costs, or commercial interest rates rise, the builder passes the increase on to the buyer and raises the selling price of the house. If car prices rise too steeply, a prospective buyer has the choice of spending less and buying secondhand. But houses are not cars. Not only do older houses not depreciate in value but their selling price is affected by the general housing market. If new houses cost more, then so do old houses, even though they were built years before, with less expensive labor, less expensive materials, and cheap money. Hence the higher the cost of new housing the more difficult it is to become a homeowner, and the more beneficial it is to be one already. Expensive housing means that a few people lose but a lot of people gain.
Theoretically, prices should eventually drop as a result of reduced demand. However, unlike car prices, over time house prices have so far proved remarkably resistant to declines in demand. (A theory newly gaining prominence holds that house prices will never again be impervious to the rest of the economy.) Many homeowners who are selling a house prefer to wait rather than reduce their asking price significantly. The nature of the homebuilding industry is also a factor. Large merchant builders have diversified into related fields such as property development and commercial and industrial building. When demand falters, they are more likely to shift the focus of their construction activities than to lower prices. But most builders are small. More than half of all the residential builders in the United States build fewer than ten houses a year. They operate with low overhead and few if any permanent employees; when prices soften, it is easy for them to cut back and wait until things improve, or simply to take a vacation.
The American dream of becoming a homeowner is so compelling that for a long time rising prices were slow to discourage demand; and as prices rose, banks and savings-and-loan companies made it easier to borrow money. The rule of thumb traditionally used by lenders to evaluate the financial capabilities of prospective home-buyers was that housing costs (mortgage payments, taxes, and utilities) should not consume more than 25 percent of the household's income. By the 1980s, as house prices began to rise faster than incomes and this trend began to encourage borrowing, the percentage was adjusted upward: to 30 percent, then 35 percent, and sometimes almost as high as 40 percent.
The rationale was that higher housing costs were being offset by the appreciation in the resale value of the property. This view had some validity, since houses were rapidly increasing in value, but it was a saving on paper, available only in the future, when the house was sold. In the meantime, the homeowner was obliged to tighten his belt and spend less—on recreation, travel, education, culture, books. Many people simply borrowed more to make up the difference. No wonder that credit cards became so popular, and so widely abused. Homeownership was being maintained, more or less, but at what price?
The development of communities composed of freestanding houses surrounded by gardens was entirely American. Before 1840 American cities and towns followed the European model: attached or row houses were built side by side, on narrow lots, facing the street. This type of house first appeared in walled European towns in the Middle Ages, and it survived in various forms for the next 500 years. Seventeenth-century Dutch towns, Baroque Paris, Georgian London, and the Victorian industrial city were all composed almost exclusively of row houses—it was simply the way that towns, and villages, too, were made.
The row house proved remarkably adaptable to various social circumstances. The lower floor of a medieval row house was devoted to commerce or manufacturing, the upper floors to living. Rich people lived in large, wide houses; the poor lived in smaller, narrower ones. Sometimes the two classes shared the same house—in Regency terraces, the basement was given over to kitchens and servants'quarters, and the owners lived above. The Parisian town house carried social stratification further: the ground floor was usually a shop; the first floor contained a grand apartment; the upper floors contained less expensive lodgings, with lower ceilings; and at the top of the stairs, in the garret below the roof, were the cheapest rooms.
A similar adaptability was evident in the American row house, which was where people lived in all the Eastern Seaboard cities. The so-called Philadelphia bandbox was a tiny row house, ten to sixteen feet wide, built for renting to recent immigrants; on fashionable Society Hill the houses were wider and grander but were also built in rows. The standard American city lot was about twenty-five feet wide, a dimension that could conveniently accommodate a living room and a hallway on the lower floor and two bedrooms above. New York had its brownstones, Boston the streets of Beacon Hill, and Baltimore rows of modest brick houses. As in Europe, the row house was not found only in cities. The Colonial Delaware town of New Castle, for example, was scarcely more than a large village, but many of the houses were row houses, which still give the historic district an urban, and an urbane, air.
