Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Adaptability of McMansions?

New Urban Network has a great summary of the coming housing crisis. Yes, coming. As in not the lightning bolt that already struck this country and several others that tried to play the game of easy lending + zero demand = new demand & shit loads of shoddy.

So now we're left with the shoddy. And by shoddy, I mean virtually all things constructed in the name of getting them built as quickly as possible, gluing some fake bricks on them, selling them off as soon as possible, and cashing out. It also helps when you as builder or financier can shed yourself of any/all liability after closing. That helps too. And then sometimes it doesn't help so much.

These are the kinds of issues that arise when the goal is product delivery. As much and as soon as possible. Assembly line. Get them out the door. Companies get bigger than ever. The connection between builder and eventual homeowner gets blurrier than ever. Neither party wants to be the one holding onto the house 20-years from now.

The NUN post summarizes generational data from Arthur Nelson, who if you were to create a national ranking of housing gurus, he'd be like USC in the midst of the California housing boom and boosters were making it rain on players.

The graphs and data show a lot of things we already know. Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age in droves and will continue to do so for another ten years. They are no longer looking for 1) new homes, 2) to purchase, 3) yard work, or 4) having to drive everywhere.

Furthermore, the new wave hitting homebuying age, many of you and myself, are not as interested in homebuying as before. Partially because we just witnessed it blow up like dude's head in the opening Antietam battle scene of Glory. Partially because we grew up in that schlock and say, "no thanks." And partially due to very low supply that matches our market sensibilities.

They continue to discuss the 1) need for multi-generational houses because of converging demographic dynamics and 2) millennials are more of a social animal. Far more willing to take on roommates or live with granny. Who knows if this is directly related to any micro-economic issues or their social psychology. Nature vs. nurture, I suppose, inevitably leading me to think, "both" and move on.

But lastly, Nelson and the article's author end on an idea that gets discussed in new urbanist circles quite a bit, that McMansions will be chopped up into multi-family homes much the way some Swiss Avenue mansions (or pick the area of large homes in any city's streetcar suburbs that remain today) have been preserved and maintained.

Kunstler often expands on this point suggesting that the yards will have to become productive once again and actually grow food and have chickens and roosters and other livestock about.

I agree with all of these things in theory. Most of the areas at the edges will need to become more literally rural, more productive. The country won't be able to spend India's GDP on lawn treatments any longer. Nor should we, but that isn't for me to moralize (consider yourself moralized anyway).

However, all of these assertions, revolve around the idea that solutions in the past still apply to solutions to problems that we perceive will arise in the future. Oh, I DO think they will arise and in a massive, unprecedented, almost unimaginable way. But, I question whether the average McMansion or North Dallas Palace can adapt to something other than it is for the following reasons:
  1. Shoddy construction (as I said). Many won't be standing more than 20 to 30 years as those glued-on brick facades will peal away like a banana. Foundations will fail. The wood will rot. Roofs will cave in. In good news, the pile of rubble ought to make for great habitat for evil woodland christmas critters someday (The World Without Us taught me that).
  2. The yards are often very small. These tract subdivisions were built with two things in mind: Maximum efficiency and maximum illusion. Phony conceits like "curb appeal" to find suckers to dump these things so they could live in whatever school district that wasn't yet gutted by this whole process. How much productivity can we get out of the land? To make it work, every other house or so will have to be removed. And don't worry about what will that selective removal do to land values b/c that is irrelevant at this point. We're trying to save land value from hitting absolute zero. Which brings me to...
  3. Locational efficiency. In many of these areas, at the edge of town, there is nothing but houses, exactly the same, as far as the eye can see when taking off or landing into DFW airport. Some have nominal "centers," which don't act as centers of gravity. They attract people only out of necessity. The gas station is there or the supermarket. Then they repel people. They're about convenience only. Getting in and out. Back home to lock yourself in a bedroom because the outside world is designed & built so hideously. There is still value in being in old streetcar suburbs, close to the core cities, with a (relatively intact) intricate grid of streets
So if they're not well built and likely can't last more than a decade or two without essentially being "totalled," if they can't be reasonably well subdivided w/ shared formal entry because of the asymmetrical design, and they can't grow food (unless you expand property), and they are in the middle of nowhere, where those that will still be able to afford to drive every/anywhere can choose to also live anywhere, why would they live there? What is the impetus to maintaining the house? Swiss has structural and locational advantages that the who knows how many hundreds of thousands of these tract houses don't have.

Which brings me to a last point. We preserve things we love. We love things that occupy a special place in our heart. Special because they're unique. But if there is literally nothing unique about these places other than the number on the mailbox of Quail Hollow Fox Run Meadowlark Lemmon Estates Drive, what is left to keep?

With boomers looking for walkability and personal empowerment after retirement and Millennials already trying to find it wherever they can, I think we're all beginning to see the immense scale of the pent-up demand and all the work we have in front of us. And THAT should be considered a good thing.