can I get a house with that garage?

The garage, it is a house all its own for the symbol of American freedom, the automobile. Who would have thought it would have taken on such a dominant presence in the typical American home in the late 20th century even through today in the early 21st century? You may find this to be another exhausting rant, but you must admit that we are seeing that no one is satisfied with a single car garage. That’s so passé. In fact the common two-car garage is making its way out as more and more people feel the need to blow the wad on that luxurious three-car garage. Well, where am I going to park my kid’s car or better yet that boat we rarely use or that vintage automobile that gets taken out once a year? Maybe I need it to park all of my ‘stuff.’

More and more I just have to shake my head. Do we really need to have a garage that is approximately the size of the average American house in the 1960’s? Where are our heads people?

Over the past year or two I have collected photos of garages in my town that were built back in a day when people may have been lucky to even own a car. However when they did, the garage was out back off of the alley and it was at least given some presence to match the house it served. Some of them had a small room or apartment built above them. The same DNA that came from the main house was injected into the design of the garage giving it meaning and a belonging to the main house without it upstaging the house. The concept of a carriage house was being carried out into the design of the garage, yet it now housed an object that had the power of dozens if not hundreds of horses. These gracefully aging relics speak of a time when the car was gaining popularity, but still held its appropriate place on our priority list.

For years now we have seen the common cookie-cutter home take the garage out of the back alley and attach it to the house to keep us from getting wet as we bring our groceries into the house. Reasonable I suppose. Except then this carnivorous friend rapidly became a monster much like that simple plant in Little Shop of Horrors demanding to be fed. And as it did, it became larger and larger, taking up more space to the point it moved to the front of the house upstaging the important parts of the house. No longer content to remain in its appropriate role, it actually moves towards the street such that it is the first part of the house noticed upon entering the driveway. Worse yet, as one drives down the street, it is the garage that can be seen from afar blocking the view to the front door which no longer has any use. Does anyone use the front door anymore? Can you even find it?  If any of these houses are yours or designed by you, I’m sorry. I just have to be honest here.

To be honest, my preference is to put the garage in the basement if there is opportunity. Other than that, why don’t we just live in the garage? We are rarely at home anyway. Wouldn’t it just suffice to sleep in the car as the car sleeps in the garage? Oh wait, that would be silly. Not that we didn’t cross the border into silly a hundred miles ago.

can I get a house with that garage?

40 thoughts on “can I get a house with that garage?

  1. Those first images are gorgeous. Living in a historic neighborhood that predates the automobile myself, I love the old carriage houses and garage apartments that line the alleyways in Riverside.
    Then I got to the second set of images and threw up in my mouth a little bit. I feel like I need a bath. I’ve been soiled by suburbia. Thanks Lee. Jeez. :-\

    1. I debated this post for months knowing I am swimming upstream. However, I believe our duty as architects is to question the culture even if it is unpopular. And yes I too had to hold down my dinner as I searched for these images. Doesn’t anybody see it?

  2. They don’t see it. For the most part they drive home after dark and go straight into their garage. They might actually look at the front of their house once a week. What is worse, most of their “friends” enter through the garage as well!

    I’m lucky, I have a house that had a detached one car utilitarian garage. We parked in the drive and the street for many years, and used the garage as a garden shed. About 10 years ago I added some windows, a countertop and shelves and it became my office!

  3. I’m torn. Not because I think massive garages as front elevations are pretty, but because there is a fight between form and function. In our current day, convenience and excess define our culture. While I won’t comment on that directly, asking everyone to change their lifestyles of instant gratification and paths of least resistance is difficult and slow going. Translation: our current culture demands attached garages so that we don’t have to endure the elements as we haul groceries 20 feet to the kitchen. Our culture also dictates that sharing cars is an outdated idea that only applies to those who can’t afford multiple vehicles – meaning the more cars, the more places we need to park them overnight. These requirements – whether right or wrong – necessitate large attached garages. Beyond the perceived ‘need’ for huge garages, there are planning issues involved that thicken the plot. Not all communities have alleys, and zoning or ordinances may require a minimum number of parking spots per residence. I know for Houston, ordinances require parking for two vehicles (even if we only own one car). For those who can’t afford a wide plot of land to allow for a side entry garage, or don’t have access to an alley, the only option is to have the garage face the street. This presents a dilemma: how to design a home that meets city requirements, fits our culture’s ideals and still looks nice on a budget? If we leave it all in the hands of builders who have no training or education in design, can we expect a good result? I think a solution is multifaceted and requires team work across disciplines. We need a cultural shift (value on good design and walking instead of driving) better planning (alleys), flexible rules (do we really need to require parking for two vehicles?), educated builders (what is good and bad design?), and creative design responses to all of the above.