What produced the narrow row house in America was not a concern for security, as in the medieval European town, nor was it merely urban crowding. The row house kept walking distances short, true, but more important, it defined city life in a congenial and satisfying way. One has the impression that just as people enjoyed the bustle of the city streets and squares, they also liked the gregariousness of living in relatively close proximity, in compact, well-defined neighborhoods.
As the Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson recounts in his history of suburbanization, Crabgrass Frontier, the freestanding house began to supplant the row house as the preferred American housing type sometime between 1840 and 1870. Cities were becoming noisy and congested. Immigration from Europe was on the increase: Italians, Poles, and Russians, ethnically and religiously different-and usually poor, crowded into the cities, and so did blacks from the South. Horsedrawn vehicles jammed the streets. Poor sanitation—there were no sewers, and many people still relied on wells for water—produced periodic outbreaks of cholera. Coal-fired industrialization produced eye-watering pollution. One remedy, if you could afford it, was to escape to the suburbs.
The move to the suburbs was not merely reactionary. It had also to do with a new appreciation for the outdoors and the desire to live in a more natural setting—or, more specifically, as Jackson says, to live in a house with a yard. The British country house had provided the British landed gentry with a garden setting for several centuries. What was new was the provision of such homes to large numbers of people, at first members of the upper-middle class, and later average working families. The traditional row house was built either directly on the sidewalk or a few feet behind it—there was no room for a front lawn. Nor was there really a back yard. The small space behind the house was taken up with stables, service buildings, and privies; since there was no garbage collection, it was also a place to dump refuse. Even where land was available, city gardens were rare. When people wanted to go out of the house, they went into the street, or they promenaded in a public park.
The yard reflected a desire for private leisure space—croquet and lawn tennis became favorite pastimes in the midnineteenth century—and a wish to isolate domestic life from the public world. Instead of stoops, which were really a part of the street, the early suburban houses had porches, which were definitely a part of the house and were separated from the sidewalk by expanses of lawn.
The earliest planned suburbs, such as Riverside (1869), outside Chicago, and Forest Hills Gardens (1913), nine miles from Manhattan, were so-called streetcar suburbs, all linked to the city by railroad or streetcar lines. Since people were expected to walk home from the station, distances had to be kept short, and these new communities were relatively compact. They housed more than thirty people an acre, which was a population density a third that of the crowded city. The later automobile suburb had no such constraints, and could be more expansive. Broad streets and large lots with generous setback all reduced densities. Levittown, despite its small houses, accommodated only about fifteen people on an acre. As houses and plots increased in size during the postwar period, densities dropped lower and lower. A typical suburban density today is never higher than ten people an acre, and often even lower.
My point is not that land is being "wasted" but rather that the low density of suburban housing has produced some undesirable effects. Downtown land costs more than it did in the past, of course, because there is a limited supply and an increasing demand. It is less obvious why peripheral land, the supply of which increases exponentially as the city's circumference grows, should cost more. One explanation is that the cheapest land in convenient locations was bought up first, and now that it is no longer available, developers are obliged to acquire higher-quality real estate. Another is a change in the way land improvements are paid for. In the past the cost of building new roads and sewers came out of a municipality's general revenues—that is, it was absorbed by all taxpayers. Today the increasingly prevalent practice is for a municipality to levy development charges directly on the developer, who must pay these costs before starting construction. In some cases development charges also contain additional payments ("impact fees"), which are in effect an entrance tax. These extra charges, and the cost of financing them, are passed directly on to the buyer in the form of a higher land price, and so is the cost of what is now a large number of necessary permits and the time expended in acquiring them. In 1949 the cost of land typically represented about 11 percent of the selling price of a new house; in 1988, though houses were much larger and better appointed, land cost accounted for more than a quarter of the selling price.
