Archive | January 2014

Housing: Do We Really Have a Choice?

One of the biggest myths of the homebuilding industry is that it offers choice to its buyers.  When it comes to the big builders like D.R. Horton, Pulte, Lennar, and the like, choice means picking carpet and countertop colors.  It means choosing between floor plans with names like The Cypress or The Carissa.  Do you want the dark grey roof or the dark brown one?  A white garage door or an off-white one?

Builders assume that would-be homeowners aspire to single-family homeownership, and that most every buyer wants the 50-foot-wide lot with the grassy skirt and the large garage fronting the cul-de-sac.  And developers understand that gated garden-style apartments are but a stepping stone on the way to those sprinkler-soaked lawns and greyed wood privacy fences lined side-by-side.  Thus, the only way to profitably build these sprawling homes and disorienting complexes is to find large tracts of green space far from any downtown or major activity center.

The truth is that very few builders offer any real choice.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of working with one of these guys, did they let you change the façade to match the look of that historic Craftsman bungalow you always dreamed about?  Did they let you tuck the garage to the rear of the home, so that you’d pull up to a front porch instead?  Would they have added solar panels to the roof if you wanted them to?  My guess is, probably not.

There is so much variety in housing throughout the world that it’s a real shame Americans have standardized it to sterility.  One of the beauties of walking through neighborhoods like Old Town Alexandria or San Antonio’s King William District is that every home is different.  Large two-story Colonials stand next to modernist cubes and small pre-war apartment buildings, each in strange harmony with one another.  In European cities it’s not uncommon to see single-family row homes adjacent to apartment buildings, hotels, shopping, or even museums.

Stateside, we do have a few examples of creativity—if not relics—in the realm of housing.  There are communities of clustered cottages, like Greenwood Avenue Cottages in Seattle or Terrace Gardens in Waco.  While most of these residents get to enjoy the privacy afforded by detached units, small as they may be, they share communal green space with vegetable gardens as well as areas for grilling and eating that allow them to live much larger than their 400 to 800 square feet would suggest.  In older neighborhoods you’d probably also find small apartments hidden above garages or in the backyards of larger homes.

Image(An aerial photo of Terrace Gardens in Waco, Texas.  Source: Google Maps)

Here in Austin, where regulations have been more favorable to less traditional housing development, it’s not uncommon to see new duplexes built back-to-back on formerly single-family lots.  Even new accessory dwelling units (those garage apartments or backyard cottages I mentioned) are permitted in some of our core neighborhoods.

Sadly, though, these fringe development types remain much more expensive to build than what’s currently coming off assembly lines in the far suburbs.  Not only that, much of this nontraditional housing is illegal to build or to borrow money for, causing us to settle for “communities” that feel about as generic as store-brand cola.  This reality has forced some to think outside the proverbial (and sometimes literal) box, bolstering niche submarkets like small lot subdivisions (as in Los Angeles) and microhousing—complete homes that could fit within the footprint of a single standard bedroom.

Thankfully, though, demographic shifts are beginning to force the big guys to look at adapting their standards.  Much in the way Target’s urban format stores have forced the hand of Walmart in downtowns, builders like D.R. Horton and Lennar are also shifting slightly, adding smaller townhomes and houses with in-law apartments to its core product lineup.

The good news is there’s so much more room for innovation.

What does housing choice look like to you?  In what ways to do you think our top homebuilders could better adapt to the varied housing needs of our current and future population, both in central cities and close-in suburbs?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments section or on Twitter at @crlazaro.

Which Matters More: The View or the Architecture?

Which matters more: the view or the architecture?

Depending on whether you’re a high-profile architect, residential homebuilder, or a planner, your answer to the above question may vary.  As an architect you might say that the physical form of the building is most important—even if you refuse to admit it.  If you’re building a residential space, like a typical single-family home, perhaps you’d claim the layout of its interior is more likely to affect the lifestyle of its inhabitants; thus, interior design would be more important than architecture.  An urban planner may look at exterior architecture with more regard than the building’s interior design, but would caution that design is subservient to its role as a place in relationship with the greater community.

