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.


  1. rif says:

    For what it’s worth, both the new Brain & Cognitive Science building and the new Media Lab are beautiful buildings that are great to work in. So I’m not sure intelligent design can’t work at all for architecture; people have learned a lot over the years about how to make research buildings.

    I agree that the old Media Lab and the Stata Center are disasters, but I think the problem is hiring famous name architects who care more about making a statement than making a great building.

    I also agree that most local housing stock is awful, but I also wonder whether they’ve stolen a feature from software development: featuritis. Marble countertops? Check. Stainless steel appliances? Check. They’re all the same, because they’re afraid that being different would cost them. The most ridiculous bit seems to be the trend towards more smaller rooms in order to up the room count, and especially towards way too many bathrooms, even if they’re cramped and stupidly located. When we were looking, I think we saw a 2 bedroom place with 3 1/2 bathrooms at one point. Insane.

    At least in Cambridge, there seems to be a small stock of interesting, funky, unique, functional and sometimes beautiful homes. Out of 20 or so we looked at, we saw two. The first was the very first place we looked at, and we were outbid by $1000. The second was the place we bought. But maybe Arlington is even worse in that regard.

  2. Kevin Riggle says:

    Or a three-decker built for middle class professionals in 1910 doesn’t precisely fit the needs of nine grad students in 2010.

    What’s more surprising to me is how well a triple-decker built for middle class professionals in 1910 does fit the needs of students (and middle class professionals) in 2010.

    I think I’d disagree that there isn’t a pattern language in modern homebuilding. Open-plans and huge garages and industrial kitchens and so on are all very much patterns which get replicated over and over for a reason (apparently they sell houses). The problem, I think, is that people are only so good at figuring out what they actually want — different than what they think they want — and those patterns don’t actually provide value for many important use-cases. They’re fads, or they provide value I don’t care about, that isn’t useful. (What, exactly, is the value of an open-plan house anyway? I hate them. Why would you not design for some amount of noise isolation?) It’s a pattern language designed around the automobile and cheap gasoline and a Picket Fences idea of nuclear-family life.

    The Somerville triple-deckers around me weren’t built any more consciously, but the pattern language they used turns out to have more lasting value — certainly more value for me as an unmarried student in a world where I don’t own a car, and have available to me cheap and reliable public transportation and a combination of stores serving basic needs within easy walking distance and stupid-simple online ordering for everything else.

    Our culture is changing too fast for any evolved pattern language to keep up.

    I don’t know, I think I might find a house built around “birth control, pizza delivery, internet, supermarkets, and thermal glass” a terrifying place to live. I envision it looking a lot like a suburban split-level. Would it have a kitchen? Would it be anything but a series of bedrooms and a bathroom and some common space designed for watching television?

    One of the advantages of the Somerville triple-decker pattern is how flexible it is. You have anyone from unrelated college students to a young couple to an old retired couple living on the first floor, and a gaggle of college kids or post-college yuppies or a small family or an older extended family living on the second and third floors. You have houses that double as startups, and social spaces, and shared workspace for projects, in ways that are less possible in the suburban nuclear-family model. (Though not impossible, cf. the garages of Silicon Valley.) You don’t live the same way your neighbors do, but that’s fine, because the pattern is general enough to work most of the time, and be adapted to fit specific use-cases.

    (I keep discovering features of the Somerville triple-decker, eg. if you put up curtains or blinds and keep them closed during the day in the summer, the house stays pleasantly cool, and then you can open up the windows at night to get some breeze. Air conditioning? Who needs that?)

    And I would totally get milk delivered to my house if the option were available to me. :-)

  3. _Mark_ says:

    I thought the Somerville triple-decker (at least the latest incarnation of it) had nothing to do with living and everything to do with zoning regulations – in the 80’s and 90’s at least you could build a 2 decker, not a 3, but you could then add a cupola, and then you could expand that, and eventually “upgrade” all the way to a full three-decker, which you couldn’t have just built in the first place. (At least that was how my landlord at the time explained his continuing expansion efforts over the collection of houses he owned…)

  4. Kevin Riggle says:

    Mark, I’m pretty sure most of the Somerville triple-deckers, in my part of town at least, were built as such in the 1880’s and 90’s. I don’t think you’re that old. ;-)