It hardly needs saying that a community of sprawling houses on large lots is going to mean a lot of driving. Shops, schools, libraries, swimming pools, and day-care centers are spread out; to reach them requires not only a car but time. As long as women stayed home and functioned as chauffeurs, this liability could be overcome.
The typical suburban home is a house of a unique type that emerged in response to a particular need, which it fulfilled, I would say, in exemplary fashion. But there is no reason to believe that it has the versatility to adapt to different circumstances. It is ill suited, for example, to smaller and more heterogeneous households. Does a working single parent really want a large lawn? Does a couple without children require a playroom, and if both work, do they have the time to clean and maintain a large house?
It is not clear what will happen to the large suburban houses of the sixties and seventies as families shrink and heating and transportation costs rise. Basements with separate entries sometimes contain small apartments, but ranch houses are not easily converted from single to multiple occupancy. The row house, in contrast, has shown itself to be extremely versatile. A Philadelphia bandbox, once inhabited by three families, is now home to one; a Boston Back Bay row house on Commonwealth Avenue that once housed one large family now houses three professional couples. Family row houses in Manhattan have been subdivided into small apartments, and are also used as offices and shops.
A final word on the row house. It represents a different type of house, but it also implies a different type of housing development: more compact, more urbane, more neighborly. Today such a development would have a variety of houses for different households: single-family houses, cottages, and walk-up apartments, as well as row houses. Considerably denser than current suburban developments (though not necessarily much denser than the first streetcar suburbs) and incorporating many features associated with traditional American towns, like commercial space as well as residential, public greens, and well-defined streets, such communities would be characterized by social and economic mixing rather than homogeneity They would be scaled to the pedestrian rather than to the driver, reducing, though not eliminating, dependence on the automobile. They would also reflect the variety of the American family and would provide a wider range of economic choices than the present single, uniform housing solution.
The simplest way to build less expensive houses is to build them smaller, not differently. Smaller houses have fewer bathrooms, smaller kitchens with less cabinetwork, which is expensive, and fewer and smaller rooms. The cost of construction is almost directly proportional to the floor area ("almost" because certain costs, such as electrical hookup charges and building-permit and legal fees, remain constant). Because construction time is also proportionately reduced, the contractor's overhead—and profit—likewise go down. Smaller houses have the added advantages of being cheaper to heat and cool and easier to maintain. They also mean less housework, which should appeal particularly to working couples and single parents.
How much smaller? Melanie Taylor, a New Haven architect, has designed several compact family houses, intended for year-round living, some of them as small as 575 square feet. A modestly priced bungalow, designed for a new town near Gulf Shores, Alabama, combines two small bedrooms, a sleeping loft, an open living space, and an eat-in kitchen in only 1,100 square feet; additional space is provided by a front porch. Other Taylor houses, many of which have a faintly Victorian air, were featured in several national magazines, and proved so popular that the architect was obliged to prepare stock plans for national distribution. In San Francisco the architect Donald MacDonald has successfully built and marketed tiny row houses of 600 to 960 square feet, including garages. These inexpensive—by San Francisco standards (about $165,000)—urban cottages challenge what MacDonald calls "the mythology of space," and compensate for their small size by incorporating oversize windows, skylights, fireplaces, soundproofing, and gardens. Last summer the architect unveiled an even smaller house, intended for a single person or a parent with a small child. It contains only 240 square feet of space but includes a fireplace, a sleeping loft, and a fully equipped kitchen with dishwasher.
The MacDonald house probably represents the extreme limit—the housing equivalent of the micro-car. A less radical departure is the compact house of about 1,000 square feet, within which it is possible to accommodate comfortably two or three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, and a basement that permits rooms to be added later. Such a house is about half the size (and construction cost) of the average new single-family house built last year, although it is still larger than Levitt's 750-square-foot Cape Cod model. Considering that the latter often accommodated a family of five, 1,000 square feet for two or three people seems adequate—by the standards of most European countries, even generous. Such smaller houses, sometimes called starter houses, would appeal to singles, couples, young families, and also older couples whose children have moved away from home. Altogether a large market.
