The Harm in Cookie Cutter House Plans

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When Generic isn't the Better Choice

Driving through a nearby town that has experienced a great deal of population growth in recent years inspired me to write this blog entry in critique of the cookie cutter house mentality. By this I mean development that ignores its surroundings and creates tray after tray of non site specific housing. Often the housing is badly needed, but it's also often badly done, and may serve not to alleviate housing crunches, but just make neighborhoods worse. Perhaps this entry also takes a jab at mass marketed house plans that claim to have one size fits all solutions for house styling. The inspiration came from seeing an attractive older home on a corner lot - one story, probably 12-1400 square feet, not super fancy but well cared for and obviously settled into its neighboring community. Next to it, distressingly, loomed a home fully twice its size, with a footprint nearly the size of the building lot and a full second story to really complete the gigantism effect - functionally dwarfing the neighbor and rendering the neighborhood as a whole imbalanced. 

Growing Pains in Housing: Architectural Hostility and Garage-centricity

That newer home was a cookie cutter style home. I don't know how to explain the actual meaning of that word, but everyone seems to know just what it means.  Houses of this style, whether they show up as one offs or whole swaths, seem hostile to me. They move in without regard to their surroundings (human or landscape) and come across as aggressive by being so large and thoughtlessly designed with respect to their neighbors.  This is probably because the plans are generic in the first place, created without a site in mind. Taking the living location away from our planning is a hazardous business with long term aesthetic implications, especially for established neighborhoods. Granted, not every house can look out on a park or a stream. But many of these development style homes don't seem oriented to the outside at all. The house is an island, tightly packed in with other islands identical to it (or looming catastrophically over their neighbors). Garages are emphasized and often built into the structure, which can encourage unsociability as it allows owners to just roll right indoors. Windows seem haphazardly placed in terms of looking out, emphasizing interiors rather than the outside. I have always felt that the balanced appearances of well designed homes, older or modern, are designed to serve not just the occupants, but the community surrounding it. They look outwards and do encourage us to look at the homes with interest as we pass by. Current window layouts often fall into the trap of meeting codes but failing the test overall with misaligned or thoughtlessly asymmetrical window schemes, not looking outward but emphasizing privacy and the interior landscape. This is partly understandable in an age where privacy is at a premium, lots are small, and there are always more and more people per square mile. And yet, there are aesthetic and arguably social drawbacks to this approach. 

In paying attention to our surroundings, be they other homes or natural scenery, we bring the interactional and relational aspect of community back to our design and encourage its existence in "real life." We respect our real surroundings - human and landscape. A home looks better when it considers its surroundings - and this is why thoughtful design at the single home level or more location specific design at the developmental level is so important. Privacy can still be enjoyed along with sociability through the use of interior window treatments. Perhaps to soften all that garage-centricity, we could also start seeing the return of outdoor spaces (porches, decks, patios, gates and gardens could all function in this capacity). I think looking outward in our design could also lessen the frequency of the unfortunate landing of 3500 square foot homes alongside their 1500 square foot neighbors - a hostile architectural event that always seems to render the smaller home dwarfed and the neighborhood as a whole somewhat ludicrous.

Future Forward Design and Development is Site Specific

While my opinion is merely that, it hasn't escaped the attention of numerous cities and towns with historic areas that these neighborhoods are worth protecting. Size limits, character plans and historic committees all can function to protect the existence of these neighborhoods from "character assassination." And while I may sound as though I'm discouraging of all development, I think that population dense housing can and lately more frequently does achieve site specific design that creates beautiful spaces. While developments that aren't thoughtful about their surroundings can feel like holding pens for people offering only gloomy views of other condos/apartments or a busy road, I'm seeing more and more dense housing areas that seek to obey natural rules and be respectful of surroundings. Friends live in a large urban apartment complex built right up on a wetland. The housing gently fans around a huge marsh area in which wooden plank walkways were laid out, providing walking and running trails as well as wildlife viewing. People are out there all the time, and no matter where you are in most of the apartments, you look out at this living, changing space. In spring, the night rings with the sound of frogs that still have a place to live despite all the people around them, migratory birds make stopovers and you are encouraged to look (and go) outside.  So I'm encouraged by newer strains of thinking in city planning, urban and suburban design. And I love that we can be a part of the design process for those who are fortunate enough to build their own homes.

It's a pleasure to see a properly sited home (or development of homes, for that matter) that has considered its surroundings and folded itself into the mix as best as can be done and to know the satisfaction experienced as a result by the home dwellers and those passing or living by. Considering a neighborhood's extant style along with protecting green spaces, wetlands and other natural zones of biological importance during the development phase benefits not only the areas immediately around us, but ourselves as we end up with more soothing, healthy and beautiful places to be a part of. I hope that we will see more and more of this style of growth take place, as being more thoughtful and careful about how we interact with our greater world gives us something great back in return. 

Jamie PurnellComment