Tuesday, March 1, 2005

"Talking Properties"

That was the subject line in one of the 50 real-estate spam messages in my inbox today. Providential! Because I was thinking about the fact that buildings talk to me.

I don't know whether this is true of most people. I'm pretty sure that I spend a lot more time looking at and thinking about buildings than most people do, and there's some significant chance that what they "say" to me is entirely subjective. But maybe not.

For example, my recent critic didn't like the way I used the pejorative term "snout house" to refer to houses like this one,

on which a front-facing garage is the dominant and forward-most architectural feature. He pointed out that this arrangement is highly functional, and that is undeniable. But is the arrangement also communicative? It is to me.

A blank, closed, very large automatic door says (to me), "Get lost. Owner's cars only." That message is reinforced by the fact that there's no hardware on the garage door -- it can only be opened by the owners. It's kind of like a vault door; opaque and impenetrable. But if it's open, you see too much -- cars, owners' junk, and clutter. In either case, the owner has put forth a view that doesn't have much appeal.

The small, recessed front door, which can be accessed only by walking in the driveway, says, "Well, approach if you must. But you have to share with the cars." Whenever I walk up one of these drives, I always kind of feel like I'm trespassing.

This next house looks a lot friendlier to me, even though it, too, has a front facing garage, no separate sidewalk to the front door, and even a fence:

To me, this house says "Hello! We like visitors!", because the front porch -- a comfortable space for greetings and goodbyes -- is the most prominent feature of the front elevation. There's even some furniture there, which shows the owners' desire to make themselves available for some casual conversation in a public-and-private space.

Both houses are modest, and I'm sure they're both affordable by middle class people. I can't say which example of architecture is "better." But the two houses say very different things to me, and maybe to other people, too. I know which one I'd prefer to visit and live in.

Update: Since we're talking about affordable housing, see what Michael Christopher has to say about Habitat for Humanity.


Anonymous said...

The snout house speaks to me, "I have cars and a house for them". Maybe it should be the snob house.
The garage house is a cheaper way for developers to build.

David Wharton said...

I'm not convinced that the "garage house" configuration is actually cheaper to build; I looked in the real-estate ads on Sunday, and found that only about 5% of houses for sale in the $100-$250k are built like this.

Given that, I think the builders are betting that there's an untapped market for this house configuration. I'm hoping that they're wrong, but I wouldn't be at all suprised if they're right.

Anonymous said...

By having the garage up to the minimum setback you save 20'or so of driveway. That's impervious surface that adds up to increased storm water runoff requirements. On the good side, it also pays off for the homeowner in less storm water management fees that are ‘now’ based on square footage. And, environmentally it’s a good thing.

David Wharton said...

SD, you're right about the concrete costing money. But there are other solutions to that problem, like having a narrow drive -- or just two concrete strips -- that widens as it approaches a back-set garage. Or using rear alley access to a garage in the back; the alleys could be paved with a permeable surface like pea gravel. Or you could just put the whole darn house up to the minimum offset, and recess the garage just a bit. These are all actually very old-fashioned solutions that were used for decades in Greensboro's older neighborhoods, which themselves used to be suburbs.

I think these ideas would probably seem pretty weird to most homebuyers in the suburban market. Still, some of them are being tried in other places. It would be neat to see them tried here, too.

The success of Southside, Smothers Place, Governers' Court, and (we hope) Bellemeade Village, shows that Greensboro's housing market is in the middle of seismic shift. Now that the smell of money is in the air, I think Greensboro's development community will be interested in trying some old-and-new ideas.