A Defense of the Suburbs

An architect immerses himself in residential production housing to learn why people like it—and what it can teach Americans about the future of urban design.

Sunset on a suburban residential block with mountains in the background
David McNew / Getty

When Anthony Bourdain launched the new season of his food-and-travel series Parts Unknown, he began not with an exotic, far-off land, but with West Virginia. A native-born New Yorker, Bourdain found the state as foreign as Timbuktu, which is why he decided to go see its people and explore their culture. There, he found people eating squirrel, prepared like chicken. He found people who were proud of working for generations in coal mines. He found rural people with a culture they owned. The issue for Bourdain was not if he liked what he saw, but if he better understood people and places previously unknown.

Open-minded curiosity can also teach much about another foreigner in our midst: the American suburb. Often vilified or ignored by urbanites, architects, and critics, the suburb is nevertheless the residential heart of America. Its citizens have much to learn about how it works and does not work, and why people choose to live there: because they can afford to buy houses there, because the homes are of higher quality than they get credit for, and because the builders who design and build them are responsive to home buyers’ desires.

Understanding and responding to those justifications doesn’t require endorsing the suburbs as they are today. In fact, it might help improve urban design in the sometimes overlooked places where Americans live.

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.

A third appeal is that the housing industry answers consumers’ needs. Through its trade organizations, research institutes, and publications, it conducts constant research between buyer and seller. The feedback loop includes marketing, professional magazines, and trade shows. For instance, canvasing of consumers indicated that a living room adjacent to the front door, a holdover of the Victorian parlor, was far less important than having more space in a great room. Without reconfiguring the outline of the building—changing slab designs is costly—the front parlor was transformed into a smaller office or guest bedroom. This design makes sense, as the front door is typically not used for entry these days, but as a marker of domesticity. With marketing information at hand, builders can make immediate adjustments to their offerings. The expansion of walk-in closets, great spaces, and open kitchens correlate directly with consumers’ desires.

Provision for consumer needs extends to finishes and furnishings, the selection of which can be overwhelming. Though not always available at the low end of house offerings, the industry proves an efficient—and lucrative—furnishing mechanism: the all-purpose showroom. Guided by a marketing specialist, the buyer visits one showroom and picks all their finishes, as well as appliances, flooring, plumbing fixtures, even facade materials, all prior to construction. This helps both buyer and builder. Buyers know in advance what their home will cost fully fitted out, and change orders don’t disrupt construction later.

Architects or custom-design builders generally put open-ended “allowances” into budgets instead. The final costs of those allowances often make budgets soar near the end of construction, due to unexpected changes. The building industry removes this worry. Not only is the price fixed, but a reliable completion date is provided as well. Within six to eight months, a family can move into their new home. By contrast, a custom-designed home can take a year or longer. This provides a crucial psychological comfort for American families as they embark on the largest financial commitment they might ever make.

This feeling of reassurance begins at the outset, when a prospective buyer visits a model home, a built example of the product for sale. Even with the increasing use of virtual walk-throughs and drone overviews, nothing replaces the physical experience of visiting an actualized building. Model homes are meant to be seductive, using upgrades and exterior landscaping to lure buyers, all of which augment the base retail price. The experience is similar to visiting an automotive showroom with its model cars souped up with extras. Despite the increased cost of upgrades, what you see is what you get.

The idea of belonging to a community is another appealing selling point. In today’s globalized world, community is defined less by physical proximity and more by connection to affinity groups. The stoop or the YMCA might not define a community anymore. In subdivisions, a swimming pool and shared meeting room could do so instead, or extensive path systems for jogging or walks. Regardless of its generality, the idea of community answers another consumer need.

To this list of intangibles, we can add safety. As illusory as it may be in these times of environmental, political, and social threat, having a safe home environment ranks high in consumer demands. Gated communities double down on the idea of safety and reinforce the retention of social status with an exclusionary message. Their residents may be no safer than people elsewhere; it’s the perception of safety that counts.

If production housing is so successful, what’s wrong with the houses it produces? A major objection to the suburbs is aesthetic. Their critics see these homes as ugly. They are badly proportioned, composed of mash-ups of incongruous motifs, and made of flimsy materials.

