Building a Better House

Quite a few things about new home construction, and indeed some of our ideas of what a single-family home should be like, bug me. For instance, I’ve noticed that ever since I was a kid in the 2000s traipsing about the wooden shells that were to become homes. Some of these bedrooms they build nowadays, especially those not bearing the “master bedroom” title, are barely big enough to fit a full-sized bed, let alone accommodate any other activities, like having a small desk and a chair or practicing an Arabesque.

I struggle to do all that at the same time in my own bedroom; I measured it out of curiosity, and it’s 17 feet by 14 feet. A better size for my needs would be 17 feet by 17 feet or even 17 feet by 20 feet, though much of the inability to fit everything in is more because of geometry than area. Mine was designated the master bedroom originally, but another bedroom in my house isn’t much smaller.

Flexible Spaces

I wonder what the point is anyway of every house having 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms if the bedrooms are the size of closets! Wouldn’t it be better to have a smaller number of bedrooms that are each bigger? You can do more with fewer bigger spaces than you can with many small spaces. Partitioning can still be achieved with the use of flexible fold-out screens; these are especially prominent in Japan and are apparently called byōbu.

A more robust solution is to install sliding doors, which are also common in Japan, called fusuma, which can be closed up to create a private walled-off space or opened up to create what Western architecture calls an enfilade. An even slicker way to go about it is to turn the sliding doors into folding doors, which were apparently favored by the ancient Romans. A fusuma-like door that’s folding could completely open up the rooms of a house.

In this way space in a home can be used flexibly. Have an awkward small space you don’t know what to do with? Open up the doors and use it to expand the adjacent room! Growing family? Close up the doors to one of the partitions to give a child his own bedroom! Honestly, it’s the best of both worlds between a conventional walled design and the openness and flexibility provided by a studio-apartment-style design.

Why no One-Bedroom Houses?

Speaking of which, it’s honestly a bit odd that there are basically no new single-family homes laid out like one-bedroom apartments or even studio apartments. Surely there must be many single people in this country who don’t like apartments and their shared walls, who’d like to have a house with a yard like a normal person has, but also doesn’t need or want two extra bedrooms, yet there’s basically nothing out there for them. Weirdly, one-bedroom houses used to be common; as of 2010 there were about 100 surviving such units in Washington, D.C., all built in the 19th century. Older housing stock tends to have more diverse layouts in general; a smaller (or larger) number of bedrooms than the three that are standard now used to be more common.

The situation gets even more bizarre when one realizes that in 1900 only about 1% of Americans lived alone, compared to 15% now, so if anything one would think one-bedroom detached housing would have exploded in prevalence, i.e. the exact opposite of what actually happened. We seem to assume that everyone who wants to live in a detached home also has a family. Which is a big clue: the Second World War seems to be the watershed when this type of construction disappeared.

It’s also the time we seem to have collectively decided to re-engineer our country to service people who were married with children…and nobody else. Our whole social compact was altered to privilege a very specific type of person: upper-middle-class families. Everyone else was told “screw you”. Today’s housing crisis is the consequence of this policy failure.

Bad Home Design

Another consequence of this family-oriented mentality is the widespread desire for large well-appointed kitchens. Sure, they’re nice, but isn’t it kinda strange how people want more kitchen space as more and more meals are eaten out at restaurants or delivered to the door? If anything that should have led to de-emphasizing kitchens in home layouts. But I suppose what people are buying is not so much the utility of a big kitchen so much as the idea of being the kind of person who uses a big kitchen a lot. Still weird, though.

Another pet peeve of mine is how small garages are; people have cars and they need plenty of space to park them, yet most “two-car garages” can only really fit one car comfortably. If you try to squeeze in two cars you can’t even open the doors of either. So in practice they tend to turn into garages for one car plus a workshop or storage space.

