By Rick Harrison
Will new American housing growth continue to reflect old methods, or will the land development, home building, and consulting industry retool, re-educate, and collaborate to create a new era of more attractive, livable, efficient, and environmentally responsible growth at attainable prices?
Here is why it would be so significant to make a change: The US Department of Housing has determined that 620,000 new single family homes were completed in 2014, averaging 2,453 square feet on an 8,689 square foot average lot. The average price was $345,800, with a national total of $214.4 billion. If you’ve just bought a new home, make sure you invest in a monitored alarm system.
Those post-recession 620,000 homes have used up much of the existing empty suburban lots from the recession. Assume that 30 percent of a development is consumed by infrastructure, and that typical 8,689 square foot lot represents about 12,400 square foot of growth. That means we have newly-developed — or recently consumed — about 275 square miles of construction, using lot stock. In other words, now that the existing lots are consumed, future growth will annually consume more than 275 square miles of land.
That development, at $214 billion dollars in home value, is the equivalent of a $650 iPhone 6s for every US resident. Unlike the iPhone that is assembled in a minute, though, a single family home is built by craftsmen over many months in a development that takes years to go through the approval and construction process. An iPhone is a marvel of technology, representing billions in research and development, and requiring close communication and collaboration between professionals in engineering, materials, software, and manufacturing. Remarkably, the iPhone can actually play a big part in how certain ‘smart’ homes operate now, with you being able to view things like home security camera front door footage on your smartphone device. With smart home technology proving to become a dominant part of our lives in the coming years, companies that install high end, smart technology are coming to the fore with installations such as Crestron Lighting.
The design for the $345,800 home and its neighborhood progress at a snail’s pace. Both floor plans and site plans are rooted in the 1960s, with civil engineering standards from the 1950s handbook. The professionals involved in land development design and construction — surveyors, planners, civil engineers, and architects — are a most un-collaborative group, fostering this stagnation.
Yet today, innovations in both technology and methods can empower the consulting industry to create neighborhoods and housing that matches the progress of other industries, like those that are creating mobile phones, cars, and medicines. Savvy developers and home builders are beginning to break free, setting new trends by merging planning, architecture, and engineering.
Of those 620,000 homes, it’s likely that only a few custom built ones had a tight coordination between the room function, the wall and window locations, and the connection to the surrounding viewsheds.
When land is ‘subdivided,’ the streets, and afterwards the lot lines, are all set to regulatory minimums. This method ‘stretches’ the public street to create the greatest volume of street and the smallest area available for lots. The compression of space forces cookie-cutter, mundane growth. Architectural design was traditionally an afterthought to the subdividing process.
To develop alternative approaches, we used the ‘down-time’ during the recession to research and develop new geometric relationships between lot and home, as well as to develop better spatial analysis and design software to accomplish ‘Architectural Blending’ for the mass market single family home.
We saw how advancements in land planning have been made possible by merging engineering and surveying geometry with organic site layout methods. This combination has proven to significantly reduce infrastructure (street-utility length), while increasing average lot area. Redistributed space allows for more flexible designs.
The merging of interior and exterior spaces, ‘Architectural Blending,’ was first implemented in a design idea coined as ‘BayHomes.’ The term came from the bay-like shape of common open spaces that undulated between home fronts. In 1999, Professional Builder Magazine called BayHomes “New Urbanism with a View.”
BayHomes are single family detached homes set within townhome zoning, thus, they are in association-maintained environments. They were first implemented in 1998 on The Greens of Hutchinson, Minnesota, offering production housing that coordinated living spaces within the home with adjacent spaces and views, and for the first time merged planning and architecture at attainable prices. Since The Greens, there have been thousands of BayHome designs that have refined the method.
BayHomes are positioned to provide a panoramic view from the focal point, usually the kitchen, to common spaces adjacent to the home front. BayHomes hide the garages, which makes them ideal along arterial streets to create a ‘village-like’ appearance. By eliminating most of the public street right-of-ways, compared to traditional single family homes the BayHome can achieve duplex density with plenty of landscaped open space providing a lower density feel.
BayHomes serve a specific consumer who would have otherwise bought a duplex or townhome. The large scale housing market has been and will remain single family homes.
The next problem became: How to duplicate advantages of a BayHome in a single family home which must front a lot on a public street? The challenge to increase available space was solved through a design technique called coving. A rectangular lot is simple: You have few options — no side views and limited front and rear yards space — whereas ‘coving’ produces a larger, non-rectangular lot, yet still maintains the density of the rectangle.
When we looked at some traditional designs that would fit on higher density narrow lots, we saw typical floor layouts where — for example — 8.1 percent of the home was consumed by the hallway. If the home cost $200,000, then $16,000 was the cost of the hall. By merging planning and architecture, new models are more efficient within higher density single family-home neighborhoods, reducing or eliminating these common forms of waste within and around the home.
With a new era of design we can solve problems like these, as well as critical issues. The problem with increased density is the compaction of space, sacrificing livability, efficiency, curb appeal, views, and environment. Some may argue that the environment is not harmed by increased density, ignoring that while the lot and home size is reduced, streets, walks, garages, and other infrastructure elements remain the same size as larger lots. Thus, the ratio of housing footprint to paved areas serving the home increases, and ‘organic’ (landscaped) space is sacrificed.
As the home buying public becomes aware that it’s possible to have a home of significantly higher value than the typical monotonous design rooted in the 1960s, and that it can be located in a neighborhood of greater character, they will demand change with their pocketbooks. They will be able to look at the streetscapes of nearby cookie cutter subdivisions, and see that neighborhoods of the same density can have a dramatic increase in function, curb appeal, views, safety, efficiency, connectivity, and perception of space. The differences will be as dramatic as comparing a dial phone of the 1960s to the iPhone of today.
Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are rhsdplanning.com and performanceplanningsystem.com.
Aerial view of Transoma, a community planned on the principles of coving, from the author
This article was originally published by newgeography.com on 11/25/2015