Working as an architect and historian, I first became interested in the suburbs when I realized that even my sophisticated friends—let alone the general public—were terrified to hire an architect to design their home. My profession is marginal in society compared to others, like medicine or law. Architects build few of the homes people occupy. Instead, those needs are satisfied by a building industry that my architectural colleagues don’t know anything about. At the time, neither did I.
In 2003, as a senior research fellow in the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, I began to look closely at the housing industry and its marketing mechanisms. (I eventually published the results as a small book for consumers, Dream Home.) In the process, I learned that the housing industry is not just a major economic force, but also more efficient, more responsive to public taste, and more effective in marketing its products than the architecture profession.
Its scale is enormous. During the building boom before 2008, production housing—the name for builder-constructed residential developments—accounted for the vast majority of single-family homes. During that time, up to 1.8 million homes were started on an annualized basis nationwide.* As January 2018, the same statistics, though down from prerecession highs, indicate 886,000 new starts. By some accounts, architects are responsible for designing no more than 2 percent of those homes. As the architect Duo Dickinson has observed, this means that the profession has largely ceded the best opportunity to be relevant and useful to ordinary people.
Not only does production housing dominate the market; consumers also like its products. The major appeal is affordability, with the housing industry producing a range of prices from modest to high-end. A family of four with a moderate middle-class income can put down $8,120, plus closing costs, to buy a home for $232,000 with three to four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a garage, and a piece of ground for a front and backyard. At the high end, buyers spending over $1 million—who could afford an architect if they wanted one—instead often choose big, builder-designed homes they see as bargains preferable to custom designs.
A second attraction is the quality of housing stock. People sometimes think of production homes as “builder-grade,” made carelessly and on the cheap. But American housing is better built now than ever before, a result of market competition, stricter building codes, and better materials. Basic construction is more solid, but the housing industry also is constantly upgrading the technology and sustainability of its products. As soon as the industry could see that producing energy-efficient homes had marketing advantages, green building started becoming increasingly widespread. These homes are not the ultimate in energy efficiency, but they are continuously improving. And because of the wide reach of production homes, those improvements impact many people.