Home Value Reconsidered

I’m in the homebuilding business because I believe better quality homes are an important aspect of making this world a better place. My associates in our company share my interests and passion. I know this because I’m pulled along by their energy and ideas as much as I pull things along myself. There are two quotes carved into beams in the main entry of our Walpole, NH facility that reflect our company’s view of the ultimate value of good homebuilding. The first is a classic one from Winston Churchill:

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”

The other one is less known, from Confucious:

“The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.”

It’s hard to imagine that Churchill hadn’t read Confucious. With different words, millenniums separated, they said much the same thing. Whether in the personal, national, or societal context, buildings are a reflection of the people and culture from which they arise. We build not just with tools and skills, but also with collective values, beliefs and societal baggage. Buildings may look like just an aggregation of materials formed into shelter, but their dynamic impact is profound, deep and generations long–for better and for worse–on its inhabitants,its community and our ecology.

Where and how we build matters. What we build matters. What buildings give and take matters. Durable, functional, beautiful and sustainable homes are essential ingredients of a strong and lasting civilization. We’re going with Churchill and Confucious on this subject, and will spend our careers trying to prove that good buildings can have an important, positive and powerful influence now and into the future.

For the last few months, the New York Times has been running a series of essays about homes and home life, called “Living Rooms.” Naturally, I’ve been a very interested reader, hoping mostly that the reporters would generally conclude that homes matter more than most people realize and much, much more than the wreckage of the past few decades of flim-flam, hyper-inflating, flipping madness would indicate. The series has been uneven, but not disappointing. And if nothing else, it’s been good to read about housing in the mainstream press for some other reason than it being the cause of our economy’s woes.

In the introduction to the series, the editors noted that home making has essentially been in our DNA from early in our human evolution, but the nature of our dwellings are constantly changing, as society changes;as we do.

Many animals build shelters, some of them dazzlingly efficient and complex, but only humans design homes that thoroughly reflect the architecture of their lives, families, work — even their thoughts. The home has been central to human existence since the Paleolithic age: recent archaeological work in Israel has found evidence of domestic order — food preparation here, beds over there — dating from around 100,000 B.C.E.

But amid such consistency, there is constant change. A century ago the kitchen was a lowly service space relegated to the back of the house, or to a separate building altogether; today it is the center of home entertainment. We used to talk about our houses as islands of financial security; now we worry about them being underwater.

In the first series essay, The Other Real Estate Value, Winifred Gallagher wrote about recent attitudinal changes regarding what a home is for, and just what sort of security it should provide. Easy mortgages got way-too-many people playing the risky building speculators’ game, and scams just don’t work when the number of players exceeds the number of victims. So the game itself came apart and brought a whole lot of our economic vitality down with it. In the process, the idea of home itself paid a price, as the whole premise of the subprime debacle took a toll on the more important real estate values.

(The shaky economy) …changed the home from a haven into a commodity: a bargaining chip in an increasingly uncertain world. Not so long ago, your house or apartment and its network of neighbors, shops and services supplied a feeling of belonging and stability that anchored you in life’s shifting currents. Now, a sense of security increasingly means selling your home, not staying in it.

But Gallagher is convinced none of that is true. The real value of a home is in the experience of lives lived there. Houses become homes and homes become places that inspire lifelong memories as the homes we inhabit, over time, begin to inhabit us. You know this from your own memories and experiences and I do too, but it’s good to be reminded.

Like the old song says, there’s no place like home, not because of the real estate, but because of the sense of shelter and nurture that it provides. This deep, wordless experience can’t be manufactured in an instant but develops slowly, one birthday party, convalescence, Thanksgiving and cup of tea at a time.

