Why the American house needs a makeover

By Cathleen McGuigan

Oct. 27 issue — Design is everywhere, right? Your toothbrush, your running shoes, your cool-looking couch, your latte machine, your laptop. OK, no one would mistake Indiana for Italy, but you can finally buy good design almost anywhere, from the m all to the Internet. But there’s one big-ticket item in this country that is virtually untouched by the hand of a good designer: your house.

MOST NEW off-the-rack houses aren’t so much designed as themed: Mediterranean, French country, faux Tudor, neo-Colonial. These houses may offer—on the high end—every option money can buy, from a media room to a separate shower for the dog. But the market actually gives consumers little true choice: the developer house, in most price ranges, is amazingly similar from coast to coast, across different climate zones and topographies. If you ripped off the roofs—and the turrets and gables and fake widow’s walks—or peered into the windows—double-hung, round, Palladian, picture (often in the same house!)—you’d find essentially the same thing: a vast foyer with chandelier; formal living and dining rooms (rarely used); open-plan kitchen/family room; master suite and bedrooms; many bathrooms; at least a three-car garage.

It makes me wonder whatever happened to the modern house, and why the core idea of modernism—that through mass production, ordinary people could afford the best design—never caught on when it came to houses. Le Corbusier called the house “a machine for living in”—which meant, notes New York architect Deborah Gans, that the house is a tool people control, not the other way round. The brilliance of the modern house was in the flexible spaces that flowed one to the next, and in the simplicity and toughness of the materials. Postwar America saw a few great experiments, most famously in L.A.’s Case Study Houses in the late 1940s and ’50s. Occasionally, a visionary developer, such as Joseph Eichler in California, used good modern architects to design his subdivisions. Today they’re high-priced collectibles.

Modernist houses, custom-designed for an elite clientele, are still built, of course. But when I recently asked Barbara Neski, who, with her husband, Julian, designed such houses in the 1960s and beyond, why modern never went mainstream, she replied, “What happens when you ask a child to draw a house?” You get a box with a triangle on top. A little gabled house still says “home.”

Yet the cozy warmth of that iconic image doesn’t explain the market for neotraditional houses today. Not all these houses are ugly and shoddy: though most are badly proportioned pastiches of different styles, some are built with attention to detail and materials. But, as the epithet McMansion suggests, they’re just too big—for their lots, for their neighborhoods and for the number of people who actually live in them. And why do they keep getting bigger, when families are getting smaller? In 1970, the average new single-family house was 1,400 square feet; today it’s 2,300.

The housing industry says that we want bigger and bigger houses. But I think they’re not taking credit for their marketing skills. Last year’s annual report for Pulte Homes, one of the nation’s biggest builders, contains an astonishing fact: if you adjust for inflation, houses of the same size and comparable features are the same price today as they were in the 1970s. That means that if business is going to grow, the industry has to sell more product—not just more houses but more square footage. It’s like the junk-food-marketing genius who figured out that people wouldn’t go back for seconds but they’d pay more upfront to get, say, the 32-ounce Big Gulp.

This year, Pulte predicts, the number of houses built will be only slightly higher than last year’s. “More and more of the same might not sound particularly exciting, but it is,” the report says. “That’s because houses ... will continue to get bigger and better, ensuring that real inflation-adjusted spending on residential construction will continue to rise.” Bully for them—and for the folks in the real-estate and financing industries who base value on size not quality.

But finally some people are saying “Enough already.” Sarah Susanka, a Minnesota architect, started a mini-movement with her best-selling 1998 book, “The Not So Big House.” Susanka argues that a good architect understands the importance of human scale. Under the dome of St. Peter’s, you’re meant to feel awe. But if your bedroom’s the size of a barn, how cozy can you get? The eco-conscious hate big houses, too, with the energy cost of heating and cooling all those big empty rooms. And now that McMansions not only are the staple of new suburbs but are invading older, leafy neighborhoo ds, built in place of tear-downs and overpowering the smaller vintage houses nearby, communities from Greenwich, Conn., to Miami Beach are beginning to take action.

Some middle-class people who care about design have opted out of the new-house market. They’ll remodel an old house, one with an honest patina of history that all the money in the world can’t reproduce. And some architects are hatching low-cost plans for the mainstream market. Prefab is hot right now: designs that use factory-built modules are assembled on-site. It’s much cheaper than conventional construction, and if it’s done well, it can look great—and modern. “We have this concept about design and mass culture in America, with Target, Banana Republic, Design Within Reach,” says Joseph Tanney of Resolution: 4 Architecture, which won a Dwell magazine competition to design a cool house in North Carolina for only $80 a square foot (a custom house would be $200 to $400 per). The house is prefab, and the firm has half a dozen more in the works. Seattle architect James Cutler (who designed Bill Gates’s Xanadu) is working with Lindal Cedar Homes, a national builder, to adapt a wood-and-glass modernist house for modular construction. “I think there’s a return to an interest in modernism,” says New York architect Deborah Berke, “and I would call it warm modernism, not sleek minimalism.” She argues that a younger generation, steeped in a love of cool design and loft living and ready for a first house, isn’t going to buy a mini-McMansion. “That’s where the industry is not reading the social signs yet.” As more people get into design—even starting with a toothbrush—the more they’ll want their houses to reflect what they value. Flat roof? Peaked roof? It doesn’t really matter: the best design reflects who we are and the time in which we live. Who knows what our grandchildren might come up with if someone hands them a crayon and says “Draw a house”?