Roger K Lewis Why There Isn’t A Market For Modern Homes

May 4, 2018 8:32 am by admin
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Roger K Lewis Why There Isn’t A Market For Modern Homes

Many zoning ordinances still outlaw creation of accessory dwellings within single-family zones. An accessory dwelling can be a separately accessible unit in a basement, an addition to the back of a house, a small apartment atop a detached garage or a modest, free-standing unit built in a single-family home’s back yard.

The future shape of housing in U.S. cities and suburbs, including metropolitan Washington, is destined to change significantly. Whether detached, attached, part of a residential cluster or in a multiunit building, more and more dwellings in coming decades will look less and less like the home you now inhabit or the home where your parents grew up.

Arrayed in the final exhibition segment are photos, drawings and explanatory texts showing numerous built projects, some in Washington, suggesting where future residential architecture and urbanism are headed. Included are shared and group homes; housing for the elderly; repurposed and retrofitted buildings; and new, demographically responsive housing in suburban and urban settings.

Why are modern homes embraced by so few? Why do most Americans prefer residences whose designs are rooted in the past? People accept and admire modern design in office and commercial buildings, schools and hospitals, museums and other civic buildings, and even in religious structures. Likewise, most apartment tenants and owners have no problem inhabiting modern apartment buildings. But when it comes to single-family homes, aesthetic innovation and cutting-edge design just doesn’t cut it.

From left, Justin Griffis, Garrett Lance, James Arnold and Andrew Krentz share a unit at the Oslo apartment building in Northwest Washington. What makes the Oslo unique is that, in each apartment, all bedrooms are essentially the same size, and each has its own bathroom.

(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

[Newly designed co-living apartments in D.C.’s Oslo bring sophistication to group housing]

Often when municipal or county governments try to change residential zoning regulations to allow accessory dwellings, neighborhood homeowners voice opposition. They usually contend that allowing accessory units will change neighborhood character, increase neighborhood population density and make on-street parking more difficult.

Comfort with the familiar is reinforced by association with and admiration for historic architecture. Residential styling can allude to architectural motifs from buildings characteristic of colonial America, Greece or Rome, the European Renaissance or Spanish missions. Allusions appear in cornices and moldings, gables and pediments, arches and columns.

The supply and variety of traditional homes greatly exceed the supply and variety of unconventional, modern homes. Focusing on home prices and resale, buyers tend to believe they are on safer economic ground owning — and eventually selling — a more traditional home.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).

Even if you wanted to live in a decidedly modern house, you would find few such homes on the market, since homebuilders have long built mostly traditional homes. America’s labor force and material suppliers within the homebuilding industry are, likewise, completely attuned to constructing traditional dwellings.

Modern home design could become more popular, but only if tastes and perceptions change. Given America’s history and culture, its market-driven homebuilding industry and widespread aesthetic indifference, change in the near future is unlikely.

Most people prefer to fit in, to blend harmoniously with their surroundings. This is true of how they dress, converse, dine and conduct business, and it is equally true when they choose a home. In predominantly traditional neighborhoods, most buyers opt for a traditional home. Being slightly different might be okay, but standing out conspicuously while defying convention is discomforting.

Movable partitions and recessed-in-the-wall, pull-down furniture enable transformation of the unit without need for reconstruction. It can be configured to work for a shared, two-person household, for an extended family or for two independent empty nesters.

If you live in a detached house or townhouse, chances are it is not a stylistically modern or unconventional one designed by an architect. Instead, it is probably a relatively traditional home with relatively traditional furnishings.

Conversely, modern homes lack broad appeal because of perceptions — and misperceptions — about cost and comfort. Many people believe modern architecture costs more to design, build and maintain. Contributing to this belief are expensive, modern, custom-designed houses featured regularly in glossy magazines.

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Indeed, long-standing, out-of-date zoning ordinances continue to determine the nature and scope of physical growth and housing, often impeding real-estate-development innovation and market-responsive changes. In many jurisdictions, zoning laws and regulations reflect demographic and cultural norms going back generations.

Those images feel comfortable, strongly influencing taste and aesthetic preference.

Such changes also will have an impact on land-use planning and regulation, in turn affecting patterns of urban growth, new development and redevelopment in cities and suburbs.

But those photos typically reflect the architect’s and photographer’s desires to emphasize architectural space, structure and geometry, not livability. In fact, a modern house, no matter how minimalist or unconventional, can be furnished to be as comfortable as the owner desires.

Most notably, around central cities, zoning overwhelmingly favors low-density, single-family detached home development serving traditional nuclear families. A relatively small proportion of land may be zoned for higher residential densities, whether for detached or attached homes, multiunit buildings, or homes shared and inhabited by more than one family.

