A Timeless Way of Building or Why do all these houses suck?
Lately I’ve been looking at a lot of houses. I’ve also been reading A Timeless Way of Building (ATWB). The net result has been a deep dissatisfaction with the available housing stock in Arlington, and probably in the entire United States. So while I would like to recommend the book, it comes with the disclaimer of being hostile to casual house hunting. Instead it will help you develop opinions about everything.
I started out reading ATWB because of the Computer Science implications. Design patterns, a popular notion in software development, are based on the notions of pattern language developed in ATWB by Christopher Alexander. Alexander’s book is about the architecture of buildings and towns, rather than of computer programs. But I wanted to get back to the source to understand where design patterns came from. More on that later.
As a book about architecture, being read by a layman (me), A Timeless Way of Building is fabulous. It lays out the general notion of patterns, and helps you begin to understand why some buildings work while others do not. Beyond design principles for good buildings, ATWB lays out the societal drivers for bad buildings in our culture. Good buildings are defined by patterns, patterns that work together to form a pattern language. Bad buildings generally result from failing to understand the pattern it is trying to follow, or from not having a pattern at all.
A pattern is a way of build something, a functional unit of building. For example, a parlor at the front of the house, or a front porch, or a farmhouse kitchen. Some patterns may nest inside other patterns, for example an eating alcove might be part of a farmhouse kitchen. A pattern language combines a set of interdependent and self-sustaining patterns to form an ecosystem of buildings that work well together. For example, a pattern language might describe everything from the town square to the livestock pens of a rural French farming village.
Alexander’s patterns are based around human behavior. The pattern only comes about because of how the users interact with the building, and often how the culture of the users constructs that behavior. A front porch isn’t really a front porch until you sit on it in the evening, and neighbors out for a stroll stop and say hello. A farmhouse kitchen isn’t just a big room with lots of work surface, plumbing, and appliances; the work that goes on there defines the pattern of the space, and makes it fit into the pattern language around it.
In Alexander’s mind, modern construction and architecture is blind to pattern languages because we have separated the concerns of the users from the builders.
Traditionally when farmers built a cow barn (or when the Amish build a cow barn today) the people building the barn were experts in its use. They were cow farmers themselves, from the local community. The barn was built, with only small variations, in the same way all the other cow barns were built, because that worked. And if some variation in the construction process interfered with cow farming, the builders would be capable of identifying it and correcting it.
Today, when computer scientists decide to build a research center, the job is put out to bid by university committees composed of administrators and researchers. An architect is selected, a building is designed, and building firms are contracted. Through the process new ideas are developed and handed down the chain to be implemented. But at the end of the day, the workers pouring the concrete know nothing about the work that will be done in the new building. And neither do the foremen, the draftsmen, or anyone else. The architect might know a little, but is unlikely to have ever gotten hands on with the work. And the computer scientists, who understand their work, don’t feel they have standing to participate in the building process.
The result can be a woefully inadequate building. The two cases I’m familiar with, are the MIT Media Lab and the Stata Center. Both are cutting edge buildings, and very nice in some ways. But both also have many problems which have been chronicled by their residents as well as independent authorities. The Media Lab features prominently as a failure in How Buildings Learn. The Stata Center is the cover story of Architecture of the Absurd. The latter in particular blames architects and the procurement process. But from the perspective of pattern languages the problems are more systemic.
Getting back to single family houses, they do not suffer from the university procurement problem. But they do suffer from a lack of understanding by builders of how the buildings will be used.
One might expect that any individual would know how a single family home is to be used. This might be true, but what we all lack is a shared pattern language that helps our homes and our neighborhoods work together with our lifestyles and our culture. And that’s a tall order. Our lifestyles and culture are changing dramatically from one generation to the next, faster than we replace our housing stock. It’s not surprising that a house built for young families in 1950 doesn’t match a young family in 2010. Or a three-decker built for middle class professionals in 1910 doesn’t precisely fit the needs of nine grad students in 2010.
But even if we look at new construction it is hard to identify clear patterns. There are some features people like, such as granite counters, big closets, multi-car garages, and open floorplans. But these don’t come together to form a pattern language. They don’t say how large the family will be, how it will take meals, or how social entertaining will be organized. New houses built on spec are designed to sell, with curb appeal and attractive luxury features prioritized over usability. People buy what they’ve seen on TV, even though most of the houses they see on TV only have three walls.
Reading a book on capes, I learned that the cape house was designed to be built over time as your family grew. You’d start with a fireplace and two rooms, the door on one side. When you had children, you would build the other side of the house. They were easy to extend, adding breezeways, outbuildings, workshops. Or add dormers upstairs and sleep on the second floor. The evolution of the house mirrored the lifestages of the family.
In 2010, few families if any build their house in stages this way. They buy complete houses, and either move or have custom renovations done by professionals when the house no longer meets their needs. And families don’t follow a single path through the stages of life. Some families live multigenerationally, others do not. Some families entertain, or have formal meals, or cook, or don’t cook. Families have 0, 1, 2, or more children. All these choices and more mean that your neighbors probably do not live like you.
And that, more than the discipline of modern architecture, is why we have lost our pattern language for single family homes. Pattern languages evolve slowly, as new structures are built. But houses last 60 years or more. 60 years ago there was no birth control, no pizza delivery, no internet, no supermarkets, and no thermal glass. Most families had one car and milk was delivered daily.
Our culture is changing too fast for any evolved pattern language to keep up. We’re stuck with buildings created through intelligent design. Unfortunately, intelligent design isn’t very good.