Implicit in these objections, but often not stated, is the issue that houses in the suburbs are not modern. Critics sometimes see modern architecture as the only viable expression of the spirit of the age. If you ask what defines “modern architecture,” the answer involves visual cues: features like flat roofs, glass, flat planar surfaces, and sleek lines. During its halcyon days in the 1920s and 1930s, modern architecture claimed to be astylar and universally applicable. According to its ideologues, it was a vehicle for social transformation often freighted with political nuance. The neo-modern movement has revived the image of modern architecture, turning it into a style, without the ideological content. Because architects are increasingly unfamiliar with the history of 20th-century modern architecture, they don’t realize that many of their modern designs are as derivative as generations of Tudor and neo-colonial homes were for preceding generations.

For critics, the absence of the modern is compounded by a lack of stylistic purity. Over the last two decades, it’s become less common to describe homes for sale by their architectural style, like colonial, bungalow, or Cape Codder. Instead, descriptions by themes and generic categories, like Mediterranean or European, became popular. A style involves a complete, coherent integration of design elements and materials; themes extract some of those elements, like clay roof tiles for a “Mediterranean” look, and apply them piecemeal. As the thematization of housing took over, it contributed to the erosion of correct architectural vocabulary. Now a Mediterranean home might just be a ranch with a tile roof.

The result of style’s decline is visible in the McMansion, a house too large in volume for its lot, with a pastiche of stylistic elements decorating the exterior. It’s true that overbuilding has many negative repercussions for neighborhoods. But the same could be said of downtown skyscrapers and lower-rise condos and apartment buildings that claim to have the benefits of increasing density for making walkable cities, but inadvertently cause traffic congestion, strain infrastructure, and shift the economic base upward with disastrous results for working- and middle-class people.

The lack of authenticity, found formerly in “pure” styles, is also attributed to the independence of floor plans from their facades in production houses. You can mix and match by picking from a variety of facades to go with your floor plan, which itself is one of multiple options for the same external footprint. Decoupling the inside of a home from its outside form bothers some purists, but in truth the arbitrary match between plan and facade has a long lineage in the history of architecture. Medieval churches from one century have facades created in styles generated decades or centuries later. The Italian Renaissance is loaded with buildings whose plans and facades are separate entities, each serving distinctive needs of function and iconography and representation.

The opposition assumes that modern architecture is “better” than traditional architecture. Yet there is no scientific evidence that shows modern architecture improves human well-being, lifestyle, or spiritual condition. When I ask people who live in suburban houses, they tend to say that they don’t care very much, if at all, about the authenticity of their architecture. They don’t care much about the stylistic accuracy of their homes’ exteriors. Why should they? It’s their home after all. And how could they know about their home’s visual style anyway, if they have no points of comparison and no opportunity to learn about architecture, a subject largely absent in the general education of the public?

Popular resistance to modern architecture has a long and complex history. One factor just coming clear is the role the Federal Housing Administration played in positioning a “good” modern versus a “bad” modern as the desirable norm from the late 1930s for American housing. Jennifer Tate, who is completing a doctoral dissertation on the subject, told me that a modern idiom, with European roots, first seemed like it would become another aesthetic option upon which FHA-approved home design could be based. But in the end, traditional architecture—not modern—was seen as the best means to unify (white) American identity across the country. The FHA combined its segregationist redlining policies with a requirement for a traditional housing aesthetic. This policy provided visual in addition to racial cohesion, tying domestic space to a mythic, democratic-colonial village ideal. The result clearly communicated privilege and belonging for some but not others.

Another standard criticism of the suburbs is that they generate urban sprawl. Its detriments range from inefficient land use, to environmental damage from reliance on automobiles, to dull and repetitious housing stock. These objections have some legitimacy. But implied in this critique is that the suburbs are also soul-deadening, boring, and anonymous, unlike the vibrant city. The matter might not be that cut-and-dried.

