This article concerns four propositions: First, that most of the houses which are still being built in America are needlessly inconvenient and ugly and that there is great waste from too rapid depreciation; second, that convenience, comfort and beauty actually pay the owner in dollars and cents, as well as in happiness; third, that soundness of construction is of importance both to the home-owner and to the community, and fourth, that builders and home-owners can and should be better informed than they now are on the principles of architectural design and construction.
1 In American Building Association News, March, 1929.
It does not require a trans-continental trip or a training in art to convince one that a large proportion of the houses built during the last half century are either uninteresting or actually hideous from the architectural point of view. The good taste displayed by our colonial ancestors in the building of their own homes has made the American Colonial styles of architecture famous throughout the world for their good proportions, simplicity, and dignity. These homes were also built so well that when well located they command high prices today, after two or three centuries of use.
But in the nineteenth century especially, standards of architectural design fell off. The more pretentious houses carried too much ornamentation or "gingerbread," and the less pretentious homes were like dry goods boxes - just four sides and a roof, homely rather than home-like, and often positively ugly. Ordinarily these houses did not have the advantage of an architect's services, but were designed as well as constructed by the builder. Now and then one comes across whole villages in which every third or fourth house displays the handiwork of the same man, who perhaps built a hexagonal tower on top of each box-like house or ornamented his porches, dormers or gables in some peculiar manner. Such houses seem as out of place today as bustles and mutton-leg sleeves. Yet, though we can change our fashions in clothes rapidly and make them over or consign them to the attic or to "charity," old houses are not so easily disposed of, and remain to spoil our landscapes and to depress community values.
A peculiar feature of difficulty is the narrow lot so characteristic of American cities and their suburbs. It is almost impossible to build a beautiful detached house on a lot that is only 25 feet wide and still allow ample light and air at the sides. One essential principle of architectural beauty is that the width of a house shall be greater than its height, for only in this way will it fit in with the horizon line in a way that will please the eye. But on the narrow lot the height almost inevitably exceeds the width, and a street of such houses looks like a row of irregular teeth which need the attention of a dentist.
As rural builders are apt to make use of the types of architecture which are fashionable in cities, high narrow houses have been built all over the farm districts of the western states, even though they cannot be justified by the excuse that the lot is narrow and that land is dear. When well sheltered by trees such houses may, of course, be very homelike and attractive, but it is much more difficult for nature to hide the mistakes made by man in our cities. The result is that when we show our town to visiting dignitaries or to our relatives we do not take them to the industrial quarters or to the regions of modest homes, where the great majority of our population live, but only to the residential quarters of the very well-to-do, where houses by virtue of their size and the fortunate use of the services of architect and landscape architect are likely to be much more creditable.
Standards of construction declined at about the same period in which architecture fell off, though perhaps a bit later, for the type of house with the mansard roof was ordinarily well built and yet marked a decline in architectural taste. The use of less enduring materials for the construction of frame houses doubtless bore some relation to the progressive depletion of our forests, for as timber became more expensive the tendency to use less of it and to use lower grades of lumber increased. But more striking still was the factor of poor workmanship. For as our cities grew rapidly following the industrial revolution, it became profitable for builders to put up large numbers of houses to sell to any comer instead of building houses to order. The desire to make quick profits outstripped pride in craftsmanship and hence houses were slapped together, painted up attractively, and equipped so that they would look well to intending purchasers and sold before the period of depreciation had set in.
The speculative builder's chief interest was to unload as quickly as possible so that he could get his capital free to build more houses. The purchaser seldom knew the difference between a house that was well built and one that was poorly built, or else had no choice, since all houses were poorly built. After a year or two he would notice signs of poor construction, the roof would begin to leak, clapboards would spring loose, coal bills would be unduly high from defects in the heating system, and so on. Though the initial price which he paid for the house might not have seemed excessive, his bills for up-keep were surprisingly high. Often his income did not grow rapidly enough to make it possible for him to keep the house in good repair. Whole neighborhoods suffered depreciation of property values because of the failure of certain individuals to paint their houses or to repair sagging porches, hanging gutters, and broken steps.
Sound construction as well as good design is therefore the concern of the whole community. Civic interest should stimulate community leaders to take measures which will protect their city or village from eye-sores and from rapid depreciation. This, however, is merely the negative phase of our program. For it is possible and desirable as well to undertake positive measures for the development of civic beauty in residential sections. Better Homes in America, Inc., which was established in 1922 with the help of Herbert Hoover, who until now has served as president of its Board of Directors, was organized largely for this very purpose. Its primary interest is the promotion of single family housing and home ownership, but with insistence everywhere that the homes to be built shall be better homes in every sense of the word - better in design, in landscaping, in construction, in equipment, in furnishing and in the opportunities that they offer for the development of wholesome home life.....
The programs promoted by Better Homes in America have been designed primarily to reach the consumers of houses rather than their producers. It takes time to convey the essential information to an entire nation but unquestionably this and other movements are making important contributions to the development of discrimination in buying and to a demand on the part of home-owners and home buyers for better architectural design and better construction.
The producers or builders of houses should, however, also be reached and be helped to see their responsibility for the maintenance and development of high standards. This argument has been most effectively stated by the secretary of the Massachusetts Association of Real Estate Boards, Mr. Reginald Mott Hull, of Boston, in a recent address, as follows:
Good taste seems to me to be permanently good. Styles in architecture become popular and sometimes their popularity passes, but if a given style has been developed with good line and proportion, and later its popularity passes, the sum total of good taste has been increased and property built in that style with good taste has acquired a value which will be permanent. On the other hand, while bad taste is bad enough when the house is new, when it is old and the fad has passed the depreciation in the property is accentuated, and increased, and the more houses that are badly built in that style, the more overwhelming is the ultimate loss.
One level-headed real estate man with whom I have discussed this matter comes back at me with the remark, "The bad ones are sold," to which my reply is that the public does not often have a chance to buy small houses built in good taste.
Another reply is that everyone does not want the same kind of house, and the fact that these houses in poor taste are bought is that somebody likes them. My reply is that the public should have the choice between good styles of architecture, but not between good and bad examples of a style, and I believe that given the choice between a house of good architecture, or of bad, of the same price, most people would take the good. Also, taste being a matter of individual development, the more well-designed houses there are on the market, the better educated public taste would become.
From the standpoint of the purchaser of small houses an important matter is the resale value. The man building a house of six rooms is likely to put a large part or all of his savings into it. If in the future when he sells, the style has changed and he has a house in bad taste as well, he is likely to lose money which might have been saved. Any new house may catch a purchaser when the paint is fresh, the lawn newly graded and the house is clean. It is in the old house, run down and unpainted, where the contrast is strongest. Then, if in addition to the depreciation there is bad architecture, little except land value is left.
If the well-designed house can be sold, re-sold and mortgaged better, self-preservation will force the speculative builder to use good plans, good construction and reasonable financing.