Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Better Homes for Imperfect People


Marianne Cusato excels at elegantly practical responses to housing dilemmas. Her Katrina Cottage, above, won acclaim as a emergency housing solution for victims of the hurricane in New Orleans, while her Home for a New Economy, a virtual model home she designed for the National Builders Association's 2010 convention, has been dubbed "the most innovative home never built." As a critic of the excesses of the late building boom, Cusato charges that designers forgot to address homely questions, like "Where do I have my morning coffee?"

But ask Cusato for the vision thing, as Forbes did for their recent "Life in 2020" special report, and she loses her footing. We're with Cusato when she gives concrete examples of retrofittting the suburban ring for mixed use, like Stapleton, Colo., where a redundant airport was converted into a walkable downtown. We'll even go along with her point that hard times for the homebuilding industry in the past three years have been a "creative disruption," one that will lead the United States to a sustainable recovery.

But when discussing the future of the single-family home, Cusato resorts to predictions that are more pie-in-the-sky than blue-sky. By 2020, Cusato says, "homeowners will crave fewer symbols of gratuitous wealth. Americans will stop trying to keep up with the Jones [sic]." In her zeal to eradicate superfluously grand entryways and "gables for gables sake"--her code words for McMansions--Cusato has stepped out of futurism into fantasy. We can't revolutionize suburbia by reimagining human nature. Better to design eco-friendly castles than to wish away a man's desire to live in one.

It may be that the symbols of gratuitous wealth ten years from now will be slickly sensible structures--the real-estate's equivalent of the Prius. (On the very high end, where zero-carbon new construction is still in the experimental phase, you could argue this is already the case.)

But the housing stock in the inner-ring won't likely be retrofitted to offer rank-and-file homeowners uniformly efficient, right-sized homes by the end of this decade, even if they wanted them. Even in a world of $5-a-gallon gasoline and electric-bill surcharges, homebuyers will balance space and comfort against how far they can stretch their paychecks.

Cusato seems to have even this basic economic calculation backward. "Cost per square foot will be abandoned as a metric," she writes. "Homeowners will instead weigh the total monthly costs of living in a home."

Outside the urban condo market, of course, most buyers already talk in terms of monthly payments, including mortgage, taxes--and energy costs. ("What's it take to heat that monster?" is the commoner's initial response to a commodious barn he or she can't afford.) That omnibus figure drops when mortgage rates go low, making large, inefficient homes too readily affordable. If we're to make suburbia sustainable and immunize housing from the ills of cheap credit, house shoppers will have to adopt a closer measure, like cost per square foot, to see which homes are truly dreamy.

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