An article entitled, “Seduced by the View,” deals with this issue in a very practical sense.  Its author reports that as many as 6 in 10 residents of high rise buildings keep their windows covered, despite originally being sold on the sweeping views afforded by the floor-to-ceiling glass.  If that’s true, why in an age of LEED building and ever-tightening energy standards are we building skyscrapers covered in a material with the insulating value of cardboard?  I guess as any viewer of HGTV’s House Hunters knows, it’s all about location, location, location natural light.  (Well, that and granite countertops.)

But, at least if you choose to leave the windows uncovered you will have those spectacular views.  That is, if you can uncover the windows…

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Take a look at this house in Bryan, Texas.  Compared with most of what’s being built in suburban America today, this one looks relatively attractive.  However, in the name of architecture, this home has been given two large windows on the front façade that are completely invisible from the home’s interior.  Because the stairs to the second story are right behind those windows, they’ve instead been covered with black paper and walled off.  The worst part is that when I last saw the home in person it was still for sale—and the paper had begun to peel away from the windows with no easy way of getting in to fix the problem.   But, hey, at least the home’s got an alley-loaded garage and a front porch.

Homebuilders and architects must agree that it’s important we meet somewhere in the middle of these extremes.  Saving our cities (whether urban or suburban) isn’t just about building a product; it’s about creating spaces that enhance communities—inside and out.  As I hope we’re beginning to learn, covering skyscrapers in glass curtains does little to enhance the quality of life for its inhabitants.  Building false windows to give the impression of balance also does no one any favors.  Put more plainly, building at either extreme is nothing less than lazy.

I guess you could always just pretend that there are windows on the building, like in this example from China.

Ridiculous Roads

After reading this biting accusation against TxDOT and how the design of today’s roads is like making us eat “every meal with a chainsaw,” my mind was taken back to some of the amazingly oversized roads I’ve come across since landing in Texas more than five years ago.

Take a look at this subdivision called Trails of Oak Ridge, located on the outskirts of Waco, Texas:

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At the time of this aerial photo fewer than 30 homes have been built, and it seems designed for maybe another 30 or so houses.  How wide would you expect a street inside the Trails of Oak Ridge to be?  Probably not this wide:

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According to my measurements using Google Maps, that’s about 80 feet of paving, curb-to-curb.  That’s wide enough for 18-wheelers and fire trucks to do donuts in front of your house.  Imagine the possibilities.  To put that into perspective, nearby Hewitt Drive—a 4-lane arterial road with a center turn lane—has 80 feet of paving, including shoulders.  Heck, five freeway lanes and two shoulders could fit in 80 feet!  Yet, we’re building roads like this to serve the residents of 60 homes?  Just notice all the cracks in the road that have been patched since the road was built about five years ago.

Further down the road, at the Shavano Ridge subdivision in Northwest San Antonio, you’ll see much of the same.  Here’s the street view on Rogers Parkway:

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Paving here is more slender, at about 40 feet; but, when you consider that parking along this road is against HOA rules, and is grounds for having your car towed, even 40 feet seems excessive.  You could almost fit four lanes of traffic along this road—not that you’d ever need to.  There are about 360 homes in this neighborhood, and about a third of those residents would likely never use this road.

In contrast, places like Pressler Street in Austin (25 feet paved), Suffolk Avenue in College Station (25 feet paved), and Normandy Avenue in Alamo Heights (28 feet paved) all manage to survive in some of those Texas cities’ most desirable neighborhoods.  And if you venture to older U.S. cities like Boston, Providence, Charleston, Chicago, or Washington, many of their residential streets are just as narrow. 

Of course there’s always the other extreme: the narrowest named street in the world—in England—is 25 inches wide.  Try pushing your Ford Excursion down that one.  Or even just the driver’s seat.

The point is not merely to point out the ridiculous waste of space these streets take, though that is part of it.  Rather, many a planning department actually requires that developers build these behemoths in the name of safety, and at what cost? Added maintenance expenses? Excessive impervious surfaces leading to more flash flooding? Residential roads designed so that cars will drive 40 miles per hour?

It’s time to push back against this excess, not only in the name of safety and environmental stewardship, but for saving the concept of place.  I mean, do any of those photos above look like a place you want to linger?  I doubt it.  Rethinking road design as a means of creating character and identity will not only make neighborhoods like Trails at Oak Ridge and Shavano Ridge more appealing, they also slow traffic making them safer for children and anyone else on the street.