My mother wrote about housing from the early 1950s in Tennessee until the new millennium in Washington, D.C. She covered mid-century modern housing in its heyday, much of it done by local heroes—such as Bruce McCarty and Felder Weeks in Knoxville, and Charles Goodman and Don Lethbridge in D.C. The most vivid period in my memory of her work was the 1970s. Then, she was writing about an amazing number of experiments in housing for The Washington Post—from foam homes and rammed earth to geodesics and yurts—and, of course, solar and other energy-savers. Back then, modern subdivision houses were actually designed, built, and bought.
All that bounty and buzz was happening within a relatively small envelope. In the ’70s, the average American house topped out at 1,700 square feet. And, as architects who do remodeling work nowadays know, many of those houses were quite “lightly built”—to use the polite term.
Even great cars were lightly built back then, with few required safety components. The famed BMW 2002 cost less than $5,000 and weighed just 2,200 pounds. Its present-day successor, the 3 series sedan, is double the weight and a foot longer. It’s laden with safety features—and runs upward of $40,000 with just a few options.
Houses today are suffering similar bloat. Although our average family size dropped from 3.1 in 1970 to 2.6 in 2007, our houses expanded to more than 2,500 square feet and they’re built on an average lot of more than 17,000 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Another study estimates that developed land for single-family homes nearly doubled in cost from 1985 to 2008 in 46 metropolitan areas. During the same stretch, construction costs per square foot rose 30 percent. It’s true that today’s houses are more feature-full—with more levels, fireplaces, bathrooms, and garage stalls as standard offerings. But pile on all the new codes and zoning requirements, and our housing is saddled with some staggering imbedded costs. Even without the insanity of financial bubbles.
Some of our current predicament stems from consumer expectations. Why do all houses now have to have granite counters? And stainless steel appliances the size of small aircraft? And why are these worth more to home buyers than paying architects adequately for their services? They no longer have tolerance for the humble finishes we all lived with for years—laminate, linoleum, vinyl. Indeed, a frightening number of people would opt to live in a lackluster tract house, as long as inside it they could find the floor plan and finishes they crave. No wonder home equity is at its lowest level since 1985.
For the most part, we do build better, safer houses these days, but we’ve also burdened them with unsustainable appurtenances and impossible densities. Based on predictions from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, we’ll see an exponential increase in housing needs in the next 10 to 15 years, but we’ll find them in the areas of affordable housing, single households, and accessible dwellings—areas we’ve sorely neglected while chasing the fertile, agile wealthy. Maybe we need to reacquaint ourselves with the ’70s way of building. Once more with feeling—and a touch more durability, please.Comments? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.