Reducing the floor area does not mean forsaking modern standards of comfort and convenience. There will have to be more and better-appointed bathrooms than in the small bungalows of the past, and ingenious, space-saving storage systems. The miniaturization that has been accomplished in electronics (smaller televisions, smaller audio equipment, smaller appliances) makes it easier to achieve high levels of domestic amenity in small spaces. If home automation, in which a single electrical cable provides power, audio, television, security, telephone, and thermostat, becomes common, as seems likely, it will further increase domestic convenience regardless of space. Like the Japanese car, the small house may start as an economic measure and finish as a luxury product.
Wouldn't it be preferable, rather than making houses smaller, simply to build them more efficiently and cheaply by industrializing the building process? This was the rationale for Operation Breakthrough, which was announced by the Nixon Administration in 1969. Its aim was to enlist large corporations such as General Electric and TRW in a national effort to develop radically new ways of building housing, using industrial methods, mass production, and innovative materials. A nation that could put a man on the moon could surely improve on traditional stick-built houses. By 1974, however, Operation Breakthrough had collapsed, partly as a result of a lack of political will but chiefly because the industrial giants were unable to produce a markedly better house at a lower price.
Independent of government efforts an industrialized housing industry has developed, and it includes pre-cut, panelized, and modular homes. Although these forms of building have been in existence for several decades, they have been unable to capture more than about 10 to 15 percent of the new-housing market, according to figures released by the National Association of Home Builders.
Industrialized housing can be erected quickly, and it is usually of high quality. But industrialization has not significantly reduced the construction cost of the house. One problem is the investment in plant and equipment which must be added to the selling price of the house, and the cost of weathering the ups and downs of the homebuilding industry. Other reasons that conventional construction predominates include the low cost of on-site labor in many areas and the paperwork required by a multitude of state and local building codes and regulations when manufacturers ship prefabricated components.
One type of factory-made housing has been consistently successful in reducing production costs: the mobile home. During the early 1970s mobile homes made up a third of all new single-family houses, although this figure has now dropped by about half. Mobile homes are small (usually less than 1,000 square feet), have traditionally used inexpensive interior and exterior materials, and are entirely produced in factories (primarily by nonunion labor). The need to transport the product from factory to site imposes severe restrictions on its height and width, however, and a mobile home inevitably resembles a long shoebox. It is not a shape that can be happily integrated into most traditional neighborhoods. About two thirds of mobile homes are situated on rented land, the majority in commercial parks. While the separation of homeownership from landownership is part of what makes the mobile home affordable, it is also a disadvantage. In contrast to a conventional house, a mobile home usually does not rapidly appreciate in value, a fact that in the long run can offset its lower selling price.
Industrialized housing was prominent in postwar Europe and in countries such as the Soviet Union and Sweden, but it made little headway in the United States. The chief reason was, and continues to be, that the lightweight woodframe house (which in its present form is unique to North America) is already a highly industrialized product. Indeed, it is much more industrialized than the often crude concrete building systems of Eastern Europe. Conventional American houses consist almost exclusively of bits and pieces that have been manufactured in factories and quickly assembled on the site. The extent of this industrialization can be shown by a short list of the technical innovations that have become commonplace during the postwar period: factory-made wooden roof trusses (introduced in 1952), pre-hung doors and windows, gypsum wallboard, aluminum and vinyl siding, plywood, plastic plumbing, fiberglass insulation bats, rigid-foam-insulation sheathing, sealed glazing units and low-emissivity glass, plastic vapor barriers and moisture barriers in wide rolls, ready-mix concrete, and also labor-saving devices such as paint rollers, power tools, powered staplers and nailing guns, small cranes, and forklifts. The most recent changes include metal-and-wood-composite substitutes for traditional solid-wood studs and joists.