    1. Now you are on to something. I agree with your assessment. I just felt for discussion purposes I wouldn’t “finish the sentence.” You are starting to do that…quite well. It’s a real design challenge and it won’t go away.

    2. Brinn, your points are solid. We cannot change the nature of our clients, but we can change our zoning requirements, and be good architects, by cleverly designing a garage that does not eclipse the actual house and its front door- yet still serves to make life comfortable for our client(s).

    1. Have at it, get a conversation going. Also you may wish to include some of the comments from the RA and CORA LinkedIn discussion. Here I am merely asking questions. There people are exploring the possible reasons for it and potential solutions.

  4. Mark B says:

    I once saw a house with an attached garage, with garage doors covered with siding that matched the house and a double hung window with curtains in the garage door. Scarred for life!

  5. Brad H says:

    Zoning, zoning, zoning. To whomever is able, please bring back the alley. Please kick the garage to the alley. Please allow secondary suites in that same building, up, down or sideways. And no, we don’t have to have two car garages. Let the street fill up, the more headaches associated with the second, third and fourth car, the less likely to have one. Oh yes, zone as necessary for some retail within walking distance, say food-related…

    Off the soap box before tearing into cul-de-sacs.

    1. Oh Brad, don’t get me started. It’s one thing to address an existing lot in an urban area or established city like when I built my house. (My garage is in the basement hidden from view). But the prototypical “development” has no restrictions other than lot size based on sewer system, setbacks (often too large) and long windy roads that make little sense. Most people would resist any more ‘regulation’. The sad part is the average person would be at a loss for why we’re even discussing this. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Carl M. Zapffe says:

    I agree 100%. I’ve always felt that the garage entrances should be on the side of the house, not facing the street. In too many instances, the garage overwhelms the rest of the house as it is all out of proportion.

  7. My passion is for energy efficient “net zero ready” residential design and while that direction may seem far off from this subject, please continue. After superinsulating the above grade areas thermal dynamic realities require that the basement space be insulated to a much higher spec. than ever considered before. OK, but now the budget, strained to begin with, is stretched beyond the breaking point and the cost numbers begin to interfere with the project’s viability. The final straw that breaks the camel’s back is that the bank’s appraisal agent denies the basement space of nearly any value. I’m almost there, please try to hang on.

    Sometime in the last year I had an epiphany moment while looking at a recent Yankee Barn project in NH. Since the basement space in my designs is so badly handicapped economically, why not simply give it up and build my superinsulated structures on a well insulated slab, saving all that insulation and finishing cost in a space the appraisers deny of value.

    The Yankee Barn project was a cool looking barn type structure in which the bulk of the ground level was essentially garage, work shop, a tight utility room, a stair and a dumb waiter. Above this was a ranch house design, small and efficient, not unlike the sensible architecture many folks want.

    The honesty, clarity and architectural possibilities spoke to me. Since then I’ve been working on variations of this idea. The garage can be part of a robust downstairs level that affords a place for a workshop. Imagine being able to wash your car inside in the winter.

    Just a thought.


    1. Harry, it sounds like you are on to something. My propensity to put the garage in the basement is that in my region most if not all houses have basements due to topography. Therefore, if you have to pay for the basement, why not use it for a garage rather than spend more money on a separate structure. What I like about your proposition is you are trying to reinvent the prototype and celebrate the garage as a positive feature. My only comment is many people in my region want to have most of their living space, including their garage on one level. However, I’d like to see more of your ideas as they develop.

  8. Angela O'Brien says:

    I think there is another point at play here, be it more psychological. In this land of excess, where you are considered successful if you own a lot of everything, 3 or 4 huge garage doors show the “world” that you have made it! Wow, you have gas sucking Hummers? I will buy 5 then and extend my garages. The sad part is that most of them don’t even know their neighbors, os knows them as acquaintances.
    Nothing will change until everyone, (the middle class included), stops and reflects, what do we really want? A fake life where we fit in the “right people”, or a true life where we follow only our own values, of family, true friendships, activities with our friends that do not revolve around the latest super thin, super HD 72″ monitor?
    I don’t want to pontificate on what’s right and wrong. I just wish people would live their true life.

