the american dream

What does this make you think of when you hear it? If you think of George Carlin’s material, he states “you have to be asleep to believe it.” Perhaps it is often misunderstood; it might even be merely utopian. Nevertheless, most of us attribute home ownership in this equation somewhere. It is a sense of independence that goes back to owning land as well as a house on that land. However, we know it extends beyond just what we own, but more of who we are. Historian James Truslow Adams wrote in his 1931 book Epic of America “but there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

As an architect I wonder how this plays out in buildings, more specifically houses. Is this area getting better and richer for every man? The past few years have certainly shaken this country and since the mortgage and lending industry had been instrumental in our financial disasters, the dream of owning a home is now fleeting for many. For those that find the means to own a home, what do they really want? Is it just a personal hotel room that lasts for 5 to 7 years before they sell it and move on? Where is that sense of “settling down” or “putting down roots” that we heard our parents and grandparents speak? They may not have had anything elaborate or had any sense of “design”, but they cherished what they had and cared for it. Maintenance was less of a concern, because it was engrained in their minds to tend to what they owned. They worked hard for it, thus they worked hard to keep it. Then, they passed it onto their children who in turn…sold it.

Nowadays, home ownership means something else. With some polls stating that almost 70% of Americans own their own home and most of those are being financed, do we really have a sense of appreciation like our grandparents? Up to the recent crash, we made decisions based on what will sell in the near future and what the next owner will want. We rarely make decisions on what we want or what our children need for the future. Houses were our own stock market bought and sold at the whims of the owners. Not any more.

Most architects (who design anything that resembles any residential) wish to change this. However, are we selling popsicles in the Arctic or blankets in the tropics? We all know there are people who don’t want what we are offering. Our values simply don’t align. Space is treasured over quality. A place to put “stuff” trumps the durable materials and design we cherish as architects. When given a choice between a thermal envelope that will perform well over the life of the house with lower utilities versus granite countertops, it’s obvious which will win. Vinyl siding has become such the norm that when I have questioned it or criticized it, I get those furrowed eyebrows on a face not speaking my language. What else is there, they ask. The home builders have capitalized on this shift in values and we architects are speechless in disbelief. Why are we still surprised? The third garage will still be on middle class America’s wish list before a truly sustainable house appears on every street. We will buy cheap now and mortgage our future, because we’re too in debt to invest for the long haul. I believe it goes back to our independent spirit that birthed this great land in the first place. It is just often at odds with the idealism found in most architects.

Architect Sarah Susanka has been tremendously successful in promoting her “Not So Big House” message and many believe in changing the way they live based on her demonstration that part of being human is being in well designed spaces that raise the quality of our day-to-day life. Duo Dickinson preceded her with two books on well designed small houses. A few dissenters exist out there, even amongst architects who likely design estate size houses for couples with nowhere else to sink their money. I believe America gives them the right to do that when they’ve worked hard for it and I wouldn’t want them to lose their ability to choose.

I don’t believe it is anyone’s place (not even architects) to force someone how to live, especially in America. We must make our own decisions, even if many in our government believe they know what is best for us. Yet it does frustrate me to see so many opportunities lost with poor design in our housing stock, neighborhoods and cities. After WWII developers got rich on a method of delivering new houses to the average Joe, while architects were somewhere else. We are perceived as being a luxury because we are often not willing to find ways to bring our expertise to the masses. Not everyone wants a custom home or a home that makes a statement.

Call me an optimist and a lunatic, but I believe with the speed of information available, the educational ground being made in the field of sustainability and people living first hand in a shattered economy, they will think twice as they make investments in housing. House sizes will continue to shrink to reasonable sizes, quality and durability will be higher on the list as people living within a weak real estate market will move less often. This will cause more to invest carefully in their existing homes increasing the value in our neighborhoods. Those that can afford a new house will be engaged in the process and demand more for their money. If we are smart, humble and a bit more practical, we could play a big part in this new movement. We need to change our ways soon.

I’m an architect; I still dream. I’m an American architect; I still dream the American dream.

photos are from lessismoreorless’ photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

the american dream

9 thoughts on “the american dream

  1. Another great thought-provoker here, Lee.

    Based on the factors you mentioned (information, sustainability, economy), I believe our profession is in a position to begin to powerfully benefit our society.

    Thanks for being a thought leader and truth speaker.

  2. Lee: I’ve followed your blog for a while now; great post as always. This one resonated with me because I’ve given thought myself to the notion of the “American Dream” and how it can be reconciled with the reality of dwindling resources and a changing economy ( As a fellow architect, I agree — let’s be humble and practical but let’s exhibit leadership too. Now is our time.

  3. Another great post from Think | Architect. You make an interesting connection about owners basing design decisions on the financial value of their homes, i.e. desires of future owners, etc. I wonder if this will change at all as the home loses its prominence as an investment/get rich quick scheme.

  4. I’m totally reblogging this! Excellent post! The McMansion generation is certainly ending. As more and more would-be homeowners look out at the market and see…well, crap lining the streets of our suburbs and even urban centers they are waking up and searching for a better option. An option of higher quality, higher efficiency and higher performance. 90% of the search terms that hit my site have words like “small, efficient” in the query. It’s growing exponentially and responsible, conscientious architects like you and me and others are going to be ideally positioned when the damn breaks and people start building again.

  5. One house at time, I design quality over quantity for clients who understand the value of design. I too dream of well designed neighborhoods. I also believe the first step to “going green” is a smaller footprint with carefully selected materials. I am encouraged that sometimes poor choices are the result of not knowing there are other options. Increasing awareness that there are home design options that bring value to a house and community is the hope for our profession. Thanks for a thoughtful post with great images.

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