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.”