There’s guidance out there that suggests 24 feet by 24 feet is the ideal space for a two-car garage, and indeed that should fit two cars comfortably. Simple mathematics suggests 24 feet by 12 feet for a one-car garage. That’s 288 square feet right there. Including a bathroom and closet, you’re probably talking about 300 square feet for what I’d consider a decent-sized bedroom suite. Figure 300 square feet for a great room containing a small kitchen, and you’ve got yourself a total of 900 square feet or so. Cathedral ceilings could be built relatively cheaply that leave enough room to put in loft bedrooms later.

Lots too Small!

As an aside, that’s the kind of house that would actually look proportional on the 1/8-acre lots builders seem to love so much these days, rather than the 3000-square-foot monstrosities they often cram onto them in real life.

Lot sizes are honestly way too small; in my experience even 1/4 acre lots aren’t enough to insulate you from neighbors gabbing and dogs barking; one acre is really the practical minimum, yet that’s about ten times the space provided by some modern subdivisions! Sometimes, however, this amount of land isn’t practical or affordable. It should be practical and affordable, though, to wrap what lot size you do have in privacy hedges; we often think of six-foot-tall barriers as “privacy fences”, but to be really effective they need to be about twice that height.

Aesthetically, hedges are better, but they take time to grow; tall trellises with plastic plants can suffice. Alternatively, at least in the American South, kudzu might be employed; the stuff grows so fast it’s hard to keep it from taking over, so it would seem to be ideal as a privacy hedge plant for new construction. Of course 12-foot-tall barriers are often illegal in many places, where they want to force people who allegedly own their property to let people snoop in on them to foster a “sense of community” blah blah blah; well, the fact is neighbors are often not people we want to form a “community” with, and our design should be robust against that possibility.

Garage Apartment Form Factor?

These houses I have in mind, with flexible studio-apartment-style spaces and big garages, would lend themselves well to the form factor of the garage apartment or the drive-under house: a first floor that’s all garage, and a second floor for the living quarters, perhaps with a tall cathedral ceiling generous enough to support a loft bedroom installation later on.

A two-car garage comes to 600 square feet or so, which is about the same as the non-garage area of the one-bedroom house I outlined. A bonus of this layout is that the footprint of the house shrinks from 900 to 600 square feet, while the floor area expands, from 900 square feet to 1200 square feet. A two-car garage for one person, or, scaled up, a four-car garage in a house built for two people and so on and so forth, might seem excessive, but consider that garages are used as multi-purpose utility spaces, not just for parking cars; as such, maybe we should build houses that are half garage.

Keep in mind if we got rid of the ridiculous zoning laws that choke everyday life to death it could be routine for people to use such garage spaces for shops or other places of business. An all-garage first floor enables suburbanites to replicate the downtown experience of first-floor shops and upper-floor living quarters for the shopkeepers. Garages might be nearly flush with the street, set back just enough to permit a small garden in front of the house, leaving the hedged-in backyards free to be as big as they can be.

Wide Streets!

Streets themselves should be much wider; instead of two lanes of traffic the standard residential street should support four lanes of traffic. This provides a generous common area for the residents, not to mention enough space for protected walking and biking lanes as well as transit lines. Grid layouts are best for reaching the most distance in the least amount of time, so I’d go with that. One might object that these long straight wide streets clear of much obstacles would induce drivers to speed, but if every intersection is a standard-issue roundabout speeds will be naturally limited to perhaps a bit over 30 mph, even if it does have four lanes. Additionally, if arterial roads have generous capacity, fewer drivers will want to cut through residential streets in the first place, further reducing the hazard.

So what we have here is maximum privacy (the hedges), maximum freedom (the lack of rules against home businesses), maximum flexibility in living space (the second floors) and utility space (the first floors), and maximum access for vehicles (the big garages and wide streets). Seems to me like the obvious way to go in designing a subdivision, but no doubt many people would decry it as the culmination of hyper-individualist car culture. They wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but there’s a method to the madness: such a layout is surprisingly good at reducing car dependency! Yes, really. The dirty little secret of American suburbia, which we’re told constantly has to get more dense for its own good, is that it’s largely already dense enough to not be car-dependent.

