Are Our Houses Actually Too Well Built?

credit: Kevin Bauman

We keep calling for better, more durable housing, but perhaps we are investing too much in our housing.

The common complaint among green builders is that our housing is poorly built, poorly insulated, that it should be built better and be built to last. But some economists and writers are suggesting that we have that exactly backwards, that it would be better for everyone if our houses were more, dare I say it, disposable.

Today we have a serious housing crisis in North America; there is far too little of it in some cities and too much of it in others. It’s a huge fight to build anything in ascending cities while vacant houses are being demolished in declining ones.

That’s because many people move to follow jobs, but houses don’t. Adam Millsap writes in Forbes, (picking up on Ed Glaeser’s 2005 study “Urban Decline and Durable Housing”):

credit: Kevin Bauman

© Kevin Bauman

This happens because homes disappear slowly. As employment opportunities disappear and home prices decline, those most able to move—often higher-income, more educated people—do so. They leave their homes behind, but the still-livable-but-now-much-cheaper homes attract lower-skill people who are less connected to the labor market. This changes the skill composition of the city’s workforce and contributes to further decline....

Millsap makes a case for building less durable housing; it would be cheaper to purchase, and people would be less committed to it, have less invested in it, and more willing to move if economic circumstances changed. It might also reduce the pressure from NIMBYs to maintain the status quo.

Cheaper, less durable homes would also make poorer investments than today’s homes. This would likely lead to less land-use regulation, since there is convincing evidence that most of the strictest land-use regulations result from homeowners trying to protect their most valuable asset.

Most people would think this is nuts, that we need durable, resilient and energy efficient houses, and that these require more investment, not less. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rethink our attitudes to how and what we build. Aaron Renn picks up on the idea and suggests a different way of thinking about housing:

Perhaps a better way to think about housing the 21st century is a fixed lifecycle design... Why not have some cradle to cradle type design where the end of life removal and recycling of the building is built into the initial design and construction, with the end of the building lifecycle as planned as the beginning. Right now if you need to demolish an old house, it can be an expensive proposition.

He says we need what we call “producer responsibility” where end of life disposal and recycling is part of the deal. This is kind of funny, a very conservative thinker putting forward such a radical proposal.

This would fit with our shorter product lifecycles for things like technology. Unlike grandmother’s old console TV or that brown AT&T; telephone handset, we don’t expect things to last forever anymore.

Now this is where it gets really interesting. Fundamentally, a house is a product, no different from a car or the console TV or the phone; things wear out, technology changes, needs of the occupants change. The house depreciates and deteriorates if you don’t keep investing in it. That's why we have often written about design for deconstruction and open building, where houses are designed to be easily maintained and upgraded. But really, the problem isn't the house and the way we build it.

camping multistorey

© Philipe Magalhaes and Ana Luisa Soares

The difference between a house and every other product is the land. That’s why mobile homes have no value when they get old, but it is also why we keep talking about the trailer park model where you own your unit but rent the land; if done right, people could follow the jobs to Cupertino or Seattle, plug their homes in and go to work.

Plug in city

© Archigram

Instead, thanks to the difficulty of building in productive cities and the surplus of housing in declining ones, we have what Millsap calls a “misallocation of workers across cities—too many in low-productivity cities like Flint and Buffalo and too few in high-productivity cities like San Francisco and New York,” which is hurting economic growth.

©. Mike Eliason/ that doesn't look like social housing!

© Mike Eliason/ that doesn't look like social housing!

Over the years we have shown many ideas for mobile and plug-in housing, and even some vertical trailer parks. Perhaps it’s time to give them more serious thought. Of course, a simpler approach might be to remove the perverse incentives that Americans have to buy homes instead of renting, and to build lots of multiple family housing like they do in Germany and Austria.