Beyond Foreclosure: The Future of the Suburbia

I came across this article on Retrofitting the Burbs.  Nice round up of ideas. Click here for the entire article by Aron Chang.  Also, see my earlier post on home-made services and home occupation in OPEN HOUSE, a  one weekend “happening” in Levittown.

New Opportunities
I believe that as designers we cannot accept as inevitable the decline of suburban neighborhoods, even if these neighborhoods exist, as Leinberger puts it, “on the fringes, in towns far away from the central city, not served by rail transit, and lacking any real core.” To do so will be to overlook important opportunities, and maybe also obligations. These neighborhoods embody major investments of energy and material resources; the housing surplus constitutes a vast store of underused — or “underperforming,” as developers would say — shelter, of habitable spaces already served by basic infrastructure. For the design professions these converging conditions pose an exciting challenge. Can architects, landscape architects and urban designers collaborate with developers, builders, economists, engineers, ecologists, homeowners and homebuyers, all focusing on the collective goal of reimagining the suburban single-family residence and reversing the decline of so many suburbs? And in the process can we effectively address the deeper issues of housing affordability and suburban sprawl?

Suburban housing with instrument workshop in back. [Photos by Aron Chang]

We might start by studying longstanding patterns and practices of housing adaptation in Southern California — a part of the country with no shortage of upscale real estate but with a dearth of affordable options. [8] In Los Angeles it’s not unusual to find recent immigrants, young people, the elderly, poor families and sometimes even professional-class single people doubling up with relatives, or occupying illegal units such as converted garages, or sometimes even living in suburban houses converted into single-room-occupancy dwellings. City officials have estimated that in the late 1990s there were 50,000 to 100,000 people housed in illegally converted garages throughout Los Angeles County, with even more in other forms of substandard housing. [9] Informal units also serve as businesses, e.g., chiropractors’ offices, seamstresses’ workshops, musicians’ instrument shops and schools, etc.

In other words, informal or illegal housing is hardly a new phenomenon; in fact, for many years, it has compensated for crucial gaps in the formal housing economy. [10] In Los Angeles and other cities, illegal units are too numerous for authorities to crack down on effectively; and their elimination would displace thousands of families. [11] But they are also too numerous to ignore; no city can plan effectively without a realistic population census. In fact, informal housing is problematic for various reasons. Tenants pay no property taxes or utility fees and have no legal recourse in disputes with landlords; lack of a formal address complicates job and driver license applications; units not built to code may lack good ventilation and safe emergency egress; overcrowding can diminish shared amenities such as street parking; illegal tapping of sewerage and electricity can strain infrastructure; and so on.

Suburban housing with informal apartment. [Photos by Aron Chang]

To reduce or eliminate extralegal housing will require that we repeal federal subsidies that incentivize current patterns of suburban development, as well as overhaul the zoning and regulatory structures that dictate minimum lot sizes, density, setbacks and modes of occupancy. But surely the need to do so is compelling, for extralegal units do more than underscore the actual and unmet needs of the housing market and the limitations of current policy; they function as vital examples of how higher densities, alternate modes of tenancy and ownership, and a responsive and diverse mix of uses not only can help individual residents but also reinvigorate whole neighborhoods. Indeed, they offer promising new models to innovative developers.

Informal housing suggests new and expanded roles for building and urban designers in enabling the transformation of single-use residential monocultures into lively, dynamic, mixed-use and mixed-income districts. The challenge for designers will be to redirect their traditional practices to participate in the kind of small-scale and incremental change that usually occurs without the resources of municipalities or redevelopment agencies or third-party developers. For years now homeowners have been making decisions to convert garages or set up second units; the cumulative effects of these individual decisions and investments — installing a window in the side wall of a garage or adding a bathroom or stove in an underused space, thus enabling a recent graduate to live in the city or an entrepreneur to seed a business — have helped to transform many older urban neighborhoods in Southern California. And they suggest possibilities that seem more hopeful than Leinberger’s forecast of suburb-slums for the poor and lifestyle centers for the wealthy. [12]

What designers and planners can do, then, is to reinforce these positive trends and create viable visions of neighborhoods that are equipped to adapt, to change and grow in density and use without diminishing quality of life, while bringing new income, amenities and services. We have to collaborate with policymakers, zoning boards, neighborhood associations, builders, engineers and lawyers; we have to study neighborhoods that have already been densified and diversified by informal housing and start-up businesses; and we have to use our understanding of spatial relationships and land use to modify negative perceptions of infill and mixed use. In doing so, architects might finally succeed in claiming a professional place at the forefront of suburban redevelopment, rather than merely critiquing and bemoaning the waste of so much ill-conceived growth.

