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Building houses that grow with us

We need to design homes for our lives, not our stuff

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand points out the “double reality” of the word building itself: “It means both ‘the action of the verb build’ and ‘that which is built’–both verb and noun, both the action and the result.” This wordplay captures a special reality of buildings: that they are conceived as being unchangeable, and yet are always in a state of change.

Houses are a particular paradox. We expect them to serve as long-term, if not permanent, shelter—the word “mortgage” even has the prefix mort, death, implying that the house will live longer than we will—but we also expect them to shift in response to our needs and desires. As Christopher Alexander writes in his treatise The Timeless Way of Building, “You want to be able to mess around with it and progressively change it to bring it into an adapted state with yourself, your family, the climate … to reflect the variety of human situations.”

That is exactly what we want—and we’ve gone about it in exactly the wrong way. We’ve ended up with overstuffed houses that attempt to anticipate every direction our lives could go, when what we need are flexible houses that can adapt to the lives we’re actually living.

But flexibility rarely comes up, as Brand points out in his book, in the fevered brouhaha of building and architectural consumption. And if we’re going to rethink how flexible our houses are, we need to do so at the level of our structures and the way they are built.

Brand’s concept of the “Six S’s,” itself an expansion of a prior idea by architect Frank Duffy, offers a useful framework for thinking about how we build our houses for change. Brand describes six elements of a building that change at different rates, from most to least permanent: site, or the geographical setting, legally defined lot, and context; structure, or “The foundation and load-bearing elements…” lasting anywhere from 30 to 300 years; skin, defined as “Exterior surfaces” now changing “every 20 years or so”; services, or the “working guts of a building: communications wiring, electrical wiring, plumbing, sprinkler system, HVAC...elevators and escalators,” which change every seven to 10 years; space plan, or “the interior layout–where walls, ceilings, floors and doors go”—which can remain static for as few as three or as many as 30 years; and stuff, defined as furniture, “all the things that twitch around daily to monthly.”

If one layer fails, they all have the potential to fail. If the plumbing (services) fails, it can lead the structure to fail. If the roof (skin) fails, there will be damage to the walls, floors (space plan), and belongings (stuff), as well as to the structure.

And in homes built today, as Brand acknowledges briefly, the later layers—services, space plan, and stuff—have a much greater influence on construction than they once did. While Brand notes that services such as public water services, public electricity, and cable television have influenced the form of home design throughout the decades, especially in the kitchen and bathroom, he doesn’t discuss the gravity of the innermost layer—stuff—as a driving force in the design conception of the site, structure, skin, services, and space plan. I would argue that the two outermost layers, space plan and stuff, have in fact been the driving forces behind home construction for the last 30 years. The importance placed on designing for space plan and stuff has rendered the most rapidly changing parts of the building more permanent than they should be, and this causes problems for the other layers of the building.

Of course, the premier example of a house designed for stuff is the McMansion, which, as I have argued at length elsewhere, is designed from the inside out. The reason it looks the way it does is because of the increasingly long laundry list of amenities (movie theaters, game rooms) needed to accumulate the highest selling value and an over-preparedness for the maximum possible accumulation of both people (grand parties) and stuff (grand pianos). This comes at the expense of structure, skin, and services. The structure becomes wildly convoluted, having to accommodate both ceilings of towering heights and others half that size, often within the same volume. Because of this, the rooflines are particularly complex, featuring several different pitches and shapes, and the walls are peppered with large great-room windows (a selling feature!), and other windows on any given elevation consist of many different sizes and shapes.

The skin—which often features many different types of cladding—and the roof are, due to their complexity, more prone to vulnerabilities, such as leaks. Because of the equally complex internal space plan, often following the trend of more and more open floorplans and large internal volumes, services like heating and cooling have to combat irregular volumes and energy leakage through features like massive picture windows. Rooms are programmed for specific activities: craft rooms, man caves, movie theaters. This is a kind of architectural stockpiling, devoting space to hobbies that could easily be performed in other parts of the house, out of a strange fear of not having enough space.

Few of these spaces are used; the den and the kitchen remain the central parts of any house. But nor can large foyers or great rooms easily be rehabilitated into anything else, because the other layers of the house—space plan, services, even structure—have been permanently cast with these motives in mind.

It’s not just McMansions that suffer from this inflexibility. Many new-build single-family houses still subscribe to the continuing arms race of the open concept, with ground floors having fewer and fewer walls. The completely open concept has higher structural and service-routing costs, making open-concept homes a status symbol.

But these open-concept houses, unlike the factories and warehouses that have long attracted artists and entrepreneurs, are less easy to retrofit into apartments or offices, partially because of the way services are routed, through irregular ceiling volumes and whatever walls happen to exist. The irony of the open concept is that the only thing about it that can be easily and inexpensively changed is the position of stuff. Flexibility for one layer, but immobility for every other, is still mistakenly perceived and marketed as flexibility for all.

Traditionally, houses have been built to satisfy the basic needs of a family, with the understanding that if those needs expand beyond what is provided, the house can be added on to or remodeled. However, post-Levittown, houses were (and are) increasingly overbuilt—built for what if instead of what is. What if we have a party and our house gets too crowded? What if we buy another car? What if we run out of room for craft supplies? Instead of building houses that can be adapted to changes in our lives, making them flexible, we attempt to build our houses to satisfy any number of possible futures that may come along.

This makes sense to some extent, especially when homebuying and -building is seen as a life investment. However, as we all know, life is unpredictable. We could move. We could lose our job. We could get divorced. We don’t build or buy for those futures. We build and buy on a future of growth, not one of loss. This is a gamble that comes with its own set of possible consequences: Moving becomes a lot more difficult when you have to sell a seven-bedroom house with a movie theater, rather than a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a TV in the living room. The smartest thing we can do is build or buy for what we have now and what we realistically will have, instead of for far-fetched daydreams of lavish parties or elaborate hobbies or particular lifestyles. The everyday houses that have lasted many decades have done so because they have satisfied enough needs over enough time to circumvent the wiles of the sledgehammer. We already have great examples to follow.

Our homes are expressions of who we are, what Christopher Alexander calls our “human situations.” A flexible house is a fuller reflection of that situation. In Brand’s “six-s” model, a flexible house is one where the fast-changing layers aren’t at the mercy of the slow changing, or vice versa. One where, if you hate the stuffiness of rooms, you can take out a wall between the kitchen and living room, or if you hate the lack of privacy of open space, you can easily put walls in without having to make significant alterations to the structure or the services. A flexible house is one where vinyl windows can be replaced easily at the 20-year mark because their shapes are standardized rather than custom ordered back in 1995.

A flexible house is one where your children can easily get around when they are young and where you can easily get around when you are old. A flexible house is sited such that changing modes of transportation no longer render it obsolete. A flexible house lets you rearrange the furniture to accommodate the Christmas tree every year, but also sets enough boundaries that children understand where their new toys should or should not go. A flexible house enables an easy transition from childhood bedroom to home office as the eldest child goes off to college. A flexible house allows the plumbing to be replaced without having to tear the internal space apart. A flexible house enables you to build an addition, enclose a screened porch, create an income property in the basement. A flexible house is prepared for the pleasant and unpleasant. The less and more. In a way, it’s just as human as we are.

Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.

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