Suburban Design: Square Peg In A Round Hole

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Remember that Fisher Price toy – “Baby's First Blocks”? It was supposed to teach us one of life's first lessons: Place a square shape in a square hole, and a round shape in a round hole. We're supposed to understand this idea before we learn to say our first words, or to walk. Yet in the development of our neighborhoods, we have put that square shape into every hole, no matter what the shape of that hole.

In past centuries land was primarily developed with one pattern – the grid — because it was simple to calculate the geometry and stake out in the field. No matter what you have read about the “town square” and the advantages of the “grid pattern”, the reason for the grid was simply that it sidestepped the painstaking task of manually calculating the land development plat when curves were involved. Forested areas were routinely clear-cut, and swamps (today’s wetlands) were filled in. Those were the days during which development was straight-forward and simple: develop land while destroying what nature provided on the soil. Natural topography, which is certainly not based upon the grid, was bulldozed into oblivion.

In the 1960’s, newer forms of site design became commonplace, primarily in the exploding suburban landscape that rose after urban-core riots fueled what was then known as “White Flight”. This newer form of design introduced more curved patterns. Unlike the grid, the occasional curve broke up the monotony, and submitted site plans began to look more interesting. These new patterns were the start of a desire to follow the natural shape of the terrain.

But in the 1960s we did not have an awareness of the environmental damage of development that we posses today. As automation in computations, drafting, and land surveying technology began to reduce the workload of non-gridded designs, the curved pattern became more commonplace. This transition is easily seen by visiting any city's land records and looking at the changes in land development patterns of recorded plats since World War II.

For decades, the curved patterns were designed by individuals who concentrated on density goals by squeezing every hundredth of a foot allowed by ordinance. Curved streets conform to the random contours of nature much better than the grid, and the curved pattern, if correctly designed, can be extremely efficient while delivering connectivity for vehicles and pedestrians. That is, if the land planner knows how to design these systems. But patterns that would harness any delivered vehicular and pedestrian connectivity were not part of the plan. Without concentrating on harnessing the curved patterns to create functional traffic systems, so-called “land planners” — and anyone can still become a land planner simply by adding the term 'land planning' to their business card — provided plenty of ammunition to the New Urbanism movement's attacks on curved design.

In any case, with the use of curved patterns land development broke away from sole use of the monolithic square shape, and introduced two new primary shapes: An inner pie shaped lot and an outer pie shaped lot. For more than a half century, these three basic shapes have defined the majority of the growth pattern for American development.

These three basic shapes have been the foundation on which we have built millions upon millions of new homes. We have been placing that square shaped home in the triangular hole as if one of the first lessons we were taught was meaningless. Those toy blocks were supposed to teach us to take advantage of the shapes in life that we are offered. Apparently the architectural community, as well as the building industry, ignored this opportunity, until now.

Home builders large and small have used the same basic shape, as if all lots were only rectangular. Even homes that have garage snouts and are often anything but rectangular in shape are set by civil engineers with a house “pad” that is based on the square. I’m pretty sure most of these engineers were brought up with the Baby's First Blocks, or something similar. Forcing a square shape into a triangle shape results in a bigger triangle than need be, or making the square much smaller than necessary. In other words, we have built a quite inefficient world for over half a century.

In an effort to create a more sustainable world, we are developing new methods to design neighborhoods. Part of the effort to eliminate the tremendous waste in land development has been to reassess architecture as part of the overall function of the neighborhood. This became much more critical as we developed Performance Planning System, which was created to teach sustainable development design methods. It quickly became apparent that there was a tremendous void in the opportunities to incorporate new forms of architecture, especially in developments with curved patterns.

The square home that fits on the square lot does not offer much real opportunity for change. But the other two basic shapes invite new efficiency and value to the home buyer, critical in this down housing market. Homes that are shaped to fit on the inside of the curve can be wider in the front...much wider. This results in a home that does not have to be as deep, essentially making the rear area useable as well because of extra rear yard depth, while providing the same useable square footage. The extra width makes the garage less prominent, and creates much more viewable area from within the home that looks out on the larger rear yard and the streetscape. The home that's wider in the front allows a bigger porch area and greater opportunity to tie living areas to the street. Less of the side of the home is exposed, and the streetscape becomes more attractive, enhancing that all-important curb appeal.

The outer side of a curved shape is the opposite pie shape. In this case we can create a stronger tie to the larger rear yard (the outer curves have larger rear yards than a rectangular lot). Like the inner pie, there is more width opportunity to create a home that maintains a target square footage, yet is less deep, again creating an ever larger useable rear yard.

Perhaps even more important is that we can use these new patterns either to make larger homes, to create larger, more useable yards, or to create non-rectangular pad shapes that adhere to the letter of the law (ordinance regulations) while gaining density and reducing neighborhood sprawl. Actually we can easily accomplish all three!

So what do the home builders think? In this down economy there is little opportunity to for trends to develop, but in almost all cases where we have promoted this idea builders have embraced it. These developers have included one of the largest home builders in North America, and one of the most respected in Texas.

The amount of waste we can eliminate by using the lessons that were supposed to be taught with our First Blocks is enormous. And it comes just in time to give builders that extra edge in today's tough market.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are and

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Useless without names

"These developers have included one of the largest home builders in North America, and one of the most respected in Texas."

No names = just more BS

Dave Barnes