For all that can be said about the relative benefits of alternative housing technologies (think structural and energy efficiencies of monolithic domes or the re-use benefits of intermodal steel building unit based homes), perhaps nothing threatens their widespread adoption more than when these abodes, however humble or extravagant, are “ugly.” (The word is placed inside quotations because I can hear the die-harders banging their fists, clamoring, “Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder!”) It is a subjective word at best, but the more people refuse to accept that there exists a line, or at least a thin grey swath, between what most would consider to be culturally acceptable and “Well, that’s interesting . . . You’re not going to build that in our neighborhood, are you?” – The longer they hold to the idea that it’s all relative, and continue to build ostrich eggs and metal compounds reminiscent of train wrecks and call them home, the longer it will take “normal” people (note the quotations) to recognize the benefits themselves and willingly explore alternative technologies.
I spent a year away from school building concrete domes, learning firsthand about a technology that had long thrilled and inspired me. While I’ll always remember how fun it was spraying foam and concrete, hanging rebar and operating heavy machinery at the expense of others, I couldn’t believe how out of place many of these buildings seemed. One proud new owner had her dome home built in a conservative neighborhood right in line with a row of 1980s brick ramblers. Another owner’s vertical egg-shaped piano studio appeared to have been inspired by a Mother Goose rhyme. (At least it was in the back yard.)
You may be thinking what I think a lot of the time – “Different strokes for different folks,” right? Lest I be misunderstood, let me distinguish between what I am not and what I am saying:
- I am not saying there should be anything akin to anti-alternative-building ordinances, nor that there should be any kind of social pressure against these bold forward-thinking, albeit sometimes strange, individuals. (I number myself among them.)
- I am saying that these alternative housing technologies aren’t going to be taken seriously until their powerful ideas are melded with skillful and tasteful design, placed in larger sites /subdivisions that welcome their presence.
Rather than focus unduly on the negative examples of alternative housing technologies, the focus should be on how to develop land differently so as to detract attention from the weak examples and focus it on superior ones. This is a formidable task in the U.S.A., which is very set in its homebuilding ways, and is rife with outlandish examples that dissuade more than persuade individuals to build their homes the same way. I wonder if other countries offer more fertile ground for the grand-scale implementation of dome home communities and the like. If I were a developer, I’d be exploring opportunities for large tracts of land (within, but perhaps more outside of the U.S.A.) where a new language of building can be more easily employed.
Finally, there have recently been articles (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/maybe-home-builders-could-learn-from-investors-2010-01-20?siteid=rss&rss=1 and http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-10-must-have-features-in-todays-new-homes-2010-01-20) in the news about a shift taking place in the housing community – one away from base models with granite countertops to a smaller and smarter energy-efficient home. I resonate with the idea of a home that is “enough,” that is “sufficient” for my needs, that provides shelter smartly without burdening me with consumption bills, and that encourages me to spend more of my days living among my family and neighbors in the fresh outdoor air. It may be wishful thinking, but maybe now is the time for an important shift away from wasteful home building technologies. And perhaps sometime down the road we’ll look back with a different idea of what is “ugly.”