Whether it’s the grand vision of sustainable cities from a development master plan or spotted urban renewal that refocuses our attention to the integration of environmental ethics, a smaller carbon footprint, and the experience of living authentically through art and music, humankind needs to find new models for living. The obvious shortcoming of the architectural master plan for a city of the future lies in the fact that individual property ownership stands in the way of realizing the vision. Additionally, the spotted patches of urban renewal that illustrate the communities that can be, and are, exist in small pockets that only a few can benefit from. Unfortunately, the pattern of development and neighborhood maturity favors the small pockets of ‘cool’ that follow from the right mix of artistry, community, and architecture to a process that dilutes as others seek to ‘buy in’ by moving in, but not integrating themselves into the aspirational community they have infiltrated. The process of dilution, and here I am intentionally avoiding the use of the poorly defined and inflammatory term of ‘gentrification,’ is not entirely a malevolent force, it is a process that lacks direction and exposes the shortcomings of our desire to live within a collaborative community, while yet maintaining the desired degree of privacy within the needed span of time that we individually need it.
What appears to be lacking is a small to medium scale sustainable model for community development that I outline here, which I term ‘Ability Housing,’ that integrates residential space, food production, adaptive privacy, and community workspaces to achieve an integrated model of development that may be deployed in many parts of the country.
While Ability Housing is a project that has existed for at least a couple years in my head and in conversations with friends, I will lay out the plan over several posts, 3-5 are likely needed to address each major principle underpinning the plan and then an additional post for challenges and questions that may arise. This first piece is focused on the residential aspect.
In our efforts to advance sustainability, both in our private lives and in the larger organizations that we participate, a number of movements are each praiseworthy in their efforts and successes. On the housing front there is both efforts to advance urban renewal through reintroduction of residential spaces that strike the right balance of private household amenities with access to external opportunities, and there is the small house movement that encourages living well in smaller spaces. The small, and tiny, house movements illustrate the dividends of superior design with structures that better serve our everyday needs and foster the experiences we envision in our leisure time. I have followed this movement for the past few years, so much so that I even scrapbook particularly great examples of small house design through Pinterest after my Evernote clippings started to become a bit cumbersome (although I have yet to get them all transferred to Pinterest). One of my favorites is the Escape house that does an excellent job of integrating the interior space finishes we desire while yet in a small footprint. For adaptive reuse, this garage conversion (pictured above) illustrates a beauty in simple design… noteworthy of the best small houses is the transitional space, the french doors that open to a patio or a screened in porch, thus when it is warm you expand your space by living outdoors, but when it is cold and dark you can cozy up for warmth.
Small housing not only reduces the need for expansive lots, but the economics generally work in the favor of small living on two fronts, microeconomic and macroeconomic. The microeconomic bears the most obvious, that construction of a small space is cheaper than a larger one. If the comparison is between two similarly appointed structures, then it naturally follows that the cheaper is the smaller… and with the smaller comes a smaller mortgage. The immediate upshot is more money is free for discretionary spending, or as the small house movement aptly puts it, “less house, more home.” In addition, acquiring a house larger then your immediate needs or possessions require naturally compels you to find things to fill the vacant space. However, the vacant space isn’t really the problem at play, but ‘predicting future use’ that compels us to idealize how we want to live in the future. Much of the home improvement and design industry is built around idealizations that few of us ever use sufficiently to justify the expense. The outdoor kitchen is nice, but how often do you REALLY use it? The pool is wonderful, but do you use it enough to justify the expense… how about if you were going to try to justify the cost for someone else… and if they were borrowing the money for it? It is very likely that you would realize that the soaking tub, the formal dining room, and the second living room are spaces we rarely use… yet we pay for them… we pay A LOT for them.
Predicting future use is complicated by the fact that housing is the largest expense that most of us will ever have. Switching to another home is not an easy or inexpensive process, thus you can’t simply borrow your neighbors house for the garden party you want to throw on a whim for your friends. The problem is easily illustrated with the automobile and proliferation of mini-vans and SUV vehicles, as many purchase vehicles based upon a maximum needs assessment, that your going to haul the entire family around or might someday have a few more kids to transport… or you get the larger vehicle because you recall that one time you went to Home Depot and needed to haul something that you didn’t have the space for, thus you buy a vehicle that doesn’t fit your needs 95% of the time, yet is perfect for the other 5%.
The reason I spent the space on the problem of predicting future use lies in a special component of this assessment… that we tend to think that our situation is either fixed or will improve. In many respects, there is no problem in thinking that the future is bright, however if one is to pay any attention at all to the macroeconomic forces at play in the United States, then a more somber assessment of the future should follow. The housing crash exposed a very real and troubling problem that has two dimensions:
1) Median income has not just stagnated, but fallen roughly 4k to 51k
2) Owning an expensive home in an era of falling wages results in the home becoming more expensive relative to your income.
The long and slow economic recovery has illustrated that many of those that found themselves unemployed, returned to the labor force at much lower wages. However, the house payment remained, and thus discretionary spending was dramatically reduced. So while a family may not have lost their house and ended up in bankruptcy, there are enough people that are getting buy, but do not have the money to spend that they did before 2007/2008. So what is the individual to do?
Either the individual can find higher paying employment, thereby restoring the necessary discretionary income to spend on eating out, frivolous trinkets, and vacations (the things and experiences that make life worth living)… or the individual can embrace a lower structural cost scenario. A less expensive house can restore the discretionary income that existed before the housing bust, yet with a well designed home there is really no sacrifice over the previous McMansion. Noting that the economic recovery is largely replacing higher paying jobs with lower paying ones… the smart move is to ‘house down.’ Greater economic security follows from a living situation that requires less of your income to make payments.
While some of the small houses are expensive, on a cost per square foot basis, others are as inexpensive as dirt… literally, dirt serving as the build medium. Regardless of the small house design and medium chosen, fewer materials are required for construction and most are extremely energy efficient.
The first component of Ability Housing is the actual residences, small ones… next post I’ll discuss food and landscaping.