Immediately after the war the housing shortage made itself very evident, because the landlords discovered that it existed, and realized that they had it within their power to exact extortionate rents. Statisticians got busy and put their heads together and informed the public that within the next five years there would have to be built some 3,300,000 new homes to properly house the people. The building magazines likewise were predicting great things in construction, and all in the building industry were looking for fat years of prosperity, for here was the need and there was the pressure of the high rents. Why should not the thousands of families that had waited build now, when they saw their money going to waste in high rents? All kinds of advertisements were sent out to urge the public to build, and own-your-own-home shows sprang up in every large city, and one could find plenty of builders who would say that one should build immediately, before prices went higher.
And seeing the poor, unprotected home-builder, the greed of human nature seized all in the building industry as it had entangled all other business lines, and the price of materials leaped into the air, and the cost of labor became swollen, and all had that bloated and enlarged look which conies over the face of him who is sure of his meal.
At the end of 1918 the average cost of all building materials was up to 175 per cent over that of 1913, but by the first quarter of 1920 they had gotten up to 300 per cent increase over 1913 prices. Lumber had gone up 373 per cent. Labor had also risen to 200 per cent.
Before the war he planned for this.
Mr. Average Citizen found that the home he had been saving his money to build had flown from his hand, like a bird. The sketches and plans he had prepared for a nice little $10,000 home now represented an investment of $20,000 or more. In fact, if he expected to build at all, he had to be reconciled to a small house of six or seven rooms, which would cost him not less than $10,000 or more, or as much as the large house which he had planned originally to build.
Then what happened? Mr. Average Citizen did not build. The confidently predicted building boom which the building-material manufacturers had looked for did not materialize. Prices were too high, and the public could not be made to believe that they would not come down, and the public was right.
The light began to break as well as the prices, and we find the cost of building materials dropping suddenly. By the end of 1920 they had reached the 200 mark. By March, 1922, they had reached the 155 level, and are still going down with slight fluctuation.
But during all of this time we heard all kinds of theories as to how the problem should be met. Some architects went so far as to predict that people could no longer build individual houses for themselves; that the day of the small house was over. They claimed that the only solution was in the construction of group houses. Such groups would eliminate much of the expensive street paving as ordinarily required, and cut to a minimum the water-supply lines and sewage systems. Semidetached houses in groups were capable of saving the cost on one outside wall, one chimney, one set of plumbing pipes for each house in the group. The heating could also be reduced to a community basis, and the land so distributed that the best air and light could be had with the minimum waste.
Now his plans have shrunk to this.
Many architects conscientiously tried to reduce the cost of construction of the small house by inventing cheaper ways and methods of building. However, the estimates came in just as high, because the average small contractor who builds the small house was afraid of innovations, since there was too great an element of risk, and he was conservative. To meet this difficulty some architects attached to their office organization construction departments by means of which they were able to build according to their economical plans and secure the advantage of the saving in cost. This was held by many to be unprofessional. Other architects secured lower bids by having a written agreement with the various contractors who were competing that, if they received the contract, the owner would be responsible for and pay for any increase in labor or material prices which might take place during the period of erection. Likewise the contractor agreed to give the owner the benefit of any reduction in prices which might take place during the time of erection. This simple understanding seemed to relieve the contractor of nervousness, and his bids were often lower. Still other architects claimed that the cost of construction could only be reduced by standardizing all of the parts. Certain mills had secured high-class talent to design stock doors, cornices, windows, columns, and the like, and the results were very satisfactory, both artistically and economically.
This problem of the cost of the small house was very acute, and, although it has been relieved somewhat by the decreasing prices at this time, yet it will always be an integral part of the problem of building the small house.
In fact, to properly design the small house and build it economically requires the greatest care for detail. Many well-established architects will not bother with this architectural problem, for the time required to consider all these small details is greater than they can afford to give in proportion to the fee they receive. For this reason most of this work is done by the young architect or by the speculative builder, who generally shows very bad taste in selecting his design, while the young architect is apt to be somewhat inexperienced in his knowledge of construction.
The very first thing that must be considered in the problem of the building of the small house is the question of money, because this determines what kind of a lot can be purchased, how large the house can be, and of what type of construction it can be built. Experts on financing say that the cost of the house should be such that it can be paid off in full within fifteen years. This means that the cost of the proposed home must be arranged to come within definite limits. Methods of approximately determining the cost of a house in its preliminary sketch stages will be considered later, but it is sufficient to say here, that once this first problem is solved carefully, other matters are much easier to take care of. If one knows the cost, the question of borrowing money is made easier, and one is not misled into wild fancies of larger houses than possibly the pocket-book could afford. The worst mistake that a young architect can make is to lead his client to believe that he can have a certain design for less money than will actually be the case. It is always best to overestimate the cost in the beginning than to underestimate it.
"But," says the client, "I can buy a house and lot at 'Heavenly Rest Real Estate Park' for that price, and on the instalment plan, too. I don't see why the cost of a house built from your plans should be so much greater than this."
And that is a big question to answer, one which this volume will attempt to make clear, one to which only a knowledge of construction can give a real and satisfactory answer. It is the old story, that a well-built article is bound to cost more than a poorly built one; but how to know the well-built article!