Wednesday, March 08, 2006

This Old House

Witold Rybczynski over at Slate.com writes that our neighbor to the east is far and away ahead of Louisiana with its reconstruction efforts. He attributes this to several factors:

  1. Gulf Cost communities are smaller
  2. Mississippi evacuees are nearby rather than scattered asunder
  3. Economic recovery has been quicker
  4. Mississippi involved the citizens in redesigning their communities
He also answers many of the critcs of New Urbanism that their plans are not forward looking, and instead look back.
A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods has been distributed free to residents as part of the rebuilding effort. The book illustrates details, materials, and forms that have traditionally been associated with local styles and demonstrates how these can be practically adapted to even mobile homes and manufactured housing—which will likely form the bulk of new houses. A chapter shows how typical Gulf Coast houses can be adapted to meet FEMA requirements. Four local styles are recommended: Acadian-Creole, Victorian, Classical, and Arts & Crafts. One looks in vain for such Gulf Coast perennials as Funky Beach Shack, '50s Googly Motel, or Down-and-Dirty Shopping Strip. Like most design guides, the Pattern Book is as much about taste as style. Whether it will succeed in turning the Mississippi coast into a Southern version of Santa Barbara remains to be seen.

Critics of this approach—and so far there have been many—miss the point, however, when they use words like "historicism" and "nostalgia" and call for more cutting-edge designs. New urbanists aren't promoting tradition—they don't have to; American home-buyers made that decision years ago. They prefer houses with pitched roofs, clapboard siding, bay windows, and porches. Visit any subdivision in the country and you won't find any ersatz Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas knockoffs. Gehry's public buildings are popular, so are Koolhaas'. But most people prefer not to make a home in them.
The last two sentences reiterate what I've been saying for some time. That the traditional house that is so prevelent here is popular for a reason. The design responds well to the climate and is therefore familiar to their owners. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. That does not mean that we can't improve upon it

There are a few ways that can be done:
  1. In low-lying areas, do away with the Ranch House and return to the Raised Cottage.
  2. Investigate new construction methods and materials.
  3. Improved building materials and finishes.
  4. Better energy efficiency.
  5. Electrical and communication systems that can accommodate 21st Century advances.
  6. See if we can find ways to bring back the "Old School" quality without the high labor cost.
  7. And please, can we get a reasonably priced residential window that looks like traditional wood and not a cheap knock-off?
Many of these issues have and are being addressed by Architects and researches as we speak. Others seem to evoke not interest at all.

One reason critics scoff at historicism is that the resulting product usually is just a cheap knock-off of the historic building they are trying the emulate. Historic building can be accurately mimicked but the problem lies in the exorbitant cost involved. And when the estimates come in, the fancy windows and stone details are the first to get valued engineered out.

Contractors and building suppliers need to find ways to bring back some of the "Old World" materials without the "New World" costs.

For example, wood windows. Many a home built before the '60's had wood windows. These were often leaky and not very energy-efficient and were more costly to manufacture. Manufacturers went to the extruded aluminum window. They are more efficient and cheaper to make. Unfortunately they look like shit. Companies like Pella and Jeld-Wen still make wood windows but they are mainly for the high-end user. I would like to see a vinyl-window manufacture come up with a design that has that "punch-out" look and raised mullions but using the modern manufacturing techniques we see today.

There should be no reason that the middle and lower-middle-class cannot enjoy a traditonal home without having to buy an old home.

PS - Witold Rybczynski's interview with NPR can be found here.

Hat Tip Veritas et Venustas.

2 comments:

nojack03 said...

After a couple posts about the CNU, it is good to see you have finally pointed out the problem with what they are doing. It is not that their ideas are bad, it is that they completely lose focus because of the pattern books. Cheap materials slapped together to look like a fake old house is not a good way to rebuild. Instead of using new methods to create old houses why not use old concepts in housing to create new houses. A modern house can have a pitched roof and porch, but it does not need to look like a shotgun in vinyl. An entertaining response to the CNU work can be found in this months Architectural Record from Michael Sorkin.

Mark said...

Re: The ranch house--I thought about this a lot in the last couple of weeks, and the thoughts came to a head as I read about the tearing down of Structure 117 (which I wrote about at wetbankguide.blogspot.com). I remember looking at plans for coastal homes back in mid-Fall, but the prices associated were so damned scary.

What is needed before aesthetics is a plan for making affordable raised homes that don't look like double-wides on stilts.

I want aesthetics in NOLA and the Gulf Coast, but it has to be premised on affordability and surviability.

You might also want to read a thoughtful, non-technical post on Tim's Nameless Blog. What good will it do us to build Cat 5 levees and elevations if we don't build Cat 5 roofs? I don't hear anybody else talking about that.

If one has to have a slab foundation, you could build a house like my father did on Egret St: drive 60 90 foot pillings. Right now, the house I grew up in is about 20" above grade in Lake Vista (but was at grade when built). The engineer up the street made fun of my dad when he built that house, but I swear people will be tying up to Castille Folse (by then a foundation and the remains of the brick firewalls) 200 years from now to fish.