As house prices and new construction fall, the homebuyer has not only more choices, but tougher economic decisions to make due to tighter credit. Lenders are narrowing their focus on high-worth clients. Middle class buyers face declining wages, workforce reductions and a pre-recession economy of $4.00/gallon gas and climbing food prices. If they’re vacating a long-term house or condo, they must both sell into a declining market filled with homes for sale and get financing from a skeptical loan officer at a troubled bank. However, on the positive side, this is an opportunity to look at domestic architecture and garden design and ask, “What do we do now?”
Suggestions abound, from winsome “saltboxes” and bungalows—so perfect for child rearing—to cape-cods for a more upscale traditional feel and rambling modern ranches for a more inside-outside flow. A family of four probably doesn’t need much more than 2,000 square feet. “Energy” should be tight, with its diffusion handled by no more than three vistas and four doors. Keeping the family together begins with physical proximity, what used to be called “the hearth”. Imagine a dinner table that is in proportion to a typical 5,000 square foot house; its size wouldn’t allow the family to see each other well, much less speak casually. The old saying, “A man’s house is his castle”, is being taken a bit too literally these days.
There is a remarkable story about a family that won HGTV’s “Dream House” Sweepstakes a few years ago. The parents became so uncomfortable in their new palatial 6,500 square foot home that they gathered their two young boys and the four of them made a camp on the mezzanine of the second floor landing, which was itself the size of a small house and had a view of the front door. They disliked the alienating effect of living in a conglomeration of five normal-sized houses, put it up for sale and moved back to their bungalow. However, they had difficulty selling the behemoth and continued to pay high maintenance fees and taxes—some dream house. Now HGTV’s website includes advice on how to cope with the responsibilities of winning this somewhat dubious grand prize. That’s show business.
On the other hand, for those who want their home to reflect how far they’ve come in their lives, the best I’ve seen lately were on the Street of Dreams in suburban Seattle in 2007. However, I saw them only on the web, since they were torched by environmental arsonists last March. Long years of hard work deserve a pay-off, and these were the homes contemporary dreams are made of. While there might be more cutting edge environmental houses in Europe, none had their scale. Of course, their size and location were criticized in the local press, which mostly ignored the ecoterrorist attack, committed probably by the same group that burned down the horticulture research buildings at the University of Washington a few years earlier. Environmental impact from toxic runoff into trout streams deserves torch-burning private homes? No kidding? When ecologists become flame-freaks, the fate of the environment darkens, indeed. Perhaps the press played down the investigation in order to deny the criminals publicity and protect the public from copycats. God bless the FBI.
For new homes a fraction of the size of those on the Street of Dreams, check this out. I’ve known Martha Stewart since 1991, and used some of her recipes and branded products. I find them interesting, but confess more a professional bias than true feeling. Therefore, I was surprised to find a Martha Stewart creation that genuinely appealed to me. Her houses are perfectly sized for a family of four or five, and extraordinarily well designed. The price is right too. The only downside may be their location. Most require long commutes. However, she and KB have dealt sanely with the current rage for excessive size. The charming homes are free of the massive great rooms that are ubiquitous in million dollar estates, yet are ample for entertaining and cozy without being saccharine. Some have incredible floor plans; she and KB nailed it.
In track housing—upscale or down—gardens are usually left to the homeowner to figure out, in most cases with the help or interference of a neighborhood association. This is unfortunate. Contract landscapers work within narrow specifications and don’t rock the boat. Most customers have little interest in the yard, much less the garden, and realtors panic outdoors. Let’s hope housing trends change toward smaller houses and larger yards, reflecting both rising fuel costs and the aging baby-boomer’s fascination with gardens. That’s the only silver lining I can see. History is on the side of architects and designers like Sara Susanka and Julie Moir Messervy. Martha Stewart should join with them to create a new approach to affordable urban housing.