m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

F E B R U A R Y  1 9 9 1

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and three.)

When Houses Bulked Out

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 House That Worked

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 online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and three.

Witold Rybczynski is the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania

Copyright © 1991 by Witold Rybczynski. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1991; Living Smaller - 91.02 (Part Two); Volume 267, No. 2; page 64-78.