There’s a battle underway in many communities across the country. On one side is the irresistible force of progress – home builders and developers, and homebuyers in a hurry to move into brand-new homes. On the other side is the immovable object of community government and citizens already settled into growing neighborhoods. The combatants are fighting for the right to determine what neighborhoods look like – specifically, how to control “cookie-cutter” houses and assure diversity of architectural design.
The families that occupy the first few homes in a new neighborhood are often quite surprised when they find that a nearly identical version of the home they call their own is under construction two doors down. How did that happen? After all, when they met with their builder they chose the brick color, the siding color, and the roof shingles; they reversed the plan and picked the upgraded landscaping package. But suddenly their vision of home ownership, their biggest investment, their pride, is diluted by similar visions sprouting up all along their street.
Home builders and developers, on the other hand, are under intense financial and competitive pressure. Development starts many years in advance of construction, when land developers purchase and “stockpile” land for future use. It’s a speculative game, and developers cross their fingers that homebuyers will desire today the land that they bought ten years ago. The trick is to appeal to a wide audience and buy land in areas now that will be in demand later. Part of that wider appeal is expressed in the design of the homes that are offered for sale or for construction in those neighborhoods. The safest route is always a small number of easily modified designs that can be accurately priced and that will satisfy the desires of the largest number of people.
When a homebuyer sits down to “customize” one of these plans, he’s usually choosing from a pre-determined vocabulary of options designed to work well together and produce an attractive home. That’s a workable system until you consider that in a given neighborhood, where the homebuyers are similar in age, income, education, values, etc., it is very likely that their tastes in home design are similar too. And before you know it, two different buyers starting with the same basic plan have chosen similar materials and colors. Oops – now what?
Everyone, of course, has a right to decide what his or her own house looks like. Some of America’s best homes are unique, distinctive designs that truly reflect the personalities of their owners. But those homes are rarely built in “typical” suburban neighborhoods. More likely, they’re on properties isolated from any significant architectural context and need relate only to trees and land forms.
Most homes in this country are built next door to other homes. A group of homes together forms a neighborhood, and a neighborhood often looks best (and hold it’s value best) when the homes in it share a common design thread. But that’s where the battle starts. Houses can be too similar, and neighborhoods can take on a monotonous character. The appeal of attractive homes is weakened. Soon homeowners and city officials are criticizing the repetition of comparable houses, and builders and developers find themselves having to defend their right to build what their buyers are asking for.
It’s a complex and difficult problem but there are solutions. The most common is instituting a design review process — a system for determining whether a particular design is compatible with the homes around it. Although inherently subjective, design review can have a high degree of objectivity if clear guidelines are drawn up. Historic neighborhoods around the country have successfully used design review for many years to maintain their character and property values. Newer communities use design guidelines to simultaneously guarantee design compatibility and assure architectural diversity. The design review process requires that attention be paid to the design of each home as an individual project, not just as another permutation of a standard plan. It also requires that each proposed design be evaluated in terms of the houses around it.
But because of the inherent difficulty of imposing rules upon something as subjective and personal as the design of a home, the design review process can be cumbersome and painful.
A better solution is to put more “custom” in the custom design process. A “true” custom home is one that is designed from the very beginning with a particular owner’s needs, dreams, desires, and wishes in mind. When a home reflects a family’s idiosyncrasies it displays a unique character that can’t be transferred to another home. It is, by definition, distinguished from all others. Building more true custom homes in neighborhoods facing “cookie-cutter” problems adds much of the desired variety that raises the level of architectural integrity for the whole community.
For the homeowner, there are several rewards for getting involved in the custom design process. The most obvious is a house that is a better fit to a particular family than a speculative home designed for a broad market. That might mean that more joy and satisfaction is found in living there. It might mean that the spaces built are actually used – unlike many new homes where obsolete formal spaces are little more that places to display furniture.
But the biggest reward may be financial. A custom designed home is often a smaller home, and smaller homes give you the choice of paying less for the entire project or of spending the savings on better details throughout (and it’s the details that make truly fine homes). A custom designed home may also make more efficient use of materials, saving money on the basic structure of the building. Even the added costs of design professionals can be absorbed through cost savings in the house itself.
A builder client of mine recently called to discuss what could be done for a potential buyer who is “struggling” to afford to build a home in a neighborhood where the design regulations encourage the use of expensive exterior materials. The buyer’s budget is limited, but he doesn’t want to give up space in the house; he’s thinking of cutting back on the exterior design. If he does, he’s certain to incur the wrath of the design review board. His buyer may not know it, but he’s about to become a foot soldier in the continuing battle over the right to control the look of our communities.