Homebuilding Rebound… Or Boredom in the Burbs?

suburb with mystic clouds-iStock_000007874407XSmall.jpg

The economy might come back – but will the housing market return? And in what form?

Right now, builders are jumping into the low end of the market because of the $8,000 first time home buyer tax credit. This tax credit cannot survive indefinitely. Compared to homes sold in 2006, today's are bare bones in size, materials and finishes in response to current, temporary market conditions. But the scrimping only makes the homes built in yesterday’s developments more attractive to potential buyers. The next wave of home buyers will have a choice: stay where they are, move to a more recently built (devalued) home, or buy new.

Here's a rundown on the major factors — and the forces on them — that will guide home buyers in their decisions. It's also a rundown for any community, planner or developer — government or private sector — who would like to see the market rebound.

Lot Size: Will buyers want to be shoehorned into new compressed development, or will they prefer to remain in the larger lot suburbs, where there are plenty of bargains today with usable yards and at least some views?

The administration is pushing for compact (very dense) development, something the home buying market historically finds less desirable. If one hundred residents of a subdivision were asked the square footage of their lot, few would know the answer (more would be aware of their house's square footage). Homes placed close to the street guarantee a claustrophobic feeling of space. Space is defined by that object that stops viewshed – typically a home, wall (fence) or low vegetation.

Density is increased by the creation of narrower lots (and homes). When the lot narrows either the square footage of the house must plummet, or the home must get deeper. Assuming that facing directly into the home next door is not a quality view, the percentage of wall space that allows windows with a good view becomes very small as the home narrows.

To illustrate, take a business card and look especially at the long edges. The shape emulates the rectangular perimeter of a typical suburban home built in the past few decades. Now imagine nice front and rear yard spaces with plenty of wall surface for windows, even with a garage taking up a portion of the front.

Along comes the anti-sprawl movement pushing narrower lots, and making those on City Councils and Planning Commissions feel guilty about destroying the planet. Across America over the past two decades lots have been getting smaller – in some cases much smaller. Now take that business card and rotate it 90 degrees. This would represent the shape of a typical suburban home today.

Huh. Wouldn’t all those side windows now look into the neighbors home? Well, windows now are placed along the short side of the home. What about the garage? Well, typically that’s still along the front, but since cars did not suddenly get 33% narrower, occupants just lost quite a bit of precious viewing area. Density went up by 33% but useable yards went down by 33%.

Today we are building with much less width than we did during the past few decades. Yet the environmentalists and press do not seem to have taken notice.

What is most likely coming down the road?

Miniscule, very narrow lots combined with vertical growth. To illustrate, cut that business card in half. OK, so there goes the square footage right? Take one half and place it on top of the other. Well, it’s likely that the home was already two story, so that means three stories right? How much do you like climbing stairs? Better buy stock in residential elevator companies. So how do you park cars in this very narrow lot? If you do not want the street to appear as a solid wall of garage doors, then the only way to provide garage space is a single width garage, two stalls deep — another inconvenience — or a two car garage in the rear… but there goes any attempt for quality rear yard space.

Architecture: Suburban homes have been looking pretty bland for the past few decades. Slapping on a front porch (most are the size of a stoop) really doesn’t make that much difference.

Blame architects? An AIA registered, certified, artistically talented architect was not likely involved in the design process of the mass market home. It's far cheaper to let Harry down the street (nephew of what’s his name) to draw up plans. How do you think many small home builders get financed? If they go to a lumber yard and select from a series of home plans, they can get a package deal; materials and financing furnished by the same source, standard packages from which to choose. Any wonder why 30 home builders in the same town seem to all build the same character-free house?
Did the lumber yard hire a talented architect to gain advantage in the local market? What incentive do you think the supplier of the materials would have to actually be efficient in the drafting of the home? Excess material means increased profits!

Homes in suburbia lack character and devalue a community as a general rule, but it's not always the case. For example, in many areas in Texas, housing is affordable and full of architectural character with great landscaping. Builders in the major Texas markets know that if they shortcut curb appeal, nobody will clamor to their door. The local home buying market is astute… and today's strongest home market.

National large home builders? Most of the nationals expand into an area by buying out a local builder that showed signs of success (see above).

Green: Ask your banker how much green means to the value of a home. Ask the appraisal company, does green add any value? Green certification is commonly messy and difficult, requiring builders to chase points instead of building wisely. Most green standards were inspired by a social engineering agenda. My own certified green home earns me lots of points because I’m near a bus stop and walking distance to a coffee shop. No wonder the financial people don’t take the movement seriously. My residential elevator? Not listed on the “points” system. Home designed to maximize quality viewsheds? No points! We had intended to place a 1 ½ inch foam insulation fill around the entire foundation surface, but a 2 inch minimum was required to earn points . That increased the cost of construction by $900. I’m not an expert in insulation, but it seems I spent 30% more to get a 0.1% benefit on my utility bill – hell of a deal! That $900 extra added to my payments – let’s see with interest, that cost me $5.25 every month… got my point though.

Will the home market flourish when the economy returns?

In the last few weeks I was Keynote Speaker at the Western States Planning Association Annual Meeting and at the North Dakota American Institute of Architects.

Planners and Architects are very different groups. Ever wonder why the neighborhood plan and the architecture of the homes within it rarely seem related to each other? Nobody looks at mass market housing from a perspective of combined architectural spaces as a main component of the overall neighborhood design. The merging of planning and architecture on housing for the masses was well received by both groups.

How will we bring the housing market back?

Not by scrimping and reducing value, but by increasing value through a combined effort of architects, planners, and engineers to create a new era of sustainable communities that increase living standards affordably. Density is not a solution. A revolution in design is.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable. His website is rhsdplanning.com.

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eye of the beholder

Well, I for one would value the walking convenience of your home's location far more than the elevator. In fact, the elevator would be a liability. As for views, etc., those might add to the value of the home even if it doesn't show up with the green points. But what's your point there? The environmental bonuses aren't supposed to account for every selling point, are they?

People value different things, and I would bet that a lot of younger people are looking for more of the walkable, new urbanist feel, perhaps along with retirees. People without kids are working long hours and pretty much just come home to sleep and eat, so the yard is a handicap that will eat your time rather than give you any value.

bland architecture

I am a native of New Orleans, a city celebrated for its vernacular housing architecture.

Yet, the largest groups of homes are bracket shotguns, essentially rectangles with catalog bought victorian woodwork tacked on. What makes most of these homes the least bit interesting is that they are old.

The same could be said of many Greek Revival, Italiante, Classical Revival, and Arts & Crafts homes in the city. A few brackets, lattice work and turned columns and you have gems.

Of course, there are real gems in the city, along St. Charles Ave. and in the Garden District and even in some more bourgeois neighborhoods.

Frankly, it would not take much to turn a new narrow, pre-fabbed home into many a new Urbanist dream. Three turned columns, a few brackets, and some floor to ceiling shuttered windows and voila. Sure, it would add to the cost of a new home but produced in large quantities, these items would not be that expensive.

My point is, I guess, that mundane architecture for the everyday working man or lower middle class home is nothing new and the patina of age fools us into thinking it is.