Why Single Family Homes Are Obsolete

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

By Stephen C. Rose

Not in the sense that they are presently the standard -- the home that stands alone, that may be big enough for more than a nuclear family or small enough for two only. The standard, sprawled, often ugly, car-dependent, beloved American Dream acquisition, foreclosed and key to the economy. Single family homes that are the default, the ideal, the cash cow, whatever.

But these standard, pervasive, single family homes are, like private automobiles, obsolete for the future.

They may be cash cows for developers and resurrected real-estate speculators and they may for a time be the only thing that will enable you to escape the city or otherwise get right with the world. But they must eventually become either antiques (like old colonial dwellings in New England and along the Acela Corridor) or be folded in to reasonable human settlements that come about as a result of smart planning, humane design and caring attention to the thought of persons like Christopher Alexander.

I am talking largely about the single family dwellings of suburbia and exurbia, the little and big boxes that all look just the same, the bedroom community houses that have as much potential to be part of a vibrant neighborhood as a snake has to be a common pet.

Here are some salient reasons why the single family home cannot be a model for the future.

1. The future requires economies of scale to create reasonable ecological models.

Consider that a truly solar and wind driven neighborhood would thrive with a matrix for its dwellings that could incorporate 1000, or 5000 or 10,000 persons. Panels, turbines, not to mention recycling apparatus would be eco-effective and cost-effective if the huge expense involved was distributed among a large enough base. This thought becomes vapor if we assume the current proliferation of single family homes is the model for the future.

2. Single family homes represent a medium of conspicuous consumption which is borderline-disgusting.

I have watched some of the TV journeys through dwellings with more rooms than one can count, homes whose taste is not worthy of association with the word taste. These homes are a regurgitation of servile design responding to the big dollar which is no more. They got in under the wire and deep down everyone knew they made no sense, save as reflections of prideful ownership.

I think it was the noxious W who pushed the phrase ownership society. In a pig's eye.

3. Single family homes are no longer affordable in an economy that will be moving more and more to the utilization of diverse human talents and less and less to the creation of capitalism's friends, the defective and continually costly cash cows, otherwise known as the private car and the single family home.

The value of the single family homes being foreclosed today is about half what people paid for them and the economy is grimly absorbing this living nightmare. Everyone knew it when the deals were struck. It was a tacit crime against reason.

4. The American Dream will no longer be to own a car and have a single family home. It will be to live a decent life with a decent income and participate in a diverse and exciting community where the things needed to live are close at hand.

This will require a totally new approach to design and execution, a revolution in zoning. It will begin with an entrepreneurial model of a car-free human settlement and move, as people cotton to it, into actuality from place to place.

5. Security is enhanced by the creation of human settlements in locations not subject to the vagaries of flood and wind. Or settlements subject to these vagaries, but built to actually withstand them.

The private one family home is not a viable model for the creation of such settlements. Security will be one of the payoffs for a mentality that moves in the direction of these new settlements.

6. The dominant reason for the obsolescence of single family homes is their inextricable linkage to the automobile. They are slaves to the ideals that emerged, half-formed, in the minds of Henry Ford and Frank Lloyd Wright, when they imagined that we the people were going to become stalwart pioneers in an endless landscape. Wright actually assumed that every suburbanite would have a little garden in the back yard.

The result of this misjudgment is that we have built metrosprawl and continue to do so and it is an offense to nature, to humanity and to the future. It must be literally razed or radically changed to create livable human settlements where people have all the privacy they need in an environment that does not leave them. like Lucy Jordan, in a white suburban bedroom in a white suburban town. We are in the alienation elimination business. A sustainable economy requires a new conception if what it means to live together in society.

Imagine a community where children have a place to mingle and play within a few hundred feet of a dwelling and in sight of other adults gathered at social meeting places in a pedestrian setting. Imagine a community where preventive health nodes are also to be found within a few hundred yards of any dwellings and where one can eat and drink in social settings that are integrated into the mix and reached by foot.

The building of car-free communities is within our grasp and is the very key to sustainable economies. The decision to continue building private cars and single family homes spread to kingdom come is exactly the wrong decision for a viable future.

More On New Human Settlements:

Please read Our Crisis Is Not Economic as a starting point.