In many parts of the country, we're running out of buildable land for single-family housing. The solution in my neck of the woods is the teardown or infill house. In some cases, it's a good thing—inferior housing disappears and more energy-efficient and commodious housing replaces it. But in most instances, the replacement house ignores the scale of the neighborhood, the style of adjacent housing, and the topography of the site. This is causing great controversy and emergency legislation in a number of townships and counties here in the Washington, D.C., area. Spurred largely by the size and height of these “McMansions,” we've had building moratoria and noteworthy dismissals of building department officials. It's nice to know someone cares.
But all the legislation in the world won't help regulate against bad taste or poor judgment. I recently toured a new speculative house in a pricey Washington suburb. Located within a top-rated school district, the house is on the market for $1.7 million. It's a perfectly nice house, with a reasonably modern floor plan and a pleasing elevation. The detached garage is at a polite remove from the house. And, you'll be happy to know, an architectural firm designed it. The firm does attractive work that's a notch up from the regular fare.
Of course, there's a punch line here. Approaching the house, I entered the brick front path on grade with the curb, walked a few feet, stepped down a few steps, continued a few strides more, then walked up a step to a brick landing, and then up another step to the brick-floored front porch. Across, down, across, up, and up again. Hmmm. This is very odd, I thought. My suspicions were confirmed when I toured the first floor and basement. The family room and kitchen (which span the rear of the house) overlook a shallow backyard, but you have to go out a side door in the kitchen, down some stairs, and walk along the driveway to get to it. What, was this suddenly 1935? The basement was no better; just a basic egress stair there too. Obviously, this house, although handsome, was not designed for this site.
Eager to cram as much house as possible on this lot, the builder ran out of room for a rear deck or other tiered segue from the family room to the yard. And he didn't hire the plan architect to solve the problems for him. Suddenly, a perfectly nice house on paper becomes squandered potential on site.
A similar scenario is happening on a “custom” house project near me. The owner of a rare double lot in our older neighborhood bought an impressive, architect-designed house plan and hired a builder to execute it for him. Trouble is, the builder sited it on the flat, but low, spot of the sloped site. Guess no one was planning for a swimming pool in the basement.
We have to find ways to deliver better-designed houses to more people at a more affordable price point. And plans have great potential. So do prefabricated houses. But as we run out of flat pads for such houses, we're faced with a grim truth: There are no shortcuts to fitting the house to the site. Architects can't forget this in their admirable rush to tackle the problem of mediocre market-rate housing. A better house is just half the battle.
Comments? Call: 202.736.3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.