Why Build New at All?

Thinking about how homes work together  is key to the future of suburban communities. How can these neighborhoods become denser, more walkable and less resource-intensive?

Proposed community of ‘shotgun’ houses by San Antonio-based design firm Lake Flato

ALLISON ARIEFF’S AGENDA is showing. In her recent New York Times column,“Shifting the Suburban Paradigm,” Arieff took on the dismal prospects for the single-family home, longtime standard-bearer of the American dream.

With Lake Flato's partially prefabricated Porch House, traditional vernacular architecture is more about functionality, less about decoration.

Pre-fab shotgun-style Porch House by Lake Flato

New home sales are in the toilet and have been for years. (Existing home sales are generally a bit better.) Arieff pulls no punches in calling these new homes — the same sheetrock con- struction from coast to coast, whether in the Arizona desert or the pine barrens of New Jersey — flimsy, ugly, and wasteful, “the same dumb box with a stage set of a façade tacked onto the front.” What’s more, no one can afford them. And all the developers can do is come up with wrong-headed marketing gimmicks to try and move their product, rather than considering any approach involving a different kind of planning or design.

Perhaps they are giving consumers what they want, to judge by the 150+ comments I read,  many defending the right to a house with front lawn and back patio. Arieff thinks what will be needed going forward is multi-family housing and smaller, greener, more energy-efficient homes in walkable suburban communities. That makes sense to me.

Dedicating millions to creating a better consumer experience for purchasing high-end single-family homes (like this one by Blu Homes) doesn't help address the real crisis in housing the U.S. is facing.

High-end new construction by Blu Homes is only a sliver of a sliver of the market

But I gritted my teeth as I read, because Arieff mentions only solutions involving new construc- tion (one a strange-looking brick number, below, and a vernacular-style shotgun house in the South that many Times commenters swore they’d never live in). The word renovation — the whole subject of fixing up older housing — never came up. Fix-ups are not Arieff’s bailiwick. She was the founding editor of Dwell magazine and a promoter of modern architecture, which can’t move forward artistically if people don’t build new.

But why did only one comment mention fixing up older houses as the greenest solution? Arieff throws out a shocking figure; she says 50% of ALL waste comes from the home-building industry. Can that be!? If so, we’d really better re-think this whole situation. Maybe the answer is not building more NEW-but-smaller, more energy-efficient homes. Maybe the answer is to STOP building new homes altogether for a while, and put all labor and resources into improving and inhabiting the ones that are already there. Of course, I don’t for a minute think that’s going to happen.

KB Homes' new ZeroHouse 2.0 is a step in the right direction on sustainability. But energy efficiency should be standard, not part of a home-design options package. Image courtesy KB Homes.

KB Houses model: energy-efficient but ugly

What to do with all the monster houses from the ’80s and ’90s sitting unsold on the market? Do they even have any intrinsic value, let alone market value? I don’t have any answers, only questions.

I do agree heartily with Arieff’s bottom line: “We’re beyond the point of a fresh coat of paint and a new sales pitch. If we’re going to continue to hold on to the single-family home, we need to transform it.”

4 thoughts on “Why Build New at All?

  1. Loved, loved what you wrote about the new ugly structures that are polluting our planet . And yes, let’s stop the madness and utilize what we have – old beautiful life-affirming homes that speak to people’s dignity. There is enough to go around. Brilliant solution. Brilliant article!
    You rock!

  2. The issue is, there is not enough to go around, not even close. Despite the severity of the housing market, there is still a need to design and build new homes. In looking at population growth and the estimates of the housing stock needs by 2020, right now there are not enough lots being planned and developed to meet the demand.

    New home construction has to happen, the population is growing and regardless of how many homes are on the market, the number that sit empty is a fraction of the % of whats needed.

    Conventional home building hasn’t changed in 30+ years, mainly because builders are still making money and have little to no incentive to try new and innovative things. Unfortunately, architects touch an extreamly small percentage of residential construction, 5%-10%. Despite of the negative stigma that has attached to mass produced homes and developments, they continue to be built by the hundreds of thousands every year, mostly without an architects involvement. Part of the reason for this is that mass produced residential design frequently suffers from emotional bias, ignorance and for the lack of a better description, professional denial.

    While there are a handful of builders who are looking at new ways to construct homes, it is going to take builders and architects working together to beat out 30 years of entrenched practices.

  3. Thanks for weighing in, gdesmit. Very depressing, if what you say is true — that architects design only a tiny fraction of new homes. And not all of those are GOOD architects! Dreadful state of affairs. I question the assertion that we need many more new homes, anyway. The homes people have been building for decades now are way too big for the number of people they house. Maybe some of them can be reconceived as multi-units (just a thought!) Personally, I would rather see adaptive reuse of existing buildings than more ugly, lousy, cheap, un-green new construction.

  4. Cara,

    I spent two years researching this when I was working on my Masters. The more I read, the more I was depressed and adamant about coming up with a solution. If you’re up for some light reading, click through to page 46 (book page 36) and check out the housing data for the last 60+ years.

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