This topic has been of great interest to a score of architects and designers in any number of cities across the world today as land becomes more expensive and construction costs continue to rise.
[note: you can also view this post on stagetecture.com where I was asked to be a guest blogger.]
Since the 1950s, just after the second world war, Americans have been obsessed with more – the “bigger is better” mentality. This arose slightly out of necessity as all the GI’s came home and there was a desperate need for affordable housing – enter the suburbs.
Land was cheap outside the urban centers and developers bought LOTS of it to build these massive inexpensive tract developments. As families started moving out of the urban centers in favor of “stretching their legs” in the suburbs, homes and yards increased in size while also the distance between neighbors increased in size.
Fast forward to the real estate boom of the early 2000s.
Dirt is cheap, construction costs and energy costs are low, so why not make the 2500 sf, 3br 2 bth home the norm for American Suburban living? One of the big problems with these homes (other than the total gross inefficiency of the spaces) is the performance of the homes. With energy and construction costs so low at the time, builders were using lower and lower quality materials to churn em out as fast as they could. This went all through the house from electrical to mechanical to insulation, plumbing, windows, etc. If we follow Corbusier with the “machine for living”, these machines suck. Literally. They suck energy, they suck water, they suck resources.
So now we’ve got these big expensive homes that aren’t worth much, but cost a mint to maintain because of cheap materials. Where is the value? The cost is easy to equate, but we’re severely lacking in the value department. How do we, as designers and architects, cause a shift in homeowner’s thinking to seek value rather than just cost?
The American mentality of “bigger is better” is still alive and well. Just look at the number of SUV’s still on the road despite nearly $3.00 a gallon for gas. But trends are changing. The custom residential market is producing some beautiful architecture today and almost all of it is at least intended to be energy efficient, as well as space efficient. This thinking is starting to filter in to the next generation of home buyer. They are starting to think in terms of value/sf versus cost/sf.
But what do we really mean by value vs cost? The cost of a home is simply that – the dollar amount associated with the construction and furnishing of a home. Value is something much more than just the cost. To assign value to a home you have to think not just in terms of first cost, but life cycle cost as well. This doesn’t mean just slapping on the “green design” stamp either. Is the home designed to take advantage of it’s specific micro climate? Are there energy efficient (not just energy star) appliances used? Did the designer incorporate, or is there the opportunity to incorporate, rain water collection for flushing toilets and washing dishes? Are the interior spaces laid out in a well organized manner to provide easy interaction between the various functions of the home, i.e. dining/kitchen, living/outdoor entertaining, etc.
By taking a look at how we use space and getting rid of waste and redundancy in our designs, the modern single family home will invariably get smaller, more efficient, and naturally take advantage of it’s specific surroundings and climate. Energy and water efficiency hasn’t so much become a choice as much as a natural evolution of the home in terms of overall value for your dollar. A home is the largest investment you’ll ever make, so why wouldn’t you want to get the most for your money? And not just first cost, but overall maintenance and operation cost? Homeowners today are asking these questions and looking for options that address these questions. It’s time for architects and developers to step up and offer something more than the McMansion.