As I write this, I've just returned from the National Association of Home Builders' annual trade show and conference. Held in Atlanta, the International Builders' Show drew an estimated 75,000 of the best and the brightest professionals in the housing industry—one of the largest three industries in the United States. By most measures, it was one of the most successful home-building conventions since the '80s. So, why did I come back with a little dark cloud over my head? Sigh. I just wish the houses were prettier.
This jamboree came on the heels of some of the best years ever—for builders and architects. Much of the good fortune happened at the high end: house sizes ballooned and options lists swelled, as many buyers paid cash at closing. With all this money floating around, you'd think the houses would look better. They don't.
At first, I despaired. If we can't pull off decent-looking houses in boom times, how on earth can we do it in leaner years? Then I had a little epiphany: The problem isn't not enough money for good design; the problem is too much money. Despite Sarah Susanka's plea in her book The Not So Big House, houses are still getting bigger. Even empty nesters and retirees are trading up in square footage and home price, contrary to all predictions. And the bigger and more expensive the house, the uglier it tends to be. This is true not only for production housing, but for most high-end custom housing, as well.
It's easy and fashionable to blame builders for these egregious McMansions. Certainly part of the problem is their so-called "value engineering," where builders knock as much money out of the design as they can, while delivering such customer favorites as big rooms, fancy appliances, and sumptuous bathrooms. But the embarrassing truth is that residential architects are also to blame. For high-end homes, most builders hire architects or buy house plans designed by architects. Yes, in many cases, architects designed those McMansions. How could that be?
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First of all, large houses are much more difficult to design than smaller ones, even if you have a vast budget at your disposal. Where most go astray is in trying to mitigate size by adding detail--projecting volumes, changing roof lines, piling on the whole window catalog. Quite a few 1920s robber barons ended up with rococo monstrosities after their architects borrowed big-house details from Europe's palaces.
In the merchant-housing realm, we simply have no stylistic antecedents for the really big house. Hence, architects have again borrowed from palaces—Mizner's Palm Beach mansions, McKim Mead & White's sprawling Shingle houses and their appended Colonial Revivals. Trouble is, the styles are watered down to meet builders' profit margins, smaller lot sizes, and contemporary tastes in floor plans. During that watering down process, all sorts of errors in proportion occur. After all, how many McKim Mead & Whites are there? And that's the real problem: Builders are building and architects are designing beyond their ability to deliver. The big-house-on-a-budget is here to stay. We need some better ideas about how to do it right.