The New Not-So-Big House

December 7, 2007

architecture

I just finished flipping through my New Old House magazine. I got it a few weeks ago (it’s the winter 2008 edition) but hadn’t gotten to it until now. An excellent article by Russell Versaci, Pennywise, got me very excited. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind for over fifteen years, ever since I became interested in homes and home-building.

Don’t build bigger, build smarter.

It sounds so… so…. simple, doesn’t it? But over the course of my time spent reading books and magazines on home building and improvements, and flipping through countless architectural books and designs, the McMansion– that banal behemoth of excess home-building and wasteful sprawl–was very alive and well, and growing.

I’d read an unusual book (for the time) many years ago, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live by Sarah Susanka. In it, she laments the bloated blueprints of modern housing, and prescribes building smaller, more efficient homes. Her book, published in 2000, is called “groundbreaking” by the publishers. That gives you an idea of when the push for efficient modern housing began– at least among designers and builders. Actually, I don’t think builders have even caught on yet.

Back to the Versaci article, I was impressed with some of his ideas about the “new” little house (not that they were new to me, but perhaps for some of his readers).

Home builders toting bulging portfolios of generic bloated McMansions have little to offer new arrivals who want smaller, more authentic homes. The five-bedroom, five-bath, 5,000 square foot behemoth is a relic of another idea. [yeah, Louis IV of old France!]

Living in Upstate New York watching the rich get richer and the poor get much poorer, I’ve noticed the change. Older houses (like mine) are crumbling, farmers are selling their land, and huge castle-sized homes built on the hilltops are gobbling up resources and crowding everyone else out. It sends the environment, the tax base, and the sense of community all awry. It is also interesting to note that rarely do these opulent five-bedroom homes house large families. Large families tend to be poorer, and have poorer and smaller houses. How ironic. And wasteful. And disrespectful of the rest of the community.

Now, old houses can be very inefficient and wasteful, too. Most of the houses in New York State– built before 1970, built even before 1900– were constructed in a era where “energy” meant wood fires for cooking and heating. Old houses waste resources, too. So don’t think I am holding the poor old homes at a nobler standard. However, modern home-building cannot claim any excuse for their excessive wastefulness except greed.

Well, Versaci continues and I nearly bowled over when I read the next few paragraphs:

Construction costs are out of control because builders are still using a delivery system that hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages. We still gather up sticks and stones, bring them to the job site, trudge through mud and snow, go up and down ladders, cut and hammer in the blazing sun or driving rain, and generally build like medieval house wrights. Stick bulding houses is expensive and outmoded. With the home-building industry in shambles, there must be a better way.

And there is! It’s something that was under the noses of rich city-slickers for decades, those Fifth Avenue architects who snubbed their noses at what was happening with the “little” people– the people who had to be efficient, who had to work smartly:

manufactured housing!

GASP! No! Say it isn’t so!

It’s the new wave of the future! Well, it is now that the Fifth Avenue architects have “discovered” it.

Here are my suggestions… look at systems of home delivery that offer a better alternative to stick building. I’m putting my money on factory prefabrication. One hundred years ago Sears, Roebuck & Company conceived the idea of a house in a box…. still prized by ther owners and coveted by home buyers.

…The fact is that America has a huge industry equipped for prefabrication. After touring a dozen plants, I am convinced that their standards meet or exceed those of stick building.

Yes, manufactured (or, “prefabricated”) housing is much more efficient. It isn’t terribly new, either. It was invented in the early 1900s by a company catering to middle-class families looking for comfortable middle-class homes in middle-class neighborhoods. But the building boom after World War II blew the home kit away. “Planned communities” began in cities like Levittown, and the plague spread to the rest of the country.

I believe that a lot of our traffic, stormwater, and property tax problems today stem from such “planned communities.” It is an idea whose funeral is deserved, in my opinion.

With the mortgage problems in this country (due to exponentially high consumer debt), the energy crunch, globalization policies like NAFTA and SPP that are killing our labor force and industry infrastructure, it is time– yea, past time– to end excessive waste and the glut of consumerism that infects our culture. From home-building to neighborhood planning to individual lifestyles, change is required. This is a critical time for our country. Can we really scale back and tighten the belt before more collapses?

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2 Responses to “The New Not-So-Big House”

  1. Fida Abbott Says:

    Mrs.Mecomber,

    What a nice visit from you. Thanks for your interest. I’d be pleasure to tell you about my country.

    Your Neighbor.
    Fida

  2. Mrs Mecomber Says:

    I look forward to reading about it! I’ll be perusing your blog again very soon. Don’t be a stranger at my blogs, either! šŸ˜‰ God bless.