How to Build in a Recession: #1

Unwarranted and irrational optimism is one our most powerful tools. Hope and striving, despite the steadfast gravitational force calling for resignation and stasis, is the fuel of human progress. The New York Times ran a story the other day, entitled “What Happens to the American Dream in a Recession?” Sure enough; buoyed on warm wafts of denial, hard times only seem to bring our dreams into sharper focus. No matter the depth of economic difficulties, it’s apparent that we cling to the idea that anything is possible for those who are willing to work for it.

Despite half a million job losses a month, despite dismal forecasts for the future, despite so many people having lost most of their savings or worse, the dreams remain. No doubt, every dream is different and all dreams are adjustable, but it is still remarkable under the circumstances. Perhaps it’s how we survive life’s challenges: just rescale the dream in light of the setbacks and move on. How can a paraplegic get motivated to compete in athletics? How can a person in prison for the remainder of his days “love the breath of life?” How does a single mother with four children, who can’t make ends meet with only one job, find it important to “count my blessings?” Whatever the reason, it’s the best of humanity revealed, again and again.

In these hard times, the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans are becoming sparer, more essential, and therefore less trivial. Basic ideals like freedom, equality and peace are championed again, as are basic needs like good food and reliable shelter. It may take this kind of shaking up to remind us of what’s really important and what’s really needed. No doubt, one of those essential things is the critical role that housing plays in the lives of all people. It came up when the NYT/CBS survey asked people what the American Dream means to them.

“Basically, have a roof over your head and put food on the table.”
“Working at a secure job, being able to have a home and live as happily as you can not spending too much money.”
Owning own home, having civil liberties.”

As some of the gaudy bubble-induced ambitions get pared back, a decent and comfortable place to live always remains an elemental basis for achieving an improvement in the quality of life. Sturdy homes are at the root of civilization. Freedom and democracy mean nothing to people who lack the security of dependable, dignified shelter.

In light of how important home is in the lives of everyone, it’s unfortunate that homeowners have become removed from the homebuilding process. For most of history, people had to know how to make and maintain their homes. Along with hunting, farming and cooking, the essential skills of homebuilding were critical to the process of creating a sustainable lifestyle. In the 20th century, though, Americans unlearned building knowledge and skills and instead, ceded the idea of outsourcing the entire making of their most important physical asset to “professionals.”

Meanwhile, and ironically, the homebuilding industry used the same century to unlearn their integrated skills and also developed a process dependent on outsourcing an ever-growing number of discreet tasks to teams of specialists. The result is that would-be homeowners have put themselves at the mercy of an industry that is itself at the mercy of a fragmentation and disintegration that has made the homebuilding process too hard, too expensive and wholly bad. Homebuilding is a team sport with no coach, no training, no practice; no team. The average jobsite morale, organization, focus and sport proficiency would appall the average Pop Warner Peewee league coach.

This deep recession also reveals numerous opportunities and one of the big ones is for homeowners to take back homebuilding. In reaction to the economy, there has been a tremendous resurgence in backyard gardening and home-cooked meals. Many are doing this because they are forced to, but they also recognize the rare opportunity to save money and improve quality at the same time. The same is possible in homebuilding. Owner-builders can save a lot of money, and also ensure a better product, with much more customization to personal taste and needs.

The need for good quality homes, critical maintenance and important renovations is almost certainly greater than ever, as we’ve seen record low levels of building activity for nearly a year. Of course, there’s a big inventory of relatively inexpensive housing stock on the market, but most of it is junk. So what if the price of a McDonald’s hamburger is on sale for a dollar? It’s still only a McDonald’s hamburger. If you want a really good quality, affordable meal, you’ll have to cook it.

And if you want a high quality home you can afford, you may just have to roll up your sleeves and build it.

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