Thursday, January 31, 2008

Wake Up and Smell the Formaldehyde

FEMA trailers are in the news again. Turns out they're not fit for human habitation. Problem is we've known it all along.

A scathing article on sheds light on the toxic conditions and details the efforts of the United States government to cover it up.

Meanwhile, better than two years on, over 30,000 hurricane victims still call FEMA trailers home.

Certain carpets, plastic laminates, and adhesives out-gas formaldehyde. Put those materials in a closed container (FEMA trailers have little or no natural ventilation) and you've got the prescription for a deathtrap.

Why do we tolerate this? What kind of country are we?

For the cost of a day in Iraq, we could fund a research and development arm of FEMA hiring the best planners, architects, and industrial designers in the country to intelligently and humanely deal with the challenge of emergency housing and delivery logistics.

That's a priority I can vote for.

ps... for the local Mississippi Gulf Coast "scoop" on Katrina issues (FEMA trailers, insurance, lack of affordable housing, etc.) check out my friend Ana Maria's Bay St. Louis blog - its hot!!!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Floating Houses

Dutch Architects are building houses that float - a truly organic and unique solution for building on waterfronts. Building green means creatively responding to the environment you're in. This is way creative.

Check it out.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Cutting Taxes

How about a tax cut for people who buy new homes? I propose we cut the "pretentiousness tax."

Every time you see a fake shutter, the home-buyer just paid too much. You know the ones I'm talking about, shutters too skinny to cover the window when folded in. Think about the human body with outstretched arms only half the size of a normal proportional arm. Its laughable.

Their only function is to pretend to be something they're not. A fraud perpetrated for the sake of "appearances."

The fake shutters get screwed to the wall to enforce the scam.

Here's the math. Fake shutters go for about $50 a pair; add another $50 for installation and contractor overhead and profit for a cost of $100 per window. Multiply that by 10 windows and you've spent an additional thousand bucks on the house - the pretentiousness tax.

Its a tax cut everyone can support.

Republicans breathe easy - no government forms, agencies, or mandates. Democrats rest assured that benefits go to every home-buyer regardless of race, sex, religion (or lack thereof), sexual orientation, or income level. Independents participate in the same system.

So how about it America? Are you ready for a tax cut?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dude, Where's My House?

Give me a McMansion please - and super-size the square footage!

I was watching a report last night on the sub-prime housing debacle; the camera panned over several neighborhoods of recently-built homes around the country, and I couldn't help noticing how HUGE they were.

Could the fad of oversized homes have something to do with the housing crisis at hand?

Homes have increasingly become larger and larger over the past several decades even as family size has gone down. Home prices go higher, and more square footage means higher piles on top of higher. Add in a portion of low interest rates, shovel in a second mortgage to keep up with the Joneses (even though the Joneses are doing the same thing) and, voila!, you have a full-scale overinflated real estate market.

According to the National Association of Homebuilders, the average size of a home built in the United States is 2330 square feet - up from 1400 square feet in 1970.

Let's just say we cut that increase in half. If homes today were built at 1865 square feet on average, that would result in home values at 80% of current appraisals. Even with all other factors at play, 20% less of a mortgage could make a real difference for those whose homes are in the balance.

Good design carves out "usable" space, not just space for the sake of size and almost always results in a smaller footprint than the colossal fake mansions we've come to think of as normal. Oversized homes cost more to maintain, and utility bills can be sky-high.

So a great big house just may not be all its cracked up to be.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Strip Tease

Strip malls are the pornography of real estate development.

Ohhh, they're so titillating, so tantalizing, so immediate. Not much forethought is required. Just show up, pull the curtains, do the deed, and move on. No time or desire to get to know or understand complexities - that might take dinner and a movie.

With a strip mall, a developer needs not cultivate a relationship with the community. In the strip mall paradigm no commitment is necessary.

The formula is simple. Find some property on a busy road, rape the site, lay down a sea of asphalt, throw up a super-cheap building with a pretentious (preferably also cheap) front facade and you're done.

But what about the morning after?

Strip development end to end translates into sprawl, and sprawl gnaws away at the soul of our culture, divides society, and diminishes the health of the citizenry.