Backyard Homes, Pacoima 10k Project, cityLab, UCLA. [Photo via cityLAB]

Design Research
Some promising initiatives are already underway. At the School of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, the design center cityLAB is working on the Backyard Homes project. Under the direction of cityLAB directors Dana Cuff and Roger Sherman, an interdisciplinary team — university designers, community organizations, Los Angeles planning officials, city council staff and the Community Redevelopment Agency, and for-profit and non-profit developers — is examining the potential for infilling workforce housing in the backyards of large residential sites in the Pacoima district of the San Fernando Valley; ultimately the center hopes to encourage experimentation throughout Southern California. Other center activities include researching the history of single-family housing and suburban infill; working with non-profit developers such as Habitat for Humanity to build two units instead of one unit on suburban lots; persuading private homeowners to erect prototype backyard homes; and, scheduled for 2013, constructing a prototype infill unit in the Hammer Museum courtyard.

Some municipalities are already focusing on the potential of infill. In 2003 the city of Santa Cruz, California, recognized there was a scarcity of affordable housing within its municipal boundaries, due largely to the limited availability of developable land and an increasing population. In response to state legislation requiring cities to permit accessory dwelling units as a matter of right, the city created an Accessory Dwelling Unit Program, enacting an ordinance regulating the development of mother-in-law or granny flats on single-family lots. The ADU Program seeks to “promote infill development to help preserve the surrounding natural greenbelt,” to “help minimize the impact of population growth on the community by providing more rental housing,” and to “foster the use of public transportation.” Funded by the California Pollution Control Financing Authority, the program is being implemented in a number of ways, including publication of an ADU Plan Sets Bookfeaturing prototypes designed by local and regional architects; distribution of an ADU Manual and a Garage Conversion Manual with guidelines for obtaining permits; public workshops; wage subsidies for licensed contractors who employ apprentice workers to build ADUs; and loans to homeowners of up to $100,000 through a local bank. In the three years prior to the implementation of the program, Santa Cruz issued an average of six construction permits for ADUs each year. In the eight years since, the city has issued an average of 23 permits each year. Those numbers rose steadily before the recession, reaching a peak of 36 permits in 2007 before declining in the last three years due to wider economic distress. [13]

Prototype accessory dwelling unit, SixEight Design, created for the Santa Cruz Accessory Dwelling Unit Program.

What is remarkable about the Santa Cruz ADU program is the degree of cooperation that its implementation required — cooperation between city planners and city council, between the community at large and city officials, and between individual stakeholders and the community. In speaking with key individuals, I learned that the program required a shared understanding of the issues of housing affordability and housing choice, and the acknowledgement that thousands of illegal garage conversions throughout Santa Cruz were the direct result of failed policies. [14] For example, a local architect and city council member, Mark Primack — who as a zoning board member in the 1980s and ’90s worked with frustrated homeowners who struggled to comply with restrictive codes — became a strong champion of the ADU Program. With his professional knowledge of building practices, Mark worked with the fire marshal to develop new requirements for sprinklers and firewall separations; with the water department to adjust the requirements for new attachments to utilities for ADUs; and with the planning department to rewrite the parking requirements — all to ensure that the new ADU policies would not be prohibitively costly. In a related effort, a local garden designer, Lynn Robinson, ran successfully for the city council as a “concerned community member” in order to represent neighborhood interests, especially regarding the potential effects of ADUs on privacy, daylight and parking congestion. It is important to note that both Primack and Robinson combined their professional experience — the understanding of building, space and design — with a sustained engagement in political and social processes in order to make the new ADU program a meaningful contribution to the urban future of Santa Cruz.

Both the cityLAB project and Santa Cruz program demonstrate the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and political advocacy. I’d like to further emphasize this with examples from my own research. In 2009 I studied the capacity of single-family residential lots in Temple City, southwest of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley, to accommodate infill rental units that would alleviate the pressures of the regional housing market. Temple City (population 35,558, according to the 2010 U.S. Census) has a large immigrant and non-white population; it’s a place where many garages have already been converted to extralegal units. In thinking about how new units could be inserted into built-out suburban lots, I looked carefully at the city’s zoning code and at the prototypical single-family lot.