No Need for Multi-Family

Given lots of 1/8 acre and one person per lot, a square mile of my singles’ houses would harbor 5,120 people. If these houses contained shops, with full-fledged retail at every major intersection like today, the distances to these places on a grid plan would be within a few miles. That’s not a walker’s paradise, but it would be very bikeable. 5,120 per square mile, by the way, is generally considered enough density to support light-duty transit, such as a bus that comes along every half hour. You wouldn’t need a car to do everything.

This is the sort of density many suburbs have now; for the density required to support light-duty bus lines, even most of infamously-sprawling Greater Atlanta qualifies! So why isn’t taking a bike to and from a bus for most trips an option in actually-existing American suburbs? Because their layouts are god-awful. Zoning is normally single-use, banishing even the smallest shops to miles away, with a maze of cul-de-sacs required to navigate those miles; these two design features combine to add an order of magnitude to people’s travel distance. If it’s not laid out properly, density doesn’t even make an area more walkable; all it does is choke the roads with heavier traffic.

It’s also worth noting that the density in my setup is something of a minimum; two-bedroom and three-bedroom versions of these houses would be sprinkled in. The average American household is 2.5 people. Figuring that as the average over these 1/8 acre lots, the density would realistically increase to 10,000 to 15,000 people per square mile. Woo!

That’s enough by American standards to support not just bus service every 30 minutes but frequent bus service, even to the point of a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, or even a light rail line, resurrecting the streetcar suburb. Many of these in-home shops would be easily walkable, not just bikeable. We’re told we need a lot more multi-family housing to make enough density, but a development consisting entirely of single-family homes can provide more than enough if they’re designed correctly.

1/8 acre lots are about the minimum cheapest solution to give a dignified yard to people, but in my experience even if neighbors can’t see you you can still hear them whenever you go outside; even 1/4 acre isn’t big enough to really insulate from barking dogs at the fence or people’s chitchat. For that 1 acre would suffice. What would that look like?

Given an average household size of 2.5, such a development would sport a density of 1,500 to 2,000 per square mile, rather than 10,000 to 15,000; while one-acre lots aren’t quite dense enough for even infrequent bus service, with a grid plan and mixed-use many if not most shops providing daily needs and even some wants would still be within 3 miles or so, not very walkable but easily bikeable. Probably somewhere within that 3 mile radius would be a transit station, of the kind that takes in riders from parking lots and bike racks much more so than people walking from home or work.

Notice that even this sort of development, with multiples of the average lot size in suburban America today, can still support living without a car if it’s designed correctly, though one-acre lots are probably approaching the lower practical limit of density for such a lifestyle.

Alternate History Fodder?

All this is really quite interesting, because an alternate history where suburbs were built out to maximize transportation access and be mixed-use is readily imaginable, as is a build-out that isn’t solely oriented around family life, and Japanese-inspired spaces that can be closed in or opened out at will. Smacks to me of a 20th century planning style that puts much more emphasis on utility and flexibility across the board, something that realistically could have happened!

In my own alternate timeline, the great build-out of the freeways and suburbs starts in earnest in the 1930s; embracing the alternative I outline here, no doubt with American Craftsman style exteriors. What I outline here would be excellent fodder for alternate history: the same broad developments as in real life, but different in the implementation.

As cars become faster, highways upgrade to match, and more people are relieved of the obligation to work jobs, lot sizes will expand as more land within easy driving distance to city centers becomes available. By the 1960s in the more-developed countries urbanization reverses and the population starts emptying out into the countryside again.

Greater affluence will enable people to build real mansions on these lots, making the lower-cost carriage house solution less compelling; I could still see the form factor remaining common, though. As vehicles expand to more resemble today’s recreational vehicles (RVs), i.e. full-fledged motorhomes, I could see RV-sized garage spaces on first floors start to become prevalent. Personal aircraft proliferating into the 21st century will demand relatively large hangar spaces near their runways or (more likely) landing pads. Why not the first floor of the home for this space?

The flexibility of spaces within the home could easily remain paramount, even as their square footage continues to expand, so the Japanese-inspired approach might remain standard.

That’s about all I have. It’s a bit of ramble, but it’s heady stuff and a fascinating subject I haven’t written about before, but oh well.

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