How Tough Times May Lead to Better Architecture

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By Richard Reep

While Ben Bernanke fantasizes about the Recovery, most people in the building industry – especially in overbuilt Florida – will correct this gross error immediately and emphatically. The recession may be over for the Fed Chairman, but unemployment in the design and construction professions is probably in the 25-30% range, matching that of the Great Depression.

Even so, tiny glimmers of light shine in what many design professionals call the “microeconomy” of building – small commercial renovations, house additions, tenant improvements, and other projects normally too small to even be counted. Although they lack the whallop, or the profits of big stuff – hotels, hospitals, or new towns – these do count, and are anecdotally turning towards local vernacular design and even contemporary architectural design as a strategy to beat the system, possibly pointing the way for the future.

Architectural styles are a slow-moving parade of fashions, too often divorced from climate, regional characteristics, or the cultural backgrounds of those who choose them. For most commercial and residential architecture that sprang up around neighborhoods, a mix of Victorian and Spanish Mediterranean styles seemed to be universally implemented by developers trying to please the largest quantity of people in the shortest period of time. Homes with terra cotta tiles and beige arches seemed to lurk behind bland Victorian Main Streets that sprouted everywhere from Montana to Alabama, betrayed by skin-tight fixed windows and paper-thin detailing. As branding elements, these styles nationalized what was once regional and climate-specific design.

Once again, we seem to be repeating history. In the 1870s and 1880s, suburbs began in many cities, and for the first time homeowners could choose custom-designed houses rather than production homes. Relative peace and prosperity begat a rush to consumerism matched only by our recent ambitions, and the Victorians became well known for an architecture and interior design style that promoted fussy detailing, the display of ornate and exotic materials, and homes overlaid with a frenzy of patterned wood siding, stained glass, carved woodwork, and high-pitched rooflines so that even the roof shingles could be a place to show off wealth. Furniture makers and material suppliers invented new products to feed the demand for consumer goods.

Yet this all crashed right at the turn of the 20th century, mostly because of the economic transitions suffered going back to the Panic of 1893. Suppressed until that time, modernism came out as a style in the Edwardian era that was much more sensitive to the modest budgets of homeowners building in the 20th century. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, whose career was famously independent of the vagaries of fashion, conceded that affordability was part of the appeal of his style – his “usonian” architecture reveled in simplicity and he took low-budget commissions to prove that good design need not be cluttered with doodads.

Today, after a similar consumerist run-up, residential architecture is suffering from a similar hangover, as we recover from the granite countertops and carved stone lions of the pre-recession era. These egregious displays of affluence may be gone for a long, long time. But people are still going about the business of adjusting their homes and businesses to suit their needs – and there is a steady microeconomy of residential and small commercial construction.

Cost, however, is the single overriding factor in most small projects today, and a focus on localism favors the budget. For one thing, a region’s vernacular style usually responds best to the climate, and typically employs materials that can be locally sourced – no stone from Chinese quarries is necessary. In Florida, for example, the vernacular style suspends the floor over a crawl space and includes deep roof eaves extending over the walls – both in response to the combination of harsh sun and heavy rains that task the building envelope. The benefit of this style is lower construction cost (gone are all the elaborate carved woodworking pieces, the high rooflines with multiple dormers and turrets) and also lower energy costs.

Other clients are waking up to the simple fact that contemporary architecture costs less. Like the Edwardians before who developed a taste for the modern, owners building homes and additions in today’s economy have a newfound simplicity in their styles. With a few choice materials around the entry, some simple, strong lines, and a restrained approach to details, contemporary architecture is making a comeback in the residential market. Midcentury modern, a residential style all but forgotten in the McMansion era, was particularly suited to the returning GIs after World War 2 who desired a home but possessed the most modest of budgets. This affordability is the key driving factor to the rise of this style, and is also a naturally “green” architectural style because of what it does without. Modernist Mies Van Der Rohe’s dictum “less is more” can mean here that less ornament and fussy detailing means more money in the owner’s pocketbook at the end of the day.

Even more interestingly, house additions and remodeling still seems to exist in this economy. Owners are taking advantage of the construction market’s reduced material costs, are building in more home offices, and enlarging their homes to accommodate a multigenerational lifestyle – parents living at home, or grown children living at home. Larger family clusters within single residences point to reduced mobility, and an evolving, relatively easy re-densification of suburbs that have been winnowed by a plethora of empty nesters.

This new respect for budget has some naturally green outcomes, as families cluster together to save money and energy, and home offices save commuting. By adapting a home in a budget conscious way, taking advantage of vernacular architecture and developing a taste for simple, clean design, many owners are unconsciously working with sustainable strategies already. If sustainability means the preservation of future generation’s choices, then by conserving money and aggregating closer together, owners have already implemented their own sustainability policy.

Green design should be seen as a grassroots response to the local climate, rather than a prescriptive code forced down from above. And it can produce a magnificent architecture in a timeless style. No federal program or international design guru can impact this like the microeconomy; instead people are making pragmatic choices, and once again discovering that the local vernacular architecture has a lot of good, commonsense clues about how to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

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It is a traditional house

It is a traditional house yet its modern architecture is broad, which brings the house in its unique appearance. Try see this, this matches the house style.

Just like when it comes to

Just like when it comes to being a critic of a movie, car design, or a piece of clothing I too can criticize a Mcmansion.All I can say is that the Southeast where I'm from has an enormous amount of these gigantic houses being built. They gets slapped up in a few months, stapled together using foam core insulation and fiber board that turns into oatmeal if it gets wet. Most of the primarily Northeastern newcomers who buy these are from other states and think the typical $250,000-$300,000 these go for is chump change. The worst part in my opinion is that about 90% of these houses are about as bland and uninteresting as you could get.

