The role of chairperson of the AIA Housing Committee has allowed me to meet and speak with residential architects from across the country about housing design and community-related issues. While I have seen some of the nation's best new communities, I have also been struck by the great schism that divides residential architects from the built environment. I contend that there is a better way for architects, planners, engineers, builders, developers, and consumers to collaborate in order to make better places--places that provide a richer quality of life yet maintain pro forma standards that make them viable to build.
Many new developments seem to be composed of a collection of housing "product" that has been haphazardly strewn across a barren landscape. Other developments are more orderly, but are composed of cookie-cutter houses marching endlessly along unarticulated streets. These places depress me. They are rootless environments that reflect nothing of their history or location. They could be anywhere! There's no evidence of the integration of sound planning principles or responsive architecture. There's not even a notion that any thought was given to the lives of the people who live there.
It's unfortunate the architectural profession has missed out on the opportunity to define good neighborhoods and places to live. Architects have ignored the merchant-built housing market. It's time we as residential architects and planners work with home builders and developers to take a hard look at the places that have been created. We should be determined to do better than propagate sprawl.
There is a public perception that architects serve the elite, designing only extravagant custom homes for those who can afford them. Indeed, a large portion of the home buying public goes largely unserved by architects.
These consumers must simply accept what's built for them. They select their houses by comparing what they cost per square foot, because "all new houses are pretty much the same." They regard architects' services as a luxury. But it doesn't have to be so. With proper experience, talent, and knowledge of the housing market, architects can create greater value through quality design. Those of us involved in the implementation of new communities that are successful functionally, aesthetically, and economically know that the home buying public can be better served.
It's not an easy task we've been given: Design functional houses that are efficient to build in the middle of a former cow pasture for unknown residents! Where does one begin to create community with those conditions? I believe the process begins with knowledge, exploration, anticipation, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. It takes an understanding of what has gone before; the observance of what works and what doesn't (and why); a blending of technology and practical building solutions; and a deep desire to improve the quality of life for the families that will live in these new communities. From the initial conceptualization, the complete and total integration of planning, architecture, building technology, infrastructure, services, and utilities needs to be considered. We cannot design homes or create land plans in a vacuum. All of the components must work together.
How can an architect who claims he "does residential work" say in the next breath, "but I don't do planning"? The two work hand in hand. A land planner, engineer, or architect who does not understand the nuances of merchant-built houses should not be planning new towns or communities. I've never designed a hospital, and if asked, I would recommend the project to other architects, or at least collaborate in an effort to best serve the client and end user. Without collaboration or teaming, I would not know what I was doing. Sure, I could read a few books and visit several hospitals, but that would not make me an expert. The doctors and patients in "my hospital" would surely suffer from my lack of experience and knowledge.
Fitting the Pieces
Planners, architects, builders, and developers need to be well-versed in the subtleties and details of how all the pieces fit together. As an example, consider this scenario: You have an 80-foot lot width, requiring 15-foot side-yard setbacks. That means there will be 30 feet between houses. Now, what does a homeowner do with 15 feet of side yard, besides just cut the grass and pull his shades for privacy? What if the spacing between homes remained 30 feet, but the side-yard setback on Lot A was 5 feet and on Lot B it was 25 feet? This commonsense solution gives you something to work with. (See plan diagram, left.) Instead of two useless 15-foot side yards, you gain a usable dimension for a side patio or garden with privacy. The homes can be designed to maximize this "found" space and ultimately create value for the home buyer--and the builder.
Ultimately, the long-range success and value of a community depends on the information and research upon which the project is based; a vision that is consistent in its intent; and the tools to properly implement that vision. A good land plan does not create a wonderful neighborhood if the design of the homes, services, utilities, and other related buildings does not reflect the intent of the plan. Good architecture does not save a bad land plan, and a good land plan does not guarantee quality architecture.
As architects, we have been trained to look at situations not as problems, but rather as opportunities for creative solutions. Unfortunately, that architectural training has tended to concentrate on housing solutions that are "one of a kind." This nation's housing market demands many more variations. Architects can use their creative talent and special problem-solving skills to devise practical, marketable, and aesthetically pleasing solutions to this dilemma.
Architects, together with builders and developers, can learn from each other to create better communities. This is not an either/or proposition. We need all parties involved in the home building and design industry to work toward commonsense solutions. Jointly, we can do better, but architects can no longer ignore this segment of the built environment.