The result of these improvements is apparent both in a higher quality of construction and in a reduced amount of on-site labor, whose cost now accounts for only a small fraction of the selling price of a new house—about 15 percent, as compared with 30 percent in 1949. Thus the potential for reducing cost by increasing che degree of prefabrication or by introducing automation is small. Does industrialization produce less-expensive houses? Yes. The difficulty in proposing industrialization as a strategy for reducing housing cost is that to a large degree it has already happened.
One advantage of smaller houses is that they can be placed on smaller lots. A modest one-story tract house typically needs a sixty-foot-wide lot—that is, each house usually requires sixty feet of sidewalk, roadway, sewer and water line, and storm sewer. A narrower, two-story cottage can be built on a forty-foot-wide lot, immediately reducing these costs by a third. A semi-detached house requires even less frontage—thirty feet. Such housing incorporates all the desired features of suburban life—individual houses, gardens, decks, natural surroundings—but on a reduced scale. Row houses, which can be built on twenty-foot-wide lots, have a more dramatic impact on land cost and density; infrastructure cost is reduced by two thirds. With more people living closer together it is possible to plan neighborhoods with local stores, and walking rather than driving becomes a real option.
When affordability is a priority, it is possible to consider extremely narrow lots, less than twenty feet wide. In Victorian London, row houses were classified into four types, depending on lot width: twenty feet, eighteen feet, sixteen feet, and fifteen feet. In the famous Weissenhof Housing Exhibition, held in Stuttgart in 1927, the Dutch architect J.J.P. Oud built a row of houses each eighteen feet wide. Le Corbusier designed several projects with extremely narrow houses, and some of his ideas are visible in a Swiss housing cooperative, Siedlung Halen, built outside Bern in 1961; there the row houses are only sixteen feet wide.
Denser neighborhoods would have a considerable effect on the environment: Less automobile travel would mean fewer roadways, and less energy invested in community infrastructure. Row houses, which share walls with their neighbors, provide savings in building materials, because only the narrow front and back facades are exposed to the weather. A two-story row house has only about one third the exterior wall area of a bungalow, and about half the roof area, and so heating and air-conditioning costs are reduced accordingly.
Smaller lots would also mean more-compact communities. Not only would these encourage walking but the higher concentration of people would make possible more local services such as day-care centers and shops. Many of the advantages of nineteenth-century town life could be recovered. Higher-density housing would provide a range of choices and opportunities for face-to-face contact between people. I realize that much of this goes against the grain of current preferences for privacy and economically homogeneous communities, but given a choice people might enjoy variety and neighborliness.
The present housing market is characterized by many types of households. Home buyers include single people, either unmarried or between marriages, with or without children; and couples, married and unmarried, childless or with young children or, as is increasingly common, with grown-up children who are living at home. All these different groups have different needs, resources, and priorities. The small but growing number of people who work at home need offices or workrooms; people with small children need playrooms; people with elderly parents need a guest room, preferably on the ground floor; childless couples may prefer large open spaces; parents with noisy teenagers need separate rooms.
One way to accommodate this diversity is to leave part of the house unpartitioned—in effect, to create a loft space. An unpartitioned second floor is an idea that worked when William Levitt introduced the unfinished attic in his Cape Cod house, and it is still useful in reducing the initial construction cost of a house. Future bathroom connections can easily be provided for. The homeowner can choose to use the loft as a single open space or build partitions as required and as financial resources permit.
Many North American males—and, increasingly, females as well—grow up learning rudimentary carpentry skills as a matter of course. Although we take these abilities for granted, they represent a national trait, which is shared by few societies. The growth in the number of home-improvement centers attests to the popularity of the do-it-yourself movement. These stores sell a variety of tools, building materials, and electrical and plumbing supplies. Many of the products, such as adhesive floor tiles, plastic water pipes, and pre-assembled doors and windows, are specifically designed for home installation. In addition, there are shelves of plans, handbooks, and step-by-step manuals that cover every aspect of building conscruction. Traditionally the basement has served as the place for do-it-yourself additions and modifications to the home, and the use of flexible space has a long and tested history.