    1. This in my point. I’ve been criticized (for whining) by raising these issues and asking these questions. The mantra “because I can” doesn’t work anymore. I was hoping this recession would cause us to reflect much like our grandparents did during the Great Depression and stop the madness of how we consume and consume. It’s funny, cars are made to be waterproof and they really don’t complain when they’re in the rain and snow. I was almost 40 years old before I was able to park my car inside a garage! We had a one car garage for 14 years and I live to tell about it. I do appreciate the luxury, but my garage is in my basement…had to pay for that anyway, why not use it?

  9. David Manuel says:

    Zoning per se wouldn’t be necessary, just architectural controls, sort of a form-based code. I live in Houston Heights, an older part of town, and my deed restrictions say garages must be set back at least half the depth of the lot. Austin, I believe, has restrictions on “snout houses,” such that the garage door can’t be further forward than the front door, or something similar.

    1. David Manuel says:

      Other measures might include saying the garage doors can’t face the street (this of course depends on the shape and size of the lot), or minimums of front-facing windows, but as someone else said, all this is restricting what you can build, which many people may object to.

  10. John C says:

    Architecturally/aesthetically, I have to agree that the garage in the front of the home is ugly. “Snout-houses” is a derogatory term I have heard planners use to describe the garage-dominant facade found in the suburbs.

    Functionally, my experience with the garages in the four homes that I have lived in as an adult is that they are the outdoor analogy to the truism, “all parties end up in the kitchen”. In my experience, an overwhelming portion of interaction w/neighbors, passersby, etc. is due to activities in the garage. Be it projects with kids, working on/getting scooters/bikes out for family outings, home improvement projects or whatever, it is the garage that is the catalyst that spurs the interaction.

    I lived in a “new urbanist” community for a couple of years, front porches and alley loaded garages, etc. When we first moved in, we sat on the porch in the mornings or evenings with wine/coffee. There was very little interaction unless you count waving at people driving by in their cars. The alley however, literally TEEMED w/life, kids on bikes/scooters/skateboards, neighbors helping each other with various projects, bbqs, wine/beer/coffee being consumed etc.

    So the activity is in the alley rather than the front of the house…so what? Where is it more desirable? That is a genuine question; frankly I haven’t given it much thought. Alleys are typically very narrow which slow vehicle speeds, roads are wider. I guess I would rather have the activity in the front of the house where you would get MORE interaction w/people driving by and the activity, skateboards, scooters, people would have a calming effect on traffic.

    There, I said it. Garages in the front of the house. Am I going to planning/architectural hell? At the beginning of my planning career I would have rolled my eyes at my eyes at the narrative above but I find that I value function over form.

    – I know I equate garages with cars, and I think that is what leads to disdain for garages because of the known negative impact cars have on neighborhoods, etc. However, in my experience garages act more as outside play/project rooms than they do as an expensive room for a car.

    – If garages are in the front of the house can we make them better looking?

    – Should we have a “workshop” in the front of the house that is insulated, good lighting, plenty of windows, workbench, and is not deep enough to park a car? With that you could have either small garages in the back (for areas where weather begs some shelter) or, just a carport which is all I want for my cars.

    – While I don’t suggest that my anecdotal observations are the norm or an accurate cross section, I think it speaks volumes that the dynamic described above has followed me around for the past 20 years.

    1. You make some good points and the reality is largely as you stated for those types of communities. I advocate for activity and connection with neighbors over silence. So if that is the case, we need a new paradigm. Do we dress up the garage to avoid the snout look or is there another way to fabricate this community interaction another way? I don’t know. I indict the garage with this post, but the next culprit awaiting my philosophical trial is the back deck.

  11. John says:

    The front loading garage is indeed a sign of our times and I doubt we will go back to traditional auto storage solutions en masse. Smaller towns and historic cities have an easier go at regulating frontage; therefore, the rest of us need to get creative. I feel the real issue is not the front loading garage, but the repetitiveness of that design and its impact on the streetscape. I favor regulations that require variation in garage location and design rather than trying to force something thayt isn’t going to change. I also favor capping front loading garage size in some manner, but allow sides and rears to be less restrictive.

