With the Spring Parade of Homes now over, we might take stock of what the homebuilding industry has to offer. We have much to admire about the Parade of Homes itself: the nation’s first home-tour organization, established in Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1948 to coordinate the construction and furnishing of an annual “Trend Home” by local builders.
With almost 430 homes, constructed by 155 builders in 90 different communities in this year’s Parade of Homes, the tour has grown in size and geographical spread, yet its original egalitarian idea remains, with builders opening recently built or remodeled houses to whomever wants to see them, free of charge or obligation.
We might expect such a variety of homebuilders to produce an equally diverse number of homes, but the opposite seems true. Look at the well-done directory of this home tour, which conveniently sorts the homes by location and price, and you will see an almost mind-numbing sameness to the products on parade, with asymmetrical facades, sprawling floor plans, and big roofs, with gable-on-gable-on-gable. Even the lowest priced home, at $142,100, features the seemingly mandatory gable-on-gable look, as if a kind of architectural gang signal.
Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against gables. But most of the gables on the houses in the Parade of Homes serve no purpose whatsoever, except to increase the cost of construction, the expense of the roof, and — worst of all — the likelihood that their multiple valleys and flashings will someday leak.
I don’t know the origin of such architectural affectations. The houses in this year’s Parade remind me of watered-down versions of the widely published shingle-style residences designed by such architects as Robert A.M. Stern, the dean at Yale’s School of Architecture. But at a time when fewer and fewer young people can afford or even seem to want to buy a single-family house, emulating the expensive houses of the East Coast elite does not seem like a winning strategy.
Most of the Parade homes literally put up a facade. Walk around them and you will often find much plainer side and rear elevations, as if “curb appeal” has become all that matters, with much less attention paid to what the neighbors see or think.
The “gable-itis” of so many of these homes also signals the growing size and volume of homes. Since World War II, the average single-family house has grown from 750 to 2,300 square feet, with the garages in many homes larger than the typical postwar residence. The current “house-of-seven-gables” look of some many of the Parade’s products may stem from a perceived desire to break down the scale and apparent size of these structures, although the shallowness of the gables makes most of the houses look like they had their faces flattened by some sort of giant compactor.
In the past, when I have spoken to homebuilding colleagues about the uniform appearance of their product, I have heard variations of the same point: “It’s what the market wants.” Maybe. It’s certainly what the market has to choose from.
As with other mass-produced durable goods, like cars and computers, the understandable desire to appeal to the greatest number of buyers leads to the uniformity — and conformity — of so many spec-built single-family homes. This has worked relatively well since large-scale tract-house development became the norm after World War II, but recent surveys suggest that that has begun to change.
In a March 2015 survey by the National Association of Realtors, half of those polled wanted to live in communities with a variety of housing options — single-family homes, townhouses, apartments and condominiums — and homebuilders and developers have responded to this shift in the marketplace, constructing much more attached and multifamily housing than in past decades. With that functional variety, though, needs to come a greater variety in price, design and product. Only two houses in this year’s 430 Parade of Homes came in under the affordable purchase price of a house by a family of four with our area’s median income, and only three offered something other than the complicated-roof look.
In an economy increasingly based on “mass customization” rather than mass production, in which consumers want to have many choices rather than superficial variations of essentially the same choice, our housing stock needs to diversify as much as our population has. The Parade of Homes led the nation in 1948, and maybe it can do so again, with a cascade of very different types, locations, prices — and yes, even looks — of homes.
Thomas Fisher is the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.