In 1961 John Habraken, a young Dutch architect, published a small book, later translated into English, in which he proposed an approach to mass housing based on a separation of what became known as supports and infill. Habraken's proposal called for support structures to be built by contractors and for the infill, which includes interior partitions, bathrooms, kitchens, closets, and sometimes even exterior walls, to be bought separately by the occupant, much as furniture is bought—to suit the buyer's personal taste and pocketbook. This strategy, which was developed with multi-story buildings in mind but was also applied to row houses, attracted international attention, and brought Habraken to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the head of the architecture department. Although a small number of housing projects derived from the support-infill model were built in Holland, the idea never really caught on. The chief drawback was that a wide range of infill products, such as demountable walls and relocatable plumbing systems, were simply not available on the market.
Habraken's proposal was ambitious and complicated, requiring the development of too many new products at once. It also required that architects exert less control over the design process. Nevertheless, something like the support-infill approach could produce housing that is more adaptable and affordable. It would be possible to provide houses without built-in kitchen cabinets and closets, for example, as has long been the custom in Europe. This would leave the homeowner free to choose how much, and of what type, to install—big or little, fancy or plain, expensive or cheap.
This freedom to choose would have several benefits. First, the quality of finish carpentry and cabinetwork, which can vary considerably, would be left to the discretion of the homeowner. He or she could choose an inexpensive kitchen, for example, and replace it later with something better. Or a few high-quality cabinets could be bought initially and added to as more money became available. A handyman might decide to do the work himself. A large number of home-furnishings outlets, like Conran's-Habitat, now sell knocked-down or partly assembled modular furniture, or, like IKEA, even sell kitchen cabinets and counters in a wide variety of styles, materials, and finishes.
Couples could install two sinks in the bathroom; working couples who eat out could install small kitchens. Clotheshorses could put in more closets; readers could have more bookshelves. It would be possible to use space more efficiently in small houses by placing storage elements only where they were required—small closets in the guest room, toy chests in the playroom—and moving them as family needs changed.
Finally, there is the benefit of separating the cost of cabinetwork from the construction cost of the house. Finish work is time-consuming and costly for the contractor, and often causes delays and customer dissatisfaction. The efficiency of construction would be increased by cutting out finish work from the building process; the size of the down payment and of monthly mortgage payments would be reduced accordingly.
The chief obstacle to smaller houses on smaller lots is not the consumer, nor is it the home-building industry. It is those of us who already own our homes. Municipalities, reflecting the attitude of homeowners, have staunchly resisted the idea of modifying zoning regulations to permit the construction of smaller homes, or to allow the subdivision of land into smaller plots. The chief reason is, sadly, selfish: smaller, less expensive houses are perceived as a threat to property values and to community status, even though housing in the $50,000-$80,000 range is still accessible only to solid middle-class citizens.
Despite the heightened awareness of environmental issues and wide opposition to nuclear power, the environmental advantages of more-compact neighborhoods have yet to enter the public consciousness. Many of the same people who extol the virtues of bicycling and of composting lawn clippings are up in arms whenever denser development is proposed. The institution of no-growth legislation by many towns exacerbates the housing problem, because it places quotas on the number of new houses that can be built each year and effectively guarantees that developers will build only large, luxurious houses.
Exclusionary zoning regulations create economically and demographically skewed neighborhoods. There are already signs that at least some communities are realizing that restrictive zoning may not in the long run be in their interests. First-time buyers eventually become second-time buyers, and towns that do not provide starter houses risk losing young families who would otherwise establish roots in the community. The lack of housing choices has other bad consequences, as when, for example, public employees like firemen and policemen can no longer live where they work, or when schoolteachers, nurses, and other important but low-paid professionals must commute long distances.
One can only hope that a more generous attitude will prevail, an attitude that recognizes that a new and different generation of prospective homeowners, faced with higher interest rates, energy costs, and land prices, is obliged to consider housing solutions different from those that were available to their parents. This is no cause for alarm. It may be an opportunity to attain better—and more livable—towns and cities.
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