Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cookie-Cutter Urban Sprawl

Cookie-Cutter Urban Sprawl Defined!
Today much of the new residential single unit freestanding construction in America is of the cookie-cutter urban sprawl variety. A great deal of this is driven by what is in the interest of big developers and not the buyer or society. This is driven by developers seeking a clear canvas and cheap land on which to build. Builders garner savings from mass production factory-like building methods with sites that are in close proximity which reduces travel time for workers. Huge developers also love to transfer the cost of upgrading the infrastructure to access these new communities to local government. Builders will tell you that buyers want covered patios for outdoor living, less-formal dining rooms, lots of space for entertaining because they want and continue to build units with 1,800 to 4,800 square feet, a size identical to 10 years ago.

Do not underestimate how much residential construction skews the direction of growth in our country and society as businesses rush to locate near these new opportunities. This tends to gut and leave as wastelands large areas developed only decades ago. We should note all this "suburban sprawl" comes with a fair amount of ecological impact as ecosystems are paved over with concrete. Our modern lifestyle carries with it pollution of water sources, enormous amounts of garbage filling massive landfills, tons of carbon being spewed into a warming atmosphere, and several more damaging side-effects. It is a lifestyle choice that has been made for us and not necessarily by us. This is guided by the fact that bigger homes are generally cheaper to build per square foot than smaller ones, developers can make a wall a few feet longer, and give buyers more square feet without adding a lot to construction cost.

Recently, I was reminded that many of the systems we take for granted are historical accidents, meaning they are based on legacy systems hundreds of years old or assembled in a short-term, ad hoc fashion to benefit a certain party, this means they may not be logical or the best choice available. In the case of housing, it often is the builder rather than the end user that benefits from the way communities are designed and constructed. Many of the homes being built in cities across the country look very similar to the ones built during the boom. Some, in fact, are even bigger. The average single-family home built in 2013 was 2,598 square feet, 80 feet larger than the average single-family house built in 2008, and 843 feet larger than homes built in 1978. And because it is easier for the builder to construct we find people are willing to accept such designs, many of the new homes going up are two-story with garages that fit two cars and look pretty similar to the house next door.

This article is an attempt to point out what we want or should be buying is not always what we are offered, told we need, or directed towards. For example, it is logical when given a choice many people would choose not to spend their day in a car rushing to and fro, but rather spend the time smelling the roses. This brings us back to thinking about want we truly want and really adds value to our lives. Some people scream this planet is in its death throes while we keep on fiddling away. It is the belief of some planners that small dense towns or villages of under 50,000 people are the only viable, sustainable model for the future. These towns would produce most of their food and goods based on sustainable agriculture raising multiple crops in the same space, and small-scale industry, they would reduce, reuse, and recycle constantly, and they would promote a simpler, slower and less materialistic and consumer-based lifestyle.

A close inspection shows little is different in the change-resistant home-building industry since the  2008 recession and the housing bust. Even surveys that suggest that both boomers and younger generations are interested in living in more urban places where they don’t have to spend so much time in the car getting to and from work, builders continue to bang up cookie-cutter communities out in the suburbs. Truth is this market is driven by building a fast, cheap product that looks good and will past inspection. Pride in workmanship and quality take a backdoor to issues like liability and the unit holding together until warranties given by the builder have expired. Some planners and “smart growth” advocates argue that builders should end the practice of buying empty land further and further out and building on it, and turn their efforts towards building more compact, walkable communities near public transit. It is not surprising that builders rile at the cost rehabbing existing land to fit new projects would add to their projects.

In truth rehabbing existing developments is important for the environment, planers say this would save valuable resources and money in the long run, but builders are not interested in the long run. Sadly this trend is hard to change. Even the Republican Party adopted a platform at its 2012 Convention to inform and pledged to “expose” both state and local governments around the country to the “underlying harmful implications of implementation of United Nations Agenda 21 destructive strategies for ‘sustainable development’.” Seeing sustainable development as dangerous seems odd, but it points to a growing divide about how different people think Americans should and want to live in the future. Should we continue to live in spread-out, single-family homes with lawns and garages and spare bedrooms? Or do we accept the idea of smaller, compact houses where we can easily hop on a train or walk to the nearby restaurants and don't even need a garage or a car to park in it?

Part of the goal of this article is to call attention to the idea housing generally puts "pretty over practical" and what best suits the developer drives what is being built. Those wishing to maintain the status quo are quick to point out that builders efforts to introduce sustainable developments have not always been successful or quickly embraced. Any walk-able, mixed-use community, adhering to many of the principles of new urbanism that do not sell well are tagged as proof nobody wants such a product. Builders constructing such compact homes with garages in the back and a big, public park in the middle, with a swimming pool and dog park, so residents can walk and interact with each other often include plans to build coffee shops and other retail within the community. We should remember however that since these planned communities are not being allowed to grow organically they often fail to achieve that "certain something" that makes them pop.

This debate is ongoing and will not end anytime soon, it is all part of the "social engineering" issue mankind will face in the future. This involves modifying a lot of the zoning and building layouts from the old era and it isn't going to be easy. To achieve real change we face several major challenges and when it comes to implementing a real shift in both housing and how we live our lives it will require a critical mass change in public opinion and market direction. While studies may show that the younger generation wants small, compact, transit-accessible housing, builders claim to know better and say "once they decide to have kids and dogs, they’ll want the traditional suburban home with more space." Some people may say they want to live downtown forever, but when reality and life take over they have a kid or two, or hookup, and they suddenly become "those people" and want to have a house in the suburbs.

In the past areas like California have often lead the rest of the country when it comes to adopting environmentally-friendly policies that are sustainable for the long term. We should not be surprised if other areas are slow to adopt what they call "smart growth" and just as America is divided politically, it may become a more divided country in the way its residents live. People in cities such as Washington D.C., Boston, and Seattle may embrace more walkable developments, while consumers in other areas where land is cheap may continue to live in sprawling suburbs. It will be interesting to see how this largely unplanned development unfolds going forward, and how much it is affected by changing values of consumers rather than what is easiest for large builders. In such a growth scenario where change really occurs, there is a place for small companies focused on remodeling and building homes in already developed areas.


  1. Bruce,

    I can collaborate that there is no "smart" or "environmentally friendly" policies in California. Here is my town in Alameda county they are building high density homes with no accomodation for an increase in the school attendance where over-crowding is an issue. I dont know how the city leaders can allow such sprawl without asking the builder to provide an appropriate share of funding.

    Regarding the homes, they resemble Borg Cubes of multi floor condos. The few single family homes are large on small lots with almost zero lot set-back. Why anyone in their right mind would buy these let alone live in them is beyond me.

  2. Michael, thanks for your input. Another interesting issue is cost, and those of you living in California pay dearly. In many parts of the country as everyone knows you can buy a mansion for the cost of a shack in California.