Many people have grown up in traditional homes surrounded by other such homes. People have deeply embedded beliefs about what houses should look like: ridged, sloping roofs covered with shingles; shutters flanking double-hung, paned windows; paneled doors; brick veneer or lapped, horizontal siding; dominant 90-degree angles; and separate, rectangular rooms.

[More Lewis: Houston’s topography and ability to handle stormwater play a role in flooding]

[More Lewis: Metro areas are getting more walkable, one foot at a time]

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

Other revealing statistics are on display: Forty-eight percent of U.S. adults are single, 32 percent of young adults live at home, 27 percent of children live with a single parent, and 22 percent of Americans will be over 65 in 2050.

Yet permitting accessory dwellings — or homes with shared occupancy — is a very cost-effective strategy for increasing availability and accessibility of affordable housing for both young and aging adults. In fact, neighborhood density is unlikely to increase because many homes, originally occupied by families with five or six members, are occupied by empty-nester couples or a senior citizen without a spouse.

The kitchen is equipped and detailed with state-of-the-art materials, lighting, appliances, hardware and cabinetry. Countertop height can be adjusted manually or mechanically to comfortably serve people of all ages, sizes and physical abilities, in accord with universal design principles.

Consequently, some people are down on modern aesthetics because they have seen or experienced a badly designed modern building. A poorly designed traditional home, being but one of many, is easily forgotten. A poorly designed modern home, being one of a few, is remembered. This statistical reality can further tarnish the reputation of modern home design.

For example, in the past, a typical two-bedroom condominium or rental apartment would have a master bedroom-bathroom “suite” and a much smaller, second bedroom for a child or guest. Today, demand is rising for units without bedroom hierarchy.

To explain this nationwide phenomenon, the National Building Museum recently opened a visually stimulating, informative exhibition: “Making Room: Housing for a Changing America.” It begins by telling the statistical story of demographic and lifestyle changes in the United States. With colorful, easily understood diagrams and charts, the exhibition asserts that today “our vision of the American household is inaccurate and outdated.”

Today’s real estate market is more diverse and changing rapidly as more people look for homes satisfying their particular needs, lifestyles and budgets. Differing market segments include singles living together, whether young or old; aging couples not ready to downsize; single-parent families; multi-generational households; and households with someone who is disabled. This pertains not only to detached and attached housing in suburbs but also to dwellings in multiunit buildings.

The vast majority of existing, conventional detached and semidetached homes, as well as most townhouses, have been built almost exclusively for traditional nuclear families: father, mother, two or three children, and a pet or two. The need for these homes will always exist. But for many other households, the size, interior layout and functional details of such homes are a poor fit.

Future housing types will be influenced primarily by substantial changes in household demographics and lifestyles. Additionally, evolving technological innovations, coupled with economic conditions making homes increasingly less affordable, will affect the future form of housing.

A snapshot of diverse household percentages supports the assertion: single-parent families, 7 percent; nuclear families, 20 percent; adults sharing with other adults, 20 percent; couples, 25 percent; and single people living alone, 28 percent. Over past decades, the percentage of traditional, nuclear family households has steadily declined while single-person households have steadily climbed.

For a thought-provoking glimpse into the future of U.S. housing, visit the National Building Museum exhibition. At the very least, you’ll love the kitchen.

Among the featured examples is the four-story “Oslo,” built by Ditto Residential on a small lot on Sixth Street NW in the District. The modern, architecturally sophisticated structure contains nine three- and four-bedroom flats. But what makes the Oslo unique is that, in each apartment, all bedrooms are essentially the same size, and each has its own bathroom.

Some people complain about the spareness, hard surfaces, sharp edges and lack of intimate, domestic scale when they look at photos of modern home interiors. Often devoid of people and furnishings, such photos can suggest a lack of warmth and coziness. Glass walls might beautifully unite the interior and exterior but compromise privacy and provide insufficient wall space. Even the furniture can look uncomfortable.

The National Building Museum beautifully demonstrates how this can be achieved. At the center of the exhibition, it has constructed a complete, 1,000-square-foot dwelling unit that could be either a house or an apartment. Very much hands-on and experiential for museum visitors, the unit embodies cutting-edge interior design and technology.

Poor design yields bad architecture, no matter what the style. Thus, a building is not good architecture just because it is modern.

[More Lewis: Does Washington rank as a great waterfront city?]

Clearly, the Oslo apartment units have been designed to be occupied by and shared among several individuals who may or may not be related.

Why the houses of the future will look significantly different

Like it or not, history plays a big part in American culture.

Although a modern house, or house of any style, can be more costly than a traditional house, this is not inevitable. Creative architects can design modern homes, including production homes, that cost no more per square foot than traditional ones. Regrettably, because of the limited market for modern homes, many talented architects never have the opportunity to design production housing.

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