    1. I believe you are correct, it isn’t going to change easily. The point I am trying to make is not to require more regulation, but to get people to care enough to do something different. However, that’s a pipe dream. Depending on how the lots are divided, moving the garage’s position could be difficult if not impossible. Narrow lots with no back alley may not allow for a side loading garage or a garage in the back. With custom work, as I do, it’s a bit easier to find better solutions. However, it’s the mass produced housing that is extremely lacking in this country.

  12. allen says:

    Don’t blame the garage for the population’s lack of interest in curb appeal. They can easily be made attractive, but there’s little interest. They are however extremely useful. It’s not about storing hummers. They are the new front porch. It’s where kids play and neighbors socialize.

    1. Oh I don’t blame the garage. I blame home builders and developers and the general public for littering our landscapes. When it comes to suburban developments, I pull no punches. They’re awful. I have seen kids play around garages, but I don’t see that very much. Most of them are inside playing Wii.

  13. Douglas says:

    A broad statement, but if you live in a house with a front-facing garage, you live in an ugly house that’s most likely poorly built.

    Those last 6 photos are simply nauseating.

    1. I believe it’s ugly, but I’m not criticizing those who may have bought them necessarily. Apathy rules the production housing world. Nobody understands my rant. The funny thing is most people with whom I’ve spoken all agree that older neighborhoods have a charm and character that appeal to them. But they live inconsistently with their values and visual desires.

  14. allen says:

    Actually, if you strip away the mature shrubs and trees, older neighborhoods are frequently just as hideous but ignorant people get attached to the familiar. Shoddy production housing of today are tomorrow’s preservationist’s wet dream. They’ll be revered as the 3 car garage period of significance. The public is stupid. Don’t let them take away property rights or everything will be crap instead of only 85% crap.

    1. I can’t say I agree. Older neighborhoods could be hideous, but largely due to neglect and lack of respect and care for property. Just because a house is old doesn’t make it good, we may agree on that. However, I don’t believe today’s production housing will last long enough to be available for preservation. Who said anything about taking away property rights?

    2. Chris says:

      Newly built homes won’t be around in a hundred years for the preservationists to preserve. Have you seen how poorly these things are built?

      Nearly 100 yo story and a half arts n crafts bungalow here 🙂

      I don’t have an issue with the front load garages per se, but when they dominate the front of the house. They’d look more interesting if they were set back further. They’d still serve the same function, just wouldn’t be the first (only) thing you see when you look down the street.

      I’d like hgtv to build an “old” house just to see what it costs. I realize lumber sizes aren’t even the same anymore but still, go for authentic old. Fascia boards that are 2X12’s, cedar siding, no particle board as subflooring. Real, not prefinished, hardwood floors throughout. I’ll concede wallboard and insulation, lol. LOTS of windows. Double hung, not casement. A solid wood front door, no metal. Solid wood doors in the house. AND- smooth walls. No knockdown or orange peel. HATE that crap!

      But I digress. 🙂

  15. Colette says:

    I had the opportunity to take a walking tour of the cigar makers section of old Tampa FL, and it changed my thinking of single family housing forever. Cigar makers were well off, and as most of them Cuban, they were use to a vibrant interactive community. Their houses were long and narrow, made me think of a single wide mobel home. They had neat little front porchs, and the structure was set close to the wide sidewalk. The houses were all close together.So from the front you had something that looked akin to a bunch of conex boxes waiting shipment from major transportation facilities. The real majic and living was in the back yard. What individual families lost in front and side yards was magnificent common area backyards that looked like wonderful court yards. Families did most of their living in these communal spaces. They had big vegetable gardens, play areas for the kids, places to hang out the laundry, and plenty of sitting areas for the grownups. The single room houses were oriented as much as possible to take advantage of prevailing winds, and solar travel to caputer as much solar and natural heating/cooling possible. They were fablous, I’d love to live in a community like that. I strongly urge anyone visting Tampa to take a tour of the cigar workers historic district. Its well worth the trip.

    1. This is the type of experience that I wish all people would demand out of their neighborhoods. We’ve sold out for anonymous neighborhoods with houses we have no emotional attachment to, all for spending our money on what? You’ve described a place that sounds really interesting to visit and perhaps even more wonderful to call home. Thanks.

  16. We should encourage alley-accessed garages by allowing primary streets to be narrower. Some of the increased development cost could be offset by permitting second units on top of alley-accessed garages.

    1. I agree, but to change the paradigm of the suburban development may require a revolution. The average person couldn’t care less or even begin to understand why we even care.

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