Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Alan Turner (arturner) Thu 27 Mar 08 08:30
Cars and houses. Architects do compare them from time to time, and that goes way back. The fictional architect Howard Roark described a car designed with all kinds of decorative elements, analagous to the decorative elements common on a building before the Bauhaus. Some time after the 50s, when tailfins finally disappeared, we started to look at cars as functional, and functional design was good for cars. Not so much for houses, we generally kept ornament and traditional styling. In all fairness, some of that might be because some early experiments at functional housing didn't turn out to be very functional after all. Talking about houses and cars simultaneously is a way to talk about design, but you can just as well compare houses to teapots or umbrellas or soda-vending machines if you want to talk about design. But since WWII, how nice or cool you house or your car is has always been a way of showing your status. From the mid 90s on, we've had McMansions and Hummers as a way to visibly spend money. Both cars and houses stopped being about functionality or usability and turned into being about doing something more visible than a one-carat diamond pinky-ring. Everybody always says they want functional and efficient and usable. But they end up going for the big pinky-ring anyway. Here's a dumb and simple question: For about $5000, you can install an upstairs laundry in most two-story homes, sacrificing ten to twenty square feet of floor space. That puts the place for laundering dirty clothes in close proximity to the place where dirty clothes are discarded and clean clothes are stored. If you have that, it's a lot less work to deal with your sheets and shirts, something you have to deal with every week. Why do people spend ten times as much for a great room that rarely gets used? Because the upstairs laundry doesn't show.
Philippe Habib (phabib) Thu 27 Mar 08 09:34
I feel so practical. When we built our place, we put the laundry upstairs and don't have any big showy space. I think you're right on with the house as visible status symbol. Daniel talks about it in the book as well. Where you live has become a shorthand for who you are and what you value. When Daniel goes to the Toll Bros. house with Sarah S. the agent "knows" he's a tire kicker just from where he lives.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 27 Mar 08 10:05
>upstairs laundry doesn't show Reminds me of when I lived in a house built in 1900 that had all the bathroom pipes on the wall rather than inside it -- because, by God, if you had interior plumbing, you wanted to show it off.
Angie (coiro) Thu 27 Mar 08 10:16
That cracked me up. I'm also an admirer of Susanka's philosophies and grateful for her influence, so was glad to see her in the book. (Full disclosure: I am far, far more judgmental and scornful of the "more is better" crowd than Daniel is in the book. Selfish and short-sighted. But anyway ... ) I appreciated that answer, Daniel. And Alan's expansion on it. I'm fascinated with the psychology behind all of this, and the question of whether it's a new or displaced (old) craving could keep me listening to theories all night. Means and assets are a huge part of this House Lust phenomenon, of course. I'll soon be on my own in a 1500sf house. Tiny to many, but it already feels too big and demanding of my time. If I had resources for gardeners, housekeeping, and maintenance help, I might feel differently. Still, I expect the silliness of the unused space would push me to scale down eventually. In the book, I loved the description of the house with the dual sweeping stairways in the foyer. Exactly what I dreamed of as a child, watching old Hollywood movies. So of course the immediately following thought was, "When I was a child I thought as a child ... ". My belief and comfort in living small feels to me like having "put away childish things". Slipped by Sharon. And think how practical - the leaks were right out there where you could see them!
a plague of cilantro (cjp) Thu 27 Mar 08 10:32
Sharon's post really got me laughing, too. And as for the dual staircase, I know one woman who had a giraffe barn built in the early '90s, and it too had dual staircases. Why, I don't know. But she also had 10 bathrooms and only one teenager at home. And marble floors all over that were really slippery in wet weather, and we had to take off our shoes in her house, but no slippers were provided, so I spent most of my visits huddled on the couch. And the ceilings were so high in the massive foyer that both heat and a/c were out of the question. But get this: she saved what she said was lots of money on the house by having an architecture student design it rather than a certified architect. And so as the builders put the house together, the owner would suddenly realize that things were the wrong size or whatever, and she'd have them tear that part down and rebuild. One year later there were settlement cracks all over the stucco, and the house already looked old. Oh yeah, that house made lots of sense.
Daniel McGinn (danielmcginn) Fri 28 Mar 08 13:13
Re the upstairs laundries, in the book I quote a woman who lives in a 9,000 sf. house talk about how she has two dishwashers in the kitchen, so there's always one ready for dirty dishes and she doesn't need to keep them on the counter. She says she could never go back to not having two dishwashers. It certainly sounds excessive, but it's also sort of practical, in a way. I cite my own similar example: we added an upstairs laundry in our house during a renovation. (It's the only way to go, as Alan suggests). But we kept the old one in our basement, too. (I didn't see much point in trying to sell the 8-year-old machines on Craigslist.) Truth be told we dont' use the downstairs laundry that much, but it is nice to have on days when we want to do a lot of laundry really quickly. (Computer types would think of it as parallel processing!) It sounds excessive having two laundries, but for us it sort of works. Anyone want to point out the ridiculousness of this?
