Production housing in the suburbs and what Americans want out of homes

An architect describes how production housing helps build the American suburbs:

Its scale is enormous. During the building boom before 2008, production housing—the name for builder-constructed residential developments—accounted for the vast majority of single-family homes. During that time, 1.8 million homes were started in a single month nationwide. Recent figures for January 2018, though down from prerecession highs, indicate 886,000 new starts. By some accounts, architects are responsible for designing no more than 2 percent of those homes. As the architect Duo Dickinson has observed, this means that the profession has largely ceded the best opportunity to be relevant and useful to ordinary people.

Not only does production housing dominate the market; consumers also like its products. The major appeal is affordability, with the housing industry producing a range of prices from modest to high-end. A family of four with a moderate middle-class income can put down $8,120, plus closing costs, to buy a home for $232,000 with three to four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a garage, and a piece of ground for a front and backyard. At the high end, buyers spending over $1 million—who could afford an architect if they wanted one—instead often choose big, builder-designed homes they see as bargains preferable to custom designs.

A second attraction is the quality of housing stock. People sometimes think of production homes as “builder-grade,” made carelessly and on the cheap. But American housing is better built now than ever before, a result of market competition, stricter building codes, and better materials. Basic construction is more solid, but the housing industry also is constantly upgrading the technology and sustainability of its products. As soon as the industry could see that producing energy-efficient homes had marketing advantages, green building started becoming increasingly widespread. These homes are not the ultimate in energy efficiency, but they are continuously improving. And because of the wide reach of production homes, those improvements impact many people.

A third appeal is that the housing industry answers consumers’ needs. Through its trade organizations, research institutes, and publications, it conducts constant research between buyer and seller. The feedback loop includes marketing, professional magazines, and trade shows. For instance, canvasing of consumers indicated that a living room adjacent to the front door, a holdover of the Victorian parlor, was far less important than having more space in a great room. Without reconfiguring the outline of the building—changing slab designs is costly—the front parlor was transformed into a smaller office or guest bedroom. This design makes sense, as the front door is typically not used for entry these days, but as a marker of domesticity. With marketing information at hand, builders can make immediate adjustments to their offerings. The expansion of walk-in closets, great spaces, and open kitchens correlate directly with consumers’ desires.

This list of positives sounds impressive: large-scale production of suburban housing means many homes can be built in many parts of the country at reasonable costs, at decent quality levels, and all while providing what buyers want. Relying on architects and others to design and build homes might push costs up, create more variability, and take more time. If efficiency and predictably for the homeowner is what Americans want, production building seems to be the way to go.

The rest of the article then goes on to discuss various critiques that could be leveled at suburban housing and development. Of course, efficiency and predictability have downsides both for individual homeowners and communities. And more broadly, we could ask about cultural values surrounding houses in the United States: what ends should they serve?

  1. Broadly accessible to the majority of Americans in settings that have broad appeal. This is what production building offers.
  2. Customized to the needs of individual owners and families rather than the limited number of models in #1.
  3. The design and size of homes should be subservient to community goals for land use and social life.
  4. Houses should provide significant return on investment.

Number three may just be the hardest sell as it places a house within a larger context and suggests it (and its owners) need to be part of what others are doing. Number two has the advantage of appealing to the individuality many Americans desire but this likely comes at some cost. Holding the goal of making suburban housing as available to as many people as possible (and you can make a good argument that this has been an American policy goal for roughly 100 years with ongoing socialized mortgages) leads to number one.

Number four is perhaps the most recent idea as it developed in recent decades with rising housing values amid financial uncertainties. This might fit best with number one: if Americans can get a good deal on a home, they can then expect more in return when they sell.

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