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What's Missing in Residential Design

I've been on a several month obsession with understanding housing.  Namely, why are home prices skyrocketing, despite the fact that most of the choices are dreary, poorly-built look-alikes.   This week, I was even looking at the "products" available from a legendary developer of senior housing.  I only looked at one Illinois community, but if that's the "state of the art" in retirement living, then it's good that I don't plan to retire.

This week, I have been reading "Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles," the seminal work by Stefanos Polyzoides and associates.  I also watched a documentary on the architecture of Thomas Jefferson.  What has stood out in both presentations is the integration of indoor and outdoor living. 

Thomas Jefferson, as it turns out, introduced the concept of decks and patios (with French doors) to the American architectural lexicon. His homes at Monticello and Poplar Forest were designed with a keen eye toward indoor-outdoor living. Bungalows and their derivative courtyard housing types also were keenly focused on the quality of the outdoor space, and the visual and physical passage to and from the outdoors.

Now consider housing in Indiana, circa 2006.  Even the finest (largest) developer-built homes come with a mere concrete patio and the minimum plantings allowed by law.  The transition from indoors to out is usually delineated only by the door itself.  As a part-time nursery salesman, I can't count the number of customers who come in to replace the "builder special" shrubs that they despise.

In the Los Angeles courtyards, the high-density equivalent of the private LA backyard, the finest materials are used on the courtyard interior.  In Indiana, even "brick" houses often have only vinyl siding and trimless windows in that most hallowed private realm of the backyard.

Bungalows and cottages are perennial favorites.  So why, I must ask, are so few of these products being offered? 

Gardening is one of the leading national hobbies. Endless periodicals and Martha Stewart books portray beautiful homes in beautiful landscapes.  "Curb Appeal" and "Flip This House" teach the benefits of adding a few nice touches to the yard.  So why is integration with the landscape so overlooked by new homebuilders?

Finally, I will close with one additional observation about "typical" residential neighborhood-making.  Many neighborhoods have vast entrances, medians, and buffers.  Yet none of those greenspaces are at all usable by people.  They look nice to the car entering the subdivision, and their visual appeal is not without merit.  However, when I tried to take my 1-year old nephew outside to roll around in some grass, we had a hard time finding a "yard."  Neo-suburbs have "townhouses" without the amenities of a "town," which would include real park space.  It's the worst of all worlds - no private backyard, and no worthy public park.

I would like to challenge conventional developers and municipalities to reconsider where they are placing their greenspaces.  Perhaps instead of thick buffers, we could have wonderful, usable park space.



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