According to one zoning regulation, a 40-degree plane drawn from the front property line cannot be intersected by any part of the structure in the front 30 feet of the lot. [15] City planners most likely intended this as another means, along with setbacks and height restrictions, of controlling the buildable envelope of single-family homes, bringing order and coherence to the street by dictating a consistent relationship between the house, front yard and street. Rather than challenging the necessity of such a rule, I propose that the 40-degree rule be the model for a new kind of regulation that would allow infill units to be constructed with minimal impact. For example, the city could develop sun-angle zoning, a performance-driven regulation that would require infill units to be designed so that a plane drawn from a given sun angle across the relevant top edge of the infill unit could not block more than 20 percent of a neighboring facade or yard. This regulation would address neighbors’ fears about new structures diminishing their quality of life, while providing a new buildable envelope within with architects could work. The resulting forms would be specific to the climate and existing geometry of the lots.

My study also proposes flag-lot parking zones that could alleviate homeowner concerns about parking shortages that might result from new infill or commerical development. The city could purchase rear portions of lots in residential areas and provide street access via long driveways (in plan the long driveway resembles a flag pole; hence the term “flag lot”); these lots would accommodate cars internally within the block, so that the overall appearance of the street would change little as the block capacity expanded. The parking lots could be regulated so that development rights of individual homeowners would be linked to parking spots they own or rent, potentially a means of deriving additional city revenues. Finally, I propose that architects work with engineers and manufacturers to identify building systems and materials especially suitable for infill housing. For example, an exterior envelope of structural insulated panels could be built more quickly than an envelope of standard two-by-four construction, minimizing the disruption to daily life for residents.

Proposed ADUs and sun-angle zoning, Temple City, CA, research by Aron Chang. [Images courtesy of Aron Chang]

While none of these strategies alone would ensure an efficient or friction-free transition from lower density single-family neighborhoods into more complex, higher-density and multi-use neighborhoods — and none would be easy to achieve politically — they begin to suggest how architects could use their knowledge of housing typologies and spatial relationships, and their ability to envision possible futures, to work with multiple public-and private-sector collaborators to plan and implement viable approaches to suburban redevelopment. Innovations in zoning policies, construction techniques, property assessment and taxation, parking distribution, maintenance and expansion of utilities, provision of social services, processes for formalizing existing informal housing — all these strategies will be required for us to truly rework the suburbs, one home and one neighborhood at a time.

Work such as this is hardly outside the realm of what architects are already doing (again, as we see with cityLAB and Santa Cruz). But to achieve large-scale results, we need to move beyond the ideas competition, the student thesis, the part-time and often pro bono work of architects and institutions. We need to develop broader interest and initiative among an entire generation of practitioners to take on the complexities of innovative suburban redevelopment. Just as urban redevelopment has been at the forefront of academic discourse and planning and design practice for the last several decades, suburban redevelopment must take on similar importance. It’s an urgent issue with arguably greater relevance for the future of the American landscape, both physical and social, and how that landscape is inhabited and traversed. The result might be a new kind of American suburb that grows over time and responds to the needs of a dynamic population as well as to the contingencies of time, place and economics.

In an article in The New York Times, architecture educator and critic Witold Rybczynski lamented the monotony of single-family subdivisions across the country. He noted the disproportionate media and public attention to the “glass-roofed museums, the granite-faced office towers, the glamorous hotels,” and pointed out that Americans spend more on the construction of single-family houses than on any other building type. Yet most homebuyers are asked to choose among houses and neighborhoods essentially identical in structure and function, differing only in stylistic flourishes or material finishes. Rybczynski was especially disappointed by the “scant evidence that the [building] industry [is] responding seriously to the chief concern of many young Americans: housing affordability. Instead of pioneering innovations in construction, design and planning that would reduce selling prices and enlarge the size of the first-time-buyer’s market, most builders prefer to cater to the prosperous second- and third-time buyer. The button that is labeled ‘Small and Cheap’ remains unpushed. Too bad.” He then concluded: “It might be time to reconsider the single-family house; either we content ourselves with smaller houses, or we will be obliged to look at alternatives like patio and row houses, and to resurrect such housing types as the California bungalow court and the Georgian housing terrace.” It might be time,wrote Rybcynzksi. It’s especially notable, then, that the article I’ve just quoted was published in 1991.

Two decades on, the issues remain just as relevant, except the houses have gotten bigger and more wasteful and the environmental imperatives more urgent. Writing for the same newspaper in 2009, design writer Allison Arieff focused upon the same theme of “suburban and exurban master-planned communities and how to make them better.” She cited big box reuse and the High Line in New York City as examples of the ingenuity designers and developers could apply toward transforming subdivisions into “self-sufficient mixed-use neighborhood[s],” imagining “three-car-garaged McMansions … subdivided into rental units with street-front cafés, shops and other local businesses.” It’s a spirited call to action, whether or not one agrees with the particular post-suburban spin. The problems of affordable housing, sustainable development and the fate of suburban single-family neighborhoods are more pressing than ever. Design alone will never bring about the changes that are necessary and desirable. Rather it is at the intersection of public policy and design, zoning innovation and design, construction innovation and design, neighborhood activism and design, and cultural perception and design, that possibilities for change exist.