Daniel McGinn (danielmcginn) Fri 28 Mar 08 13:16
Since there are at least a few people in this discussion who've mentioned that they enjoyed HOUSE LUST, if it's not bad form let me take a brief moment for a commercial interruption: if you have an Amazon account and enjoyed the book, please consider writing a review of the book there. While this is my first book and I'm still trying to learn exactly what drives people to read and buy books, as best I can tell the Amazon reviews can be pretty influential. I appreciate your considering it. Here's the link to my book's Amazon page, and THANKS! http://www.amazon.com/House-Lust-Americas-Obsession-Homes/dp/038551929X
Daniel McGinn (danielmcginn) Fri 28 Mar 08 13:22
Angie is spot-on in saying I don't come off as particularly judgemental or scornful of people who live in McMansions. While I hope I succeeded in letting some of my characters' funnier behaviors speak for themselves, my mocking tends to be pretty gentle. That's partly a function of my personality, and partly based on my sense that if a person opens themselves (and in many cases, their home) up to a reporter, there's an obligation to exercise some restraint in making fun of them. I do think I also tend to be a little relativist when it comes to matters of taste and spending. While I recognize the flaws that Susan S. and others see in McMansions, at times I'm not a big fan of critically acclaimed works of architecture (or movies, or literature for that matter), either. And while some of the ways people spend money on houses strikes me as very excessive, I'm not sure this is any worse than spending a lot of money on jewelry, clothing, cars, etc. I'm not sure if the book would be any "better" if I'd had more fun at the expense of the people living in these sorts of homes (anyone think so?) but for better or worse, I didn't feel it was necessary to really condemn them to accomplish what I set out to do in HOUSE LUST.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 28 Mar 08 14:10
I have major house lust. All of my dreams include owning one. I don't see it ever happening though.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 28 Mar 08 14:12
"if a person opens themselves (and in many cases, their home) up to a reporter, there's an obligation to exercise some restraint in making fun of them." This line triggered disgusting thoughts of Borat and #2 in that southern mansion, not knowing how to use indoor plumbing. :=)
Philippe Habib (phabib) Fri 28 Mar 08 21:11
I do wish that was a reporter's creed.
Angie (coiro) Sat 29 Mar 08 12:09
Daniel, I thought your reserved judgment was absolutely right-on for your purposes, and it was great that you put it right out there up front. And I agree with your obligation to your interviewees.
Daniel McGinn (danielmcginn) Sat 29 Mar 08 16:55
Wow, I hadn't connected my own vague sense of obligation to Borat, but I do see what you mean....
Daniel McGinn (danielmcginn) Sat 29 Mar 08 16:57
Re Linda's post about the affordability (or lack there of) of modern homes, I'd actually hoped to do an eighth chapter in the book which looks at what it's like to live in an area (it would have been set in the Bay Area) in which so many people don't have a realistic hope of being able to buy a home. Under pressure to get the book finished, and at the urging of my publisher, I ended up bagging that chapter. While most of the reviews of HOUSE LUST were quite good, the one in the San Francisco Chronicle took issue with the fact that the people all seemed to be fairly affluent, and that I hadn't focused enough on people whose house lust stems from being left outside the windows looking in. It was an apt observation, and made me wish I'd had enough time to do Chapter 8.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 29 Mar 08 22:24
That would be an interesting chapter. Next edition!
Alan Turner (arturner) Sun 30 Mar 08 15:55
I'm back from SF, and one of the people I met was an old friend that I taught CADD to about 20 years ago. Little formal education, he joined the Navy before finishing high school (they did make him get a GED), and then got a certificate in architectural drafting (pen and ink days) from a community college on the G.I. bill (such as it was then). He's since kept his skills current, and he's better at CADD work than I am now (and I'm damnn good). He moved to San Francisco, got hired almost immediately, and couldn't afford a house there, so he wound up in Auburn. Yesterday, he was telling me that he wasn't sure if he was going to be able to keep his house - not a mansion by any means. Not big enough that getting a roommate is a realistic option. None of that extra square footage like in some of the houses you describe. My point in telling that story is that your eighth chapter wouldn't necessarily be about people in San Francisco who can't afford a house. It could also be about people like my friend with the high-tech skills who can't even afford to live 120 miles from San Francisco.
