A Check-In On New Home Construction

New subdivisions seen from a bird’s-eye view look like somebody transcribed a mathematical equation onto a landscape; there is nothing organic about them. They lack the natural human chaos that can only evolve over many generations. It’s an area of housing that lingers somewhere between 0-1 on the sexy scale.

In today’s overheated design industries there’s no shortage of renovation publications and TV shows, all of which are packed with features on starchitects and contractor superstars. That big business makes prime time television out of drumming up primal instincts toward demolition and building things.

We all love smashing things, and we all want to build our own cave, er, I mean house. Well that mammoth media machine we’ve been consuming in epic proportions these past 15 years is basically exclusive to old housing stocks in established neighbourhoods. So what’s going on way out in the suburbs?

A suburban bird's-eye viewDo suburban homeowners not watch the same TV shows and read the same magazines and pursue the same housewares websites with similar design dreams? The answer is yes, mostly. But investment generally stops at the furniture and planters section of those websites. Here’s what I mean: homeowners who’ve purchased a newly constructed home or even a recent build are simply not in need of a new kitchen, a new bath or a new laundry room. Even if they aren’t in love with those rooms they couldn’t justify a renovation because they’re so new. So now do you understand why many of us have this weird attraction to that old fixer upper listed for just as much money as the brand new build? It’s your subconscious feeding your brain 15 years of design industry hyperbole. The motivation to deconstruct, reconstruct and be creative is a powerful instinct that is articulately marketed by the industry itself.

Or is it simply that the new housing market offers very little in terms of variety? Is it that these sparkling new homes sequestered in subdivisions are repeating the same home design to such a degree that any notion of creative custom design can find no flint on which to spark?
over and over and over. A Check-In On New Home Construction That formulaic approach to home building appears to sap the juices from any would-be ambitious renovators. Now, it’s true that most people wouldn’t renovate a space unless it’s old and tired so the economics aren’t often there. But even a new house built from the ground up had a human sit and conceive of a design before a shovel hit ground. So these developments are not void of all design. In fact, they’re just as designed as the custom remodel on HGTV. We could even expect that because they’re freshly designed they would demonstrate strong, modern, relevant designs, ones that utilize the newest materials, harvest the latest industry practices and capitalize on lessons learned from a long history of shelter construction.

I’m going to go one step further and say it could be considered such an advantage starting from scratch… that we’d expect the best design to arrive in these locales.
Now let’s take this to the next level and consider the constraints present on every lot in an established neighbourhood or the constraints existing in an interior renovation in an older home. Can you see the disadvantage of working from that position versus working from scratch, in an open field with nothing around, in a new subdivision? And yet some very creative minds are banging out brilliant designs in tandem with some very ambitious contractors in the old crappy houses on very constrained lots of every city on this continent.
Back to the suburbs for comparison: we have developers with financial credibility that dwarfs what that entire renovation market combined could dream of. They have resources so grand that the best design minds could easily be retained. Frankly, we should be seeing a “brain drain” effect of hot young design talents migrating toward big developers’ subdivision projects. However, this is not the case.

For an up-to-date look at what’s happening in suburban home design we need to look no further than the 1990s — it’s safe to say that an interval of two decades for a check-in is sufficient. Now remember I’m speaking to the home styles being built, not the specific construction details that are bound by the code. It’s true we can travel from east to west and everything in between to consolidate an opinion that the cookie cutter suburban home design has been replicating the same model for over two decades. If that number of homes has been built with only a small variation in style tweeks then it’s safe to say architects and designers are not making any money there.

So while urban planning departments expand in every university countrywide, and the public consciousness regarding home energy efficiency is higher than ever, the big developers are stuck. They are stuck on a model and mentality that got them to that model. It’s a pretty dramatic juxtaposition when we look at the designs that come out of the renovation market.  

This raises 2 main questions:

  1. Why do those new subdivisions sell out year after year? and
  2. What is the force behind the inertia impeding any design growth for the large developers?

I’ll leave this open for further analysis.

Next week I dive down further into the rabbit hole of suburban design, the trends that are defending these long runs of prominence, and the code that just isn’t good enough.