In strip mall world, everybody is required to travel by car, regardless of the price of gas, adding to traffic congestion. Owning a car (or 5 if you have two adults and three teenagers in the household) is the ante for getting in the game. It is impossible to walk or bike from anywhere. How could you? There are no sidewalks or crosswalks, only a multitude of zooming automobiles. In fact, you even have to get in your car and drive from one strip mall to another when the two are side by side.

Exploitation of the natural landscape with no regard for the well-being of the environment is pervasive with strip development. Natural beauty, enjoyed by the whole community, is treated with contempt.

In a village setting, where homes closely surround clustered commercial space, you have the option to walk to the store, walk to school, walk to work. A variety of opportunities abound to run into neighbors and have nuanced conversations about life and home and family. Centralized big-box strip development deprives us of the very thing that fosters strong communities - familiarity with, and thus a greater understanding of our neighbors.

Where is the warmth in sprawl? Where is the humanity? Why shouldn't we have a deep sense of affection and, yes, love for the buildings we inhabit?

Strip malls may be salacious for the developer, but everybody else is left with a very empty feeling.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Green is the new Green

Many still buy into the myth that "building green" means a building project has to cost more. Conventional wisdom has been telling us for years that respecting and protecting the natural environment is at odds with healthy economic development.

Conventional wisdom lied.

Let's look at the developer's first "touch" of the land - site work - as an example. Does it cost more to use green building principles in site development?

Consider this.

Clear-cutting and flattening a wooded site, while expeditious for the developer and engineer - it just takes one note on a drawing to "clear all vegetation" - has numerous hidden and direct costs.

Every time you see men and machines moving dirt on a clear-cut site, somebody is paying the tab. Erosion becomes an issue where it was not before, and costs are incurred mitigating the manufactured problem. Additional engineering fees come about because the site's storm water drainage system, which worked perfectly before the site was touched, must now be outfitted with large, buried concrete culverts or an open man-made ditch or stream. Here again, we're adding money on top of money.

Heavy intervention on a building site always costs more than working with the natural elements. Leaving lowlands natural allows for denser development in the highlands with net equality in the development potential while keeping the natural drainage system (provided free by Mother Nature) in tact.

And then there are the hidden costs. A neighborhood with mature trees is more beautiful and more temperate than a clear-cut site. Shade in the summer cuts cooling costs, and natural vegetation cuts the bitter wind in the winter. Ignoring these "comfort" issues by heavy-handed development diminishes the quality of life of the inhabitants, the users, and the public at large.

A few dollars of fast cash to the developer from selling the trees does not even begin to make up for the lack of them. You can wait 30 years for the ecosystem to replenish itself, or you can spend a hansom sum on landscaping (and still wait 10 years) to reclaim the quality of life resulting from leaving well enough alone.

So building green, when done with creative planning and forethought, adds value and contributes to the bottom line of a building project. Sometimes dramatically.

Green is now the new Green.

...and the curtain opens

First things first. Thank you for visiting my new, New American Village blog.

The purpose of this endeavor is to shine a light on how political, social, and cultural influences determine how we build our world. The intention is to raise the general level of awareness of how our actions, our policies, our aspirations, our fears, and our biases determine the built environment - for good or for bad. I will point out, as I see it, what works and why, and what does not work and why. It is also the intention of this forum to promote smarter, more conscious, and more humane ways of building.

Full disclosure statement: I am an unapologetic progressive thinker. I advocate healthy, natural, sustainable building and planning that, by design, brings about an environment that lifts real quality of life (happiness, not over-indulgence), respects the natural world, and speaks to the Human Spirit. I believe that good design and prosperous economics and enriched cultural environments are one, co-existing in a dynamic creative whole - not opposing forces.

Here I will post my thoughts on a myriad of issues and I welcome passionate discussion. Chime in with your insights. I ask only that you have something constructive to say. I will not tolerate personal attacks; only comments on pertinent issues and ideas advancing the discussion. Back me up when I'm on to something. Call me on the carpet when I'm wrong. Most of all, be creative, thoughtful, original (no parroting please), and articulate.

And for the record, I advocate democracy in government, but this is my blog. I will decide what is worth posting based on whether I think your post is productive and serious - or not. If you have problems with that, try being more relevant or get your own blog.

Let's have some fun and change the world!

James Polk