Remember the old woman who lived in the shoe? Who would have ever thought it an enviable situation? What with nothing more than a trodden sole under foot, drafty leather walls, and a sizeable hole in the roof — assuming, of course, she owned her shoe outright and resisted the urge to refinance in order to provide for her many children — she at least had a home.
The barrage of statistics on rising foreclosures, sluggish sales and dwindling values reads like housing market Armageddon. And in some communities — one in Pennsylvania is being used as a filming location for Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, "The Road" — I’d be hard pressed to argue it’s not. So much attention has been devoted to crooked lending practices and unreachable interest rate adjustments that housing has become the symbolic carcass of high-stakes greed, instead of the comforting four-squares that line the tree-lined streets of Southwest.
I was on the treadmill recently and stumbled upon HGTV. I can’t remember the name of the show, but the realty-based premise included a variety of homeowners inviting real estate agents into their homes, sharing their purchase price, upgrade or remodeling costs and then, in heightened game show anticipation, waiting anxiously to be told what their home was now worth. It seemed anything less than a 20 percent annual return was disappointing! A few years ago I was on a similar program — National Open House — revealing what I paid for my home and what it was then worth. It’s safe to say my return has dropped since then — something like 30 percent, in fact — but thankfully I bought my home because it was what I wanted to live in, not profit from.
Similarly, there is an architect I admire out East whose stunningly composed promotional material always contains the phrase "creating heirlooms." The clientele is elite and the homes are immaculate, but the concept remains poignant in any tax bracket: Homes should be cherished, not flipped.
I’ve written before about the efficiency and performance of our homes, how they measure up to newly developed environmental rating systems and technological standards. Surely I’ll have more to say on that, but now, while homes are under fire for being not just the straw, but the actual camel, of this broken economy, I think it’s important to be an advocate and invoke the touchy-feely aspects of our homes, to remind a new generation of struggling homeowners that once upon a time people bought homes to live in, to grow in, and occasionally sneak out of basement windows from (never, Mom, I swear!). Historically, the investment in a home occurred over the course of time — a savings account with a roof — and penciled heights on doorframes.
Declaring myself an architect in various conversations over the last few months has generated more than a single look of pity, and is usually followed with the timely question: Is anyone building? The answer is yes, some are, certainly fewer and with greater caution, but our needs and desires for housing haven’t changed. I’m working with a couple right now to remodel their drafty kitchen. They’re not blind to the economy, but are choosing instead to focus on competitive labor and material costs and lower-than-ever interest rates to improve a room they share as a family because, in spite of this market, they value their home.
Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects on East Hennepin.