Why the New American Home Should Be a Condo

©. TNAH/ I wanted to show photos and all I got was this lousy rendering

We know the kind of housing we should be building, but the industry is still in love with sprawl.

It is a tradition on TreeHugger to cover The New American Home, built annually for the International Builders' Show. It started back in 1984 with a rather nice 1,500 square foot post-modern house. It has grown a bit since then, this year to 8,226 square feet.

past new american homes

© New American HomeI cannot cover the 2019 TNAH, perhaps because they are so embarrassed by it. The website has no photos of the finished building, only a rendering, almost no information, and I have had no response from the so-called press contact.

I cannot even embed the final video because they haven't bothered to put it on Youtube; you have to watch it on their site. It starts with some interesting gestures, like the wood beams on steel columns and the exposed wood roof, and then it just gets weird. The colours! The giant cockroaches climbing on the kitchen wall! The hanging tables and cantilevered beds! The glowing stone shower! The house is a catalogue of the ugliest stones ever blasted out of the earth. And that most useful household device, an inside and outside 16-foot-long gas fireplace. The builder asks, "How cool would it be to have a sliding door open like a knife through the middle of the fireplace?" The answer is, it is not cool at all, it is just silly, almost as silly as the huge garage with the pool table next to the sports car.

(UPDATE: There are lots of photos on the Sunwest Custom Homes site.)

And then there is the energy consultant, noting that the wall-to-glass ration is huge and asking, "How do you do that and still make it energy efficient?" The answer is apparently a whole lot of fibreglass insulation (not the usual foam) topped off, logically in the Las Vegas sun, with a black roof.

Writing in the New York Times, Allison Arieff says the new Dream Home should be a condo. She uses the 2018 TNAH for comparison, because at least it issued a press package and had a decent website, and notes that all of their talk about energy efficiency is silly:

Many builders will tell you that though these houses are large, they are more efficient – even that they have a small carbon footprint. But this is like bragging about the good gas mileage of an S.U.V. While a 10,000-square-foot house built today uses less energy than a 10,000-square-foot house built a decade ago, a home of this size requires a phenomenal amount of energy to run. (And most likely has an S.U.V. or two in the garage.)

She then asks the question I do every year: "What if the next New American Home was a condo? And what if there was a new American dream, not of auto-dependent suburbia, but walkable urbanism?" She compares TNAH to a six-unit condominium in Los Angeles that totals 10,500 square feet on a lot that is a fraction of the size. Arieff concludes:

Homes like those the N.A.H.B. is promoting ignore the changing nature of families and the imminent crisis in housing for the elderly – not to mention climate change, which we have no hope of combatting without a true reimagining of the American dream.
Panel discussion

Shannon Holness, Jason Thorne, Sonia Meeks, Mike Layton, Lloyd Alter at CBX19/CC BY 2.0

Speaking on a panel on urban sustainability during the City Building Expo at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design this past weekend (and sitting in front of my favorite photo of housing in Vienna), I quoted Alex Steffen:

There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. We know that density reduces driving. We know that we're capable of building really dense new neighborhoods and even of using good design, infill development and infrastructure investments to transform existing medium-low density neighborhoods into walkable compact communities.
wooden house aspern

Lloyd Alter/ Apartments and bikes can be enough, and can be pretty nice/CC BY 2.0

We know what we need to do. The NAHB knows what we need to do. (To their credit, this year they even did a New American Remodel.) There are existing models of what we need to do all over the world. But nobody wants to do it; there is so much money to be made in maintaining the status quo. So they keep building "energy efficient" 10,000 square foot homes in the desert with Ferraris in the garage.

TNAH for 2019 is not the worst they have done; I think that prize goes to 2017.