Design pays

Or A Tale of Two Houses

Here’s an example of poor design not paying and following that, an example of good design paying off.

The projects are in many ways opposites of each other: one is large (over sized, really at five bedrooms, four bathrooms) and the other is small (just one bedroom, one bath), one is cheaply built, the other has been built to last a long time. One is built in the suburbs, another built in the city. One is built to a certain standard and would look the same in Seattle or in Florida, the other is connected to its community is very particularized to its environment. One is an energy hog and one is sustainable. One is (probably) not designed by an Architect, the other is designed by a very capable one. Those sets of factors are connected.

Moral of the story: Hire an Architect! [In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that–yes, you guessed it–I am an Architect!]

First, the negative example: it seems those great big McMansions (the ones with brick on the front and the rest wrapped in the cheapest possible vinyl siding) are not doing so well in today’s market:

Foreclosures Come to McMansion Country
By Andy Sullivan
Monday 07 April 2008
Leesburg, Virginia – Million-dollar fixer-upper for sale: five bedrooms, four baths, three-car garage, cavernous living room. Big holes above fireplace where flat-screen TV used to hang.
The U.S. housing crisis has come to McMansion country.
Just as the foreclosure crisis has hollowed out poorer neighborhoods, “for sale” signs are sprouting in upscale developments so new they don’t show up on GPS navigation screens.
Poor people weren’t the only ones who took out risky, high-interest loans during the housing boom. The sharp increase in housing costs – and the desire to live in brand-new, spacious houses with modern features – led many affluent buyers to take out loans they couldn’t afford.
“People had in their head, ‘I need a mud room, I need giant columns, I need a media room, and I’m going to do anything to get it,'” said Robert Lang, co-director of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, a research organization that focuses on real estate and development.
The crisis has hit especially hard here in Loudoun County, Virginia, where upscale developments have supplanted horse farms over the past fifteen years.

And here’s a counter-example. Good design leads to increased (indeed, spectacular) sales. Even though these are only one bedroom houses, they sell for $600,000, and selling well, too. Even in today’s very depressed housing market 16 of the 17 units have already sold.

It’s interesting that developers wouldn’t build these, even though the city had written a special ordinance just to allow this type of a development. So the city had to hunt down an older development that meet the zoning ordinance, and have that older development re-habbed. Sometimes people do need a nudge.

Maltman Bungalows
Los Angeles, California
Drisko Studio Architects

In sprawling Los Angeles, Drisko Studio Architects reinvent a vintage typology for the Maltman Bungalows.

By Christopher Hawthorne – This is an excerpt of an article from the April 2008 edition of Architectural Record.

You can find pretty much anything in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles: a pair of limited-edition sneakers, an obscure gourmet cheese, or a copy of The Da Vinci Code in Mandarin. What hasn’t been available for much of the past decade, as gentrification took full hold of the area, is a single-family house with any architectural appeal for less than about $800,000.


Designed as rental units by an architect whose name is lost to history, the Maltman bungalows had lost a good deal of their original charm by the 1990s. The same was true of other bungalow courts across the city. As Los Angeles grew denser during the past decade, however, and as apartment living grew more popular as an affordable alternative to soaring home prices and long commutes, officials in the city’s planning office started looking for ways to bring them back to life. The effort got a big boost when the city council, in late 2004, passed something called the Small-Lot Subdivision Ordinance. In certain neighborhoods already zoned for multifamily housing, the ordinance allowed single-family houses to be built—or existing rental units like the ones on Maltman to be converted to single-family status—on individual lots smaller than 5,000 square feet.

Though the ordinance was written partly to promote construction of new bungalow courts, it has been slow to catch on with developers. That sluggishness prompted planning officials to start encouraging a few open-minded developers to scout for existing courtyard complexes that might be converted into collections of modest single-family houses.

Design pays

One thought on “Design pays

  1. George says:

    As a 76 year old who has observed with interest the incredible changes that have occured over the last sixty years in the expectations of Americans regarding housing, I would like to share this thought. Considering that the tight integration of form and function is the guiding principle that undergrids all good architecture,I would suggest that the “function” of housing has shifted in the United States from “providing shelter and a degree of comfort” to “providing evidence of the social value of the individuals inhabiting the housing.” This shift has spawned Potemkin Village type McMansion developments with over-bloated houses fronted with brick, stone and large columns and with cheap backsides covered with plastic siding. The problem isn’t so much taste as it is values. For some reason this reminds me of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, a play I directed many years ago for a community theater. At a key point in the play, Willy Loman cries out to his Uncle Ben, “That’s what happens when your shoes don’t shine, Ben. They like you but they don’t love you.” That’s why many of us need McMansions, we don’t just want to be liked, we want to be loved.

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