Daniel McGinn (danielmcginn) Mon 31 Mar 08 08:49
Re 120 miles from San Francisco, yes, I'm very aware this phenomenon exists in many urban areas (and the further suburbs that surround them.) Coincidentally a relative of mine, age 29 and working in Washington DC, sent me a link this morning to a house he's considering buying. He's currently a renter and has wanted to buy for some time. The house in question is available via short-sale at $340,000. It's 1350 sf, 2 br, 1 bath, in need of refurbishments but most of which could be done via "sweat equity." While who knows how much further real estate prices could drop, the home seems like a very good deal to him at that price, relative to transactions that are taking place in the neighborhood. He works for the federal government, at a decent twenty-something professional salary. He's looking for advice. I haven't emailed him back yet, but a few minutes of playing with a mortgage calculator make me question whether he can afford it. I dont' know if he has a sufficient downpayment, but even if he does, he's certainly looking at a monthly payment (P,T&I) of at least $2300. Unless I'm underestimating his income I think he'd be right at the edge of qualifying. Even now that the real estate bubble has popped, I'm wondering if he'll ever be able to buy in the DC area on a government salary unless/until he joins forces with a spouse or significant other who's also bringing income to the table. I'm sure this story holds true in many areas.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Tue 1 Apr 08 12:33
It does in South Florida. I know people who live 2 counties north of me and work one county south of here. NO jobs up north, no affordable housing down south. Crazy. I am right now wishing I had those two dishwashers, though.
Alan Turner (arturner) Tue 1 Apr 08 17:49
One thing about your book that was so true was that being an architect for a house or a renovation for a married couple is tantamount to being a marriage counseler. Things like "Bob never puts the cap back on the toothpaste tube" and "Mary always has her friends over for bridge during Monday Night Football" come out all the time. And some additional architecture is supposed to solve the problems of a couple that hasn't exactly agreed on how to live together in the first place. But a little more house might do the trick. And then they argue about which part of a little more house is the right thing to do. It can be extremely unpleasant. One firm I used to work for wouldn't do a house unless the couple had a minimum of a million dollars to spend, and then only as a favor to the CEO of some commercial clinet - and that was 20 years ago, in Philadelphia. It just wasn't worth the overhead otherwise. You could design an entire shopping mall in the amount of time that one of those houses took.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Tue 1 Apr 08 17:54
Hah. That sounds entirely believable. Thanks for that interesting slice of reality.
Philippe Habib (phabib) Tue 1 Apr 08 19:14
When my wife and I were looking for people to build our first house, one of the contractors talked about how many of his clients split up from the stress of building a new house. He said since we were recently married, we might avoid that fate. After we were done, my wife said that if I wanted to build again, it could be with my next wife. In spite of that, we're building again and we remain surprised by how similar our tastes and desires are in a house.
Daniel McGinn (danielmcginn) Wed 2 Apr 08 05:39
Both these observations, from the architect's view and the homeowner's view, resonated with me. In the book I quoted a former kitchen designer who saw a huge proportion of her clients split up during the course of jobs. And having gone through a big renovation (which utilized an architect) myself, I know how personal some of these issues can become. Here's just one example: Nowadays in our region, most big home additions include a master suite with a bathroom, and one of the big design choices is whether to close off the toilet in a separate room or to leave it out in the open. In order to decide that, the architect has little choice but to inquire how much privacy spouses want/need while using the toilet, since a master bath is generally a shared space. Another example: lately there has been a lot of media coverage of a trend toward "snoring rooms" (a separate sleeping space for spouses for whom sharing a bed is problematic), and sussing out the need for that also requires questions that may be a little invasive. For a home to work well, it really needs to function in synch with your life, so conversations between architects and clients can get intensely personal.
Daniel McGinn (danielmcginn) Wed 2 Apr 08 05:44
Earlier I posted about how on Monday I received an email from a relative, who's around 30 and rents, who's suddenly decided to buy his first home, based on his hunch that the market may be nearing a bottom. Later that day I heard from a colleague at work who'd also become smitten with a house over the weekend; she and her husband, first-time buyers, put in an offer yesterday. She says many of her friends, mostly in their late 20s, are suddenly househunting; if you check Facebook on Sundays, she says, their status updates all talk about open houses. She says in places like Boston, DC and elsewhere, home prices seem to have dropped far enough that the monthly mortgage payments are about equivalent to paying rent, so she and others are diving in. I don't think that necessarily signals a market bottom, but it's certainly a good sign. I believe this is our last scheduled day for this discussion, which I've really enjoyed. I'll check in again later today to answer any last questions. In the meantime, I really appreciate all of you who showed up to ask questions or just to read along. If any of you would like to reach me directly after this discussion ends, feel free to email anytime at email@example.com. Thanks!
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 2 Apr 08 05:56
Alas, today is the last day of your two week interview. Thank you Daniel and Philippe. These two weeks have been incredibly enjoyable and informative. Despite the fact that we are launching a new interview with a new guest, we would like to invite you to stay here as long as you'd like. The topic will remain open indefinitely for further posts.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 2 Apr 08 05:57
Oh, and I just wanted to say that our GC on our renovation project probably saved our marriage by coming up with the third solution to the problem of where to put the door. Ken had already given in to my wishes, but the GC had a better idea still. Chalk one up to experience for the professional.
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