Robert Bruegmann investigated the subject in his book, Sprawl: A Compact History. He shows that sprawl has a historical legacy going back centuries, that multinucleated cities have benefits, and, finally, that these are places people want to live in. Sprawl’s antithesis—the compressing of populations into increasingly dense urban cores—also has a host of problems. And that’s not just true of New York or San Francisco. In the downtown and central core of Austin, Texas, high property taxes, relentless high-rise development downtown, and gentrification have so eroded the opportunities for middle-class families that enrollment in the public school system is collapsing. In some gentrified areas of East Austin, dogs now outnumber children.

Despite their broad attacks, critics sometimes overlook the suburbs’ real downsides.

Although builders are making their products more energy-efficient, they neglect planning their developments to coordinate with public transit. Reliance on the privately owned automobile as the major means of transport creates obvious environmental burdens. And with lower-priced developments increasingly located on peripheral land far from workplaces, it also increases costs for commuting, particularly when gas prices soar. Hopefully the building industry will realize that liberating people from commuting in cars has market appeal. If they could see the potential of coordinating with public transit, people might insist that cities provide the needed transportation. Industry has the clout; city policy will follow the money.

Another deficiency of the suburbs is the absence of innovative site planning. The usual development process begins with land acquisition. The project is then turned over to civil engineers with instructions to fit as many sellable lots as possible onto the site and to lay out infrastructure accordingly. In terms of design, the results show little difference from plans made over a century ago. Regardless of occasional inserts of green spaces or parks, the orientation of individual lots and the layout of branching arterials and cul-de-sacs often show no environmental consideration or orientation to reap solar or wind benefits.

Additionally, though suburbs usually have a variety of services provided at local shopping centers, the mix of activities could be greater. Why not include small farms, clean manufacturing, and small-scale businesses in residential zones? They could be supported, if necessary, with lease subsides, all of which contribute to a vibrant layering of life activities. Their absence is part of the larger problem of conventional zoning that segregates use. And zoning is bound up in the fundamentals of financing and deadening repetition about maintaining property values by unidimensional use.

As long-term human survival itself comes increasingly under scrutiny, builders will need to review the basic issues of where and how people live—and change some of the fundamentals. Despite builders’ poor reputation in the eyes of urban-design critics, the suburbs of the future could benefit from the housing industry taking a more prominent role as innovator and incubator. The industry might also play a role in realizing affordable housing. According to Elizabeth Mueller, my colleague at the University of Texas, Austin helped fund 754 units of affordable housing in 2017, mainly through subsidies; other sources may augment the number. The mayor has stated the city needs 60,000 units of affordable housing to remain accessible to people with moderate salaries. But the city has no tools for generating housing at that scale. Meanwhile, the housing industry—with its range of national to regional to small builders—produced 16,000 units last year in the Austin metropolitan region. Other cities face the same dilemma. Seattle appears to want to tax its high-tech industry to fund affordability; the results are up in the air. Outside a few urban centers, the housing industry is providing the only large-scale alternative for affordable housing.

Depending on municipal governments is precarious; they tend to be under the thumbs of developers, bogged down in politics, or overwhelmed in updating damaged or out-of-date infrastructure. But cities might look at the production mechanisms of the housing industry if they really want to play effective roles in providing housing at the massive scale needed. In addition to reconceptualizing zoning, cities will need to consider that they may have physical limits of size and density. European cities have dealt with this for centuries, creating boundaries and applying green space outside them. Vienna’s urban success stems in part from its limits: Peripheral circulation marks the end of the city and start of a green belt of hills and vineyards. Medium-density development may turn out to provide more balance than high-density. Fixing cities’ size recasts the role of the suburb. And if the city reconceives and limits itself, the suburbs of the future could consider new models of housing, with industry leading the effort to define something beyond prefabs or mini-houses that have limited audiences.

Looking at the suburbs, therefore, provides a way of understanding a vast segment of the public without the need to endorse or slander their homes. Anthony Bourdain came to a similar conclusion after visiting the denizens of West Virginia: Judge not, but respect the choice of others. My personal taste doesn’t conform to the architecture of suburbs. I don’t uncritically condone how they look or function. I don’t choose to live there. But studying the suburbs has taught me how satisfying it can be for an architect to open a dialogue about how people live and to discuss the potential life available to them. That’s the foundation on which the future design of homes, cities, and communities should be built.

* This article previously misstated the rate at which homes were built in the prerecession boom.