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City Living

April 22, 2017

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My old publisher, Taunton, is creating a book on “Urban Houses”. 32 under 1,800 square foot interesting designs. A decade ago, in the Housing Boom of 3 million new, freestanding homes were being built a year, this book would have never happened in that suburban frenzy..

But the publishing world wrote a lot of house books, including mine. But this one follows the the story of the renewed interest in “walkable cities” into the familiar ground of the “American Dream”. it’s a different dream. Smaller, more open, where the lot size means less and the neighborhood means everything – the city. But it’s still stand alone, owned, designed, proud.

So a new book of 32 neat, cool, houses is created – with pretty pictures, good stories – but except for the Introduction likely not the whole story. If the city, town, region has amenities (work, restaurant, entertainment) then new residents change architecture – simply because the culture has changed and houses always respond.

Sure, the Sustainable Movement, the Green Movement, says the Great American Suburb is morally, fiscally and practically wrong. The inefficiency of “an acre and a plot of land” is obvious when you look at an apartment, a tenement any urban home. So write a book of them. But this book will only feature one solution, when the last decade has seen 20 million parents become empty nesters, and all their children think about how the want to live.

We learn more from failure than success. 7 million families – 1 in 10 homes were lost to foreclosure when the Housing Bubble burst, and many places have not recovered: The prime casualty was that 2 generations of house investment juggernaut are gone forever. The danger of a mortgage risk and drudgery of upkeep and taxes has made home ownership sour for many: no matter how many beautiful books are printed.

Meanwhile the market of Suburbia dropped by 90% for new home building less than 10 years ago. It’s now under or a 1 million, but that’s not the story. My kids, maybe your kids – maybe you – do not want a “solid” suburban home as a parking place of equity, let alone debt. As an architect my clients are figuring how childlessness, while waiting on grandchildren, makes sense living in a cul-e-sac.

The 60 years between the end of World War 2 and The Housing Crash have created over 40 million homes on patches of lawn near urban centers, depopulating many cities, but leaving behind huge undervalued housing for a part of society with either less money, or less need for privacy and good public schools.

Until this last decade.

The world War 2 GI’s who survived knew nothing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They knew “Shell Shock”‘ “Battle Fatigue” and “Section 8” – they saw carnage, monstrosities, devastation – the most inhuman conditions of faithless hate and violence. They came home to the Land of Milk and Honey.

They all smoked in nervous ritual. They drank as if it were breathing. They wanted the opposite of the crowded, terrifying, battlefield. They wanted out of the barracks and lock-step co-habitation of the military. They wanted a family. Families need homes.

The government that won, ours, was thrilled to offer a mortgage tax break, a GI Bill, and the Federal Housing Act: all taking 20 million broken souls to a better place – quieter, calmer, private – and focused on a simple patriarchy that made the damaged veteran completely accepted. Every home could be his castle.

Of course Ike helped with the Federal Higway Program,. Modern farming, transportation and refrigeration meant less need for farmland near places of work – typically cities. “Bedroom Communities” were created from scratch in one generation: spawning malls, school districts, and the libraries, hospitals and governments that naturally followed.

Their children upped the Greatest Generation ante: they made bigger homes, farther away from cities – and corporations followed building brand new, remoted “Suburban Campuses” for GE, General Foods, Xerox, Texaco and many others – in my region alone.

Soon “McMansions” were the suburban home grotesquerie on steroids. More rooms, larger rooms, more materials, more “Style” – and on and on. The government followed again, and Freddy Mac, Fanny Mae, and federal policy pay made money flow to almost anyone that could say they were committed to own a home.

More demand meant Higher prices. Crazy demand meant badly built homes. But architects who always had less the 5% of the home market now has 3 times the number of homes to design. Firms that specialized in residential design were under 10% of the profession for 100 years now grew to becoming 20% of all companies practicing architecture. There are now 40% fewer firms dedicated to residential work.

Through Oil, Tech, Stock and Building and Loan Bubbles the house market seemed a given – until 10 years ago. Now the PTSD Generation’s grandkids are rethinking the way they live. The Boomers are looking at empty space and 3 cars, and a couple of acres.

The city looks better. With smaller sites, homes shrink to a desireable size. Even if you “never want to own a home” new buildings with community facilities for renters are beginning to make sense. First in all academic, research, established urban environments, but soon, everywhere.

Some will always want a castle – especially now that they are cheaper in this changing time: but those damaged by war, their children who wanted a Bigger Life are at the end of home ownership: the next wave of the Boomer Kids are now living back home in the Outsized Suburban Home -more of them than that generation who live in their own place with a spouse – for the first time.

So I do what I have always done for 40 years: create homes for people. Including the project here: under $200 per square foot in downtown Peeksill. It can be done: the Elites are not the only market, and they are the smaller market.

The tony, hip, smart new homes of the new Taunton book are very interesting. They are Modern in intention: efficient, open, high-tech: but they are a small portion of a huge story. The bigger, realler news is that things are changed and changing. The potential reality is that the unknown therapy of Suburbia is changing as the PTSD Generation is leaving earth.

Where will it go? architects will not decide, direct, or point the way: they will follow and, if they can see change rather than hype or style, a new generation of homes will result.

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