Jayne Merkel wrote two enlightening essays about our changing attitudes regarding home size, which is actually a study in a shift in what is understood to be necessary and sufficient. Her titles, When Less Was More and When Less Was No Longer More are hung on Mies van der Rohe’s famous phrase, “less is more,” which defines beauty with simplicity and wealth with satisfaction, not unending accumulation. In the years following WWII, America was expansive, growing and positve:

But when it came to their houses, it was a time of common sense and a belief that less truly could be more. During the Depression and the war,Americans had learned to live with less, and that restraint, in combination with the postwar confidence in the future, made small, efficient housing positively stylish.

Average houses were less than 1000 square feet. The big architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, bought into it and were designing homes for wealthy people that were a tribute to that smaller scale. Small homes were easy to build, easy to maintain and their mortgages could be paid off in only a few years. By living with less, full ownership was quicker, and upgrades, additions and remodeling could happen over time, without loans, and targeted to what was truly needed and desired. Lots of the post war tract homes weren’t particularly great in their initial construction, but they were commensurately cheap and left plenty of possibility for changes and improvements.

The modesty and optimism of the “Less is More” idea helped to create the unbridled wealth that was later its undoing, as Merkel reported in her second essay. The Postmodernism of the ’80’s and ’90’s was a look backward to various historical styles, but it was more about pretense than authenticity, making for thin facades of show and appearance inside and out.

The interest in old buildings also failed to have much influence on houses in new suburban subdivisions where most new housing was being built. These had always aped historical styles and fresh ideas from famous architects about how to use those styles in different ways had little impact. Home builders might add a new stained glass window or beveled glass door, like those in old urban houses, but the quality of construction, design and materials did not improve. Customers preferred specific features, like hot tubs and decks, and prized “curb appeal” and more space above all else.

As I have said in earlier posts here, many of these grand appearing homes are no more than miners’s shacks dressed up in plaster and amenities. There’s no restraint or “enough” in what has become known as the McMansion or “Executive” design style. Like gaudy, fake jewelry, it’s a celebration of excess, and its illusions are similarly transparent. American homebuilding has been too much defined by this wasteful and fraudulent design and building approach. Finally, it is being its own kind of emperor with no clothes. It wastes resources and feeds dissatisfaction. When more is the goal, more is never enough.

As Merkel summarizes,

…a desperate desire for more of everything led to out-of-control consumption that bloated home sizes, deflated savings accounts, and distorted the American economy for the next 20 years.

Joan Dejean wrote about rooms in her essay, Who Lives in This Room? For the wealthy, display has often been the only function of many rooms and while they are showing off space, furniture, art and possessions, the real purpose has historically been about showing off social position. Lest we forget, that remains the purpose of much of home design. It begins with “curb appeal,” includes useless entrances and various unused spaces.

As Dejean points out, very little living goes on in a lot of living rooms. If you could build new walls around the space that people use instead of the home they currently live in, the resulting newly defined living space would probably equal the 1950’s standard of about 1000 square feet. Want to save money? Shed ego.

I think I enjoyed Allison Arieff’s essay the most, if only because it confirmed an encouraging trend we are seeing. In HomeFor Life, she writes that people are waking up to what is important about a home and they’re actually asking for it and investing in themselves instead of some vague prediction about a future buyer.

At what point did the house become more about the future tenant than the current resident? It’s hard to trace the moment, but let’s hope it’s passed. Because for too long, home design has been hijacked by the allure of resale value. Maybe now we can begin again to think of our houses not as investments but as homes.

..Now we need to think more sensibly about building houses that people want to stay in.

I’m happy to say that we are hearing precisely this message from our clients. They aren’t talking about resale; they’re talking about what their home needs to be to serve their needs and they want good design, good engineering and high performance level of energy efficiency. Underlying these priorities is a common comment from our clients (young or aging) that “this will be our last house.” Undoubtedly, that’s an attitude that concentrates the mind toward good decision making.

Arieff goes on to quote a 2009 Builder survey that revealed a growing preference for smaller homes:

“…unprecedented housing bust, which brought about the largest loss of home equity in history has fostered fundamental attitudinal changes in new-home prospects…. The desire for a McMansion seems to have been supplanted by the desire for a more responsible home.”

Glory be.

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