I grew up in rural East TN. I'm only 32 years old and when I was young most of what I saw around me was as it had been for generations. Now its all swallowed up in a sea of urban sprawl, Mcmansion developments, and big box chain stores that long ago drove out all the local business.

Many of these new houses are grossly inefficient. 1/4 of the house is wasted with a huge foyer that takes up both floors, which is ridiculous given the cost of having to heat and cool both floors 100% of the time.

As for us, we're pretty old fashioned. We actually make a good income but I'd rather spend as little as possible for a house that satisfies our needs.

All I can say is that when I visit home, its pretty disgusting to see what's happened. Rampant, overblown, unchecked growth. I realize I am being extremely cynical because where I live now on the West Coast nobody can afford anything unless you're rich because all the people who got their first won't allow anyone to build anything. That to me is just as bad as the South being turned into a never-ending sea of Mcmansions.

Lastly, its interesting to note that the level of general contentment in the US has actually gone down as home size has increased. I think the expansion in home sizes only covers up an underlying level of societal dissatisfaction people in the US have which likely comes from the decentralization and disappearance of more conventional close-knit communities.

I for one would just like to see smaller homes.

Its interesting to note that in 1957, the level of general contentment in the US was higher than it had ever been. We have yet to match that level afterwards. The average American home was 700 square feet. The typical family owned a single car, a single TV set, and a single radio. Perhaps the socioeconomic conditions had something to do with this happiness, but its interesting to me to see that the larger houses have gotten, the less content people have gotten.

As mentioned, whenever I visit my family back in the South I see lots of changes. The biggest is the number of new houses. HUGE houses. Some 5,000-6,000 square feet with 3 car garages. But the ghastly aspect to me is that there will be 150 of them all built in one crammed development with tiny postage stamp yards, transplanted Bradford pear trees, and the same cookie-cutter styling throughout.

Families seem to like these because the popular notion today is that big houses are great for rearing children. Every child needs his/her own bedroom with its own bathroom. Thus they sell. And they get bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

I personally hate these things. Its also interesting to me that all around the country if you look at where the more costly parts of the city exist, they tend to be the older, charming, and more walkable neighborhoods from the turn of the century an even up through the 50's. Amazing because in most cases these were working class neighborhoods not so long ago. There seems to be a real desire and demand for houses and neighborhoods like these. Yet most of the new stuff tends to be the Mcmansion variety I described above. Probably because Mcmansions are dirt-cheap to build ( home builders can get as much as a 200% return on them) thus making them the equivalent of a large SUV built by the big 3. So the trend is likely here to stay.

As for me, my wife and I rent a 800 square foot house. Its all we could ever need. I plan on buying something of similar size when we move next year.

A counter-point (sort of)

I'm in the business of designing developments for production housing as well as custom neighborhods for the affluent, and I can tell you the typical suburban is far (very far) from the 6,000 sq.ft. McMansions. So what if some successful affluent people want large homes - big deal, good for them. I'm sure many have had to risk all to be successful, or get an extensive education that took many years of hard work. In 1957 the wife stayed at home making babies and having dinner ready - yep, those were the days when mem were men and women knew their place ...

Lately our business of designing developments have been on the increase - this is good economic news, as planning is a sign of economic recovery. Not all the developments have downsized the housing, but most have. I myself have a new home - 5 bedrooms, 4 car garage, and 3,600 sq.ft. which is more space than I need. The reason I have 3,600 sq.ft. was that it cost only $41,000 to completely finish the 1,400 sq.ft. on my walkout level. Had I not done that, the 2,200 sq.ft. would have been plenty. We finished the lower level because we may be caretakers of some elderly family members in the future, and found that it has come in handy as my son moved back home because of the economy. My new homes uses 1/3rd of the energy my previous home a 1936 1,800 sq.ft.Cape Cod design, so as energy costs rise I'll feel great about my investment.

We found that we have more guests stay because of the accomodations, which has been a pleasure. If WE moved into a smaller space that would be no big deal, but to many their sense of accomplishment is directly tied to their home.

Do I feel great when I come home? You bet I do, you only live once and I have no guilt. I could have built a much larger home and glad I did not. After actually using my home this past year that extra square footage came in very handy ($41K is less than 5% of the value of my home). In my St. Louis Park neighborhood there are McMansions being built on small lots and I can tell you these are not dirt cheap homes at all... the quality of construction and detail of most is outstanding. Best of all the increased values make our home very desirable because homes nearby are getting larger. Think of the alternative (I'm from Detroit to preface this).. I'd rather have a McMansion go up next door than a Crack House open for business - which preserves neighborhood stability and investment better?

Why judge others? I'm not a fancy dresser - jeans and a tee shirt is fine by me. I could become an urban dweller and wear $3,000 suits, wear a Piaget Watch, have $200 haircuts and be seen at restaurants serving $100+ dinners on a daily basis. I know a lot of people in Minneapolis here who do just that - spending as much, or more, as my house payments just to be "seen". Good for them, that's what they want - great, it does not affect me one bit, other to help the economy rolling along.

I'm planning a lot of developments where homes are between 1,200 and 2,000 sq.ft. now. Nothing wrong with that. There will always be new 6,000 sq.ft. housing developments - nothing wrong with that either.

I'm not sure why we need to judge others for their success or values.

Just some rambling thoughts...