How Tough Times May Lead to Better Architecture
While Ben Bernanke fantasizes about the Recovery, most people in the building industry – especially in overbuilt Florida – will correct this gross error immediately and emphatically. The recession may be over for the Fed Chairman, but unemployment in the design and construction professions is probably in the 25-30% range, matching that of the Great Depression.
Even so, tiny glimmers of light shine in what many design professionals call the “microeconomy” of building – small commercial renovations, house additions, tenant improvements, and other projects normally too small to even be counted. Although they lack the whallop, or the profits of big stuff – hotels, hospitals, or new towns – these do count, and are anecdotally turning towards local vernacular design and even contemporary architectural design as a strategy to beat the system, possibly pointing the way for the future.
Architectural styles are a slow-moving parade of fashions, too often divorced from climate, regional characteristics, or the cultural backgrounds of those who choose them. For most commercial and residential architecture that sprang up around neighborhoods, a mix of Victorian and Spanish Mediterranean styles seemed to be universally implemented by developers trying to please the largest quantity of people in the shortest period of time. Homes with terra cotta tiles and beige arches seemed to lurk behind bland Victorian Main Streets that sprouted everywhere from Montana to Alabama, betrayed by skin-tight fixed windows and paper-thin detailing. As branding elements, these styles nationalized what was once regional and climate-specific design.
Once again, we seem to be repeating history. In the 1870s and 1880s, suburbs began in many cities, and for the first time homeowners could choose custom-designed houses rather than production homes. Relative peace and prosperity begat a rush to consumerism matched only by our recent ambitions, and the Victorians became well known for an architecture and interior design style that promoted fussy detailing, the display of ornate and exotic materials, and homes overlaid with a frenzy of patterned wood siding, stained glass, carved woodwork, and high-pitched rooflines so that even the roof shingles could be a place to show off wealth. Furniture makers and material suppliers invented new products to feed the demand for consumer goods.
Yet this all crashed right at the turn of the 20th century, mostly because of the economic transitions suffered going back to the Panic of 1893. Suppressed until that time, modernism came out as a style in the Edwardian era that was much more sensitive to the modest budgets of homeowners building in the 20th century. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, whose career was famously independent of the vagaries of fashion, conceded that affordability was part of the appeal of his style – his “usonian” architecture reveled in simplicity and he took low-budget commissions to prove that good design need not be cluttered with doodads.
Today, after a similar consumerist run-up, residential architecture is suffering from a similar hangover, as we recover from the granite countertops and carved stone lions of the pre-recession era. These egregious displays of affluence may be gone for a long, long time. But people are still going about the business of adjusting their homes and businesses to suit their needs – and there is a steady microeconomy of residential and small commercial construction.
Cost, however, is the single overriding factor in most small projects today, and a focus on localism favors the budget. For one thing, a region’s vernacular style usually responds best to the climate, and typically employs materials that can be locally sourced – no stone from Chinese quarries is necessary. In Florida, for example, the vernacular style suspends the floor over a crawl space and includes deep roof eaves extending over the walls – both in response to the combination of harsh sun and heavy rains that task the building envelope. The benefit of this style is lower construction cost (gone are all the elaborate carved woodworking pieces, the high rooflines with multiple dormers and turrets) and also lower energy costs.
Other clients are waking up to the simple fact that contemporary architecture costs less. Like the Edwardians before who developed a taste for the modern, owners building homes and additions in today’s economy have a newfound simplicity in their styles. With a few choice materials around the entry, some simple, strong lines, and a restrained approach to details, contemporary architecture is making a comeback in the residential market. Midcentury modern, a residential style all but forgotten in the McMansion era, was particularly suited to the returning GIs after World War 2 who desired a home but possessed the most modest of budgets. This affordability is the key driving factor to the rise of this style, and is also a naturally “green” architectural style because of what it does without. Modernist Mies Van Der Rohe’s dictum “less is more” can mean here that less ornament and fussy detailing means more money in the owner’s pocketbook at the end of the day.
Even more interestingly, house additions and remodeling still seems to exist in this economy. Owners are taking advantage of the construction market’s reduced material costs, are building in more home offices, and enlarging their homes to accommodate a multigenerational lifestyle – parents living at home, or grown children living at home. Larger family clusters within single residences point to reduced mobility, and an evolving, relatively easy re-densification of suburbs that have been winnowed by a plethora of empty nesters.
This new respect for budget has some naturally green outcomes, as families cluster together to save money and energy, and home offices save commuting. By adapting a home in a budget conscious way, taking advantage of vernacular architecture and developing a taste for simple, clean design, many owners are unconsciously working with sustainable strategies already. If sustainability means the preservation of future generation’s choices, then by conserving money and aggregating closer together, owners have already implemented their own sustainability policy.
Green design should be seen as a grassroots response to the local climate, rather than a prescriptive code forced down from above And it can produce a magnificent architecture in a timeless style. No federal program or international design guru can impact this like the microeconomy; instead people are making pragmatic choices, and once again discovering that the local vernacular architecture has a lot of good, commonsense clues about how to live a sustainable lifestyle.
This article first appeared in The New Geography.