The Great Senior Sell off + dropping graduation rates=bummer

Arthur C Nelson is coming to town!

He’s the go to guy that has been pretty accurately predicting how the housing markets are evolving.

This coming Friday, June 30th, he’ll be in Santa Fe and hopefully shedding light on the latest trends.

Here’s my take. As us Boomers get to 65, retirement, we tend to sell our homes and downsize and/or relocate. The problem is there’s a smaller pool of buyers who can afford to buy the homes… Hispanic and African-Americans populations, though growing, haven’t been graduating from colleges in the numbers required to acquire the salaries necessary to buy our homes.

The American Dream of home ownership converting into our retirement nest egg has taken a hit. … READ MORE >>

First Comes the Artists, then Gentrification…”What’s a Mother to do??!!”

The artists move into the industrial, run down part of town.  Rents are cheap, spaces are big. Cafes and bars start to open. The area becomes hip, creativity is flowing…and the lawyers move in. Nice restaurants and high end clothing stores open up.

Get 'em while they're hot!

The prices skyrocket. The artists are forced to move out, the Soul fades…ah, but it’s a good investment! The Condos pop up, get ’em while they’re hot!

There are so many parts to this scenario that irk me, I don’t know where to begin!

First off, who created the value of this highly desirable place?  I’d say the artists.   I’d also say the suburbs are so boring, people are starved for soul, a “realness” with vibrant, alive streets. So we as a society get some of the credit, in a reverse kind of way.

The next think that irks me is how, in our mad rush for a great place to live, we end up doing great damage to  the very thing we love; … READ MORE >>

Is There Gold at the End of the Sustainable Rainbow?

I woke up this morning, freaking out.  Doubting myself…I’ve oversold the opportunity…I’m proposing this community organizing path around a sustainable neighborhood demonstration site, and there is no funding.

It’s like I’m organizing a road trip and have enough money to get to Lubbock.  I need to ask my fellow travelers if they’ll chip in before we head out to New York.

The other thing that comes to my mind is this sign I’ve seen on the wall at local businesses…

“We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible. We have done so much, with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything, with nothing.”

So I sat myself down and mapped the road ahead, and figured out when the money needs to show up. I’ve been bootstrapping it out of pocket, but there comes a time for dinero….

“What” you might be saying, “is he talking about…specifically?!!”… READ MORE >>

A Match Made in Heaven

Foundation Investing and Your Vision of Sustainable Neighborhoods

Foundations grant 5% of their assets and invest 95%.  As I understand it, the branch of the foundation that invests has very little connection to the branch that makes grants.  In fact, sometimes their actions are running against each other.

The beauty of socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable neighborhoods, is they meet both objectives! The social mission of empowering, resilient, health lifestyles, uplifting,  poverty busting, social justice,  ecologically sound, and local economic development all gets handled in  “mixed use, mixed income neighborhoods with lifelong learning and open space” .

The investment mission gets handled in creating large opportunities for investing in real, lasting values!

So… submit your ideas, your vision of the sustainable life you want to be living. As the needs aggregate, the existing market demand for sustainable neighborhoods becomes more apparent. Once the construction industry, from builders to banks to investors, finally accepts the go-go days  are gone, they will become more open to this new form of community based in real, lasting values. National foundations will have something to invest in that meets their asset needs. And their funding branch will see their missions move forward.

Your vision of your desired future sustainable lifestyle and billions of foundation $$$ assets ….A match made in heaven!!…


Free Up Disposable Income, Ditch the Car

Mixed use neighborhood. Sounds simple. Saves money. Artur C. Nelson presented the info. Robert Steuteville wrote about it.  The question remains…where do you want to live?

“The average American family spends 32 percent of its income on housing and 19 percent on transportation, leaving 49 percent for all other expenditures. Those who live in auto-dependent suburbs spend 25 percent of their income on transportation, leaving only 43 percent for all other expenses. Those who live in transit-rich neighborhoods spend only 9 percent on transportation, leaving far more money for discretionary expenses.”

Another beautiful thing about living in a walkable mixed use community, is the attached part.  Just by the virtue of being attached, your house has less exterior wall exposed, thus a savings in heating and cooling,  and less maintenance. Polar Sam gives it two big thumbs up!… READ MORE >>

Renovate Your House, Transform the Neighborhood

Washing machines sit idle most of the time

Looking at the challenge of how to build our futures resilient and sustainable, my sense is the insulation in the burbs across America is woefully shy. Heating systems are not so efficient, heating ducts leak, appliances are not so energy efficient, and windows are not so good, to say the least.  These aren’t really economic problems until we hit global peak oil production.  Then the pain of rising prices, utility bills, and commuting will become increasingly excruciating,  is my guess.

What service would you like to provide to the neighborhood? Originally, the “dress” on House #1 was meant to conceal a gambling casino.

The cost of renovating a suburban home to a highly efficient passive (zero or low emissions) house is cost preventative in many situations.  My sense is most suburbanites will only be able to make these upgrades if they can bundle the costs as they add a second, third, four stories to their homes. To make this scenario work, the first floor will become mostly commercial, home occupation, and the floors above will contain rentals, offices or residential, maybe  multigenerational families with multiple contributions to the mortgage. The densities in the neighborhood have to be high enough to make the commercial successful.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers for this “2-4 story smart density infill/renovation to passive home standards” will only work if these free standing suburban homes are joined to create row houses.  My guess is the cost challenge of upgrading from an R 13 or R19 wall to a R 40? is too great a hurdle. By creating row houses, I’m thinking the amount of exterior walls is greatly reduced. Good sound insulation is essential, but much less expensive than getting to R 40 (or whatever a passive/zero emissions house design requires).

To add to the complexity,…

Renovating Your Neighborhood Sustainable!

Cooperation, Collaboration, a community based on common values…..Sounds so technical!  What if your neighborhood made choices like incorporating a swimming pool or a movie theater into the community??  The ownership structure could be by membership, a coop, or a private business.  The list of possible shared amenities and services is endless.

Renovating Suburbia

Transforming the American Dream

Maybe you’d like to down size in your neighborhood into a compound of casitas, small homes for seniors. Maybe your daughter would like more independence and yet would like to live nearby in one of the casitas. Maybe she has autism or maybe she’s changing careers.

The American Dream is morphing into community. We’re learning to work together to create a more abundant lifestyle, where we share more, own less, and have a higher quality of life, while living lighter on the planet.

What services and amenities would you like in your neighborhood? What would you like to give?

Share your ideas!!  together we can make sustainable real! As for the neighborhood theater?? I make the best popcorn in the world.

Image courtesy of Architectural Record


Transform the Burbs, one service at a time!

What service would you like to provide out of your suburban home?

Imagine your neighborhood filled with home occupation services and businesses!

On Saturday, April 23, busloads of visitors are expected to descend upon Levittown for the unveiling of nine style renovations of local homes.

Rich Santer at 47 Pebble Lane will have a “House Dress, Family Games” theme where guests can play games for a fee.

Anita Thompson at 29 Winding Lane will host “Public Pantry” where guests can participate in a shared kitchen and purchase food from her kitchen and pantry. 

open for business

Transform the Burbs, open your business at home!

Jim Hudak of 20 Wood Lane in Wantagh will host “House of Signs” where guests will make their own signs to take home. 

Lisa Vanderberg of 2910 Carlyle Road in Wantagh will host “Family Time Restaurant” and partake in a museum setting of Levittown, with souvenirs, a café, and a house tour.

Polly Dwyer of 39 Old Oak Land will host the “House of Advice” where visitors can gain peer counseling, or hear a bedtime story.




Joseph Barsallo of 21 Wood Lane will host “Future Open Houses.” A map of Levittown and scale model will be on display for guests to see the future of Levittown… READ MORE >>

3rd of 29 Ways to Make Money on Your Home-Open a Commercial Shop

I’ve started a list of good ideas that come about if we rethink the functions and interplay of our home and its neighborhood.  So far I’ve got 29 killer (If I do say so myself)  ideas.  The first 7 are home oriented, the last 22 are more neighborhood oriented. Add your ideas to the list via the comment area!

Home Design 

Home Occupation

I like the idea, the signage could be improved!

3. Rent Out a Work Space

Live/work homes have a separate workspace with commercial potential. What if you reconfigured part of your house to be a workshop or a commercial space?  Of course the zoning may not allow it.  Here in Santa Fe, home occupation is an accepted usage, with conditions on how many parking spaces and the number of allowable employees. A big difference between home occupation and commercial in the eyes of Santa Fe regulations is the home occupation is for appointment only customers/

If your clientele would “follow you home” , opening up your business out of your house could be a large saving.

Maybe your house has a great location, and a neighbor is interested in opening up a yoga studio;  maybe you just don’t need such a big house, and could use the income. … READ MORE >>

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