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Design Actually Within Reach

Can a good, cheap house be built? asks Karrie Jacobs.

Can a good, cheap house be built? asks Karrie Jacobs

When I set out on a road trip to find the perfect $100,000 house in July 2003, the median American home price was $168,000. By July 2005, it had soared to $206,000. In late 2005 it had risen to $220,000. And those median prices sound like bargains. In New York City, the median is $750,000, and the average selling price broke a million dollars in 2004 and kept heading upward. When I tell people at cocktail parties that I'm searching America for the perfect $100,000 house, they generally think that I've left a zero off. But then, when they're done making fun of me, they ask with undisguised longing, "Well, did you find it? Where is it?"The answer is yes; I found several. But this trip wasn't a reality TV show, with a winner rewarded in a stagey ceremony in which I hand out long-stemmed roses. Rather, it was my attempt to answer a question: Why is it that the typical American house can be cheap or it can be good but it can almost never be both?\n\n\n
When I tell people that I'm searching America for the perfect $100,000 house, they generally think that I've left a zero off.
Custom homes, the kind of architect-designed palaces in the pages of magazines, almost always go for upwards of half a million dollars-and often much more. It occurred to me that there is no challenge in building an aesthetically perfect palace if you could spend a million dollars on it. The trick is getting results for a tenth of that price.Certainly commercial homebuilders-the companies that routinely bulldoze open desert and plop down a brand new subdivision of Spanish or Colonial or Tudor homes-know how to build cheap. One of their houses might, depending on the location, easily go for $100,000 or less. A handful of homebuilders are even dabbling in modernism by building subdivision houses they call "lofts." But mostly that means they're adding "Modernist" to their laundry list of historical styles for sale. And style isn't the issue-not for me, anyway.The modernism that I love, that I care about, isn't a historical movement that peaked in the mid-twentieth century and is currently enjoying a major revival, but is rather a frame of mind. It's a way of thinking that involves an ongoing investigation of methods and materials. It's a design philosophy that values comfort but doesn't confuse it with excess. It's a strategy that views the most important elements of design as space, daylight, and the surfaces with which we routinely come into contact.Occasionally, when I have expressed my views about housing, I've been accused of being Marxist or socialist, which is strange because I think what I'm being is American. The amalgam of innovation and egalitarianism that I admire is-or used to be-an essential part of the fabric of this nation. Recently I was following a team of architects and planners who were helping to rebuild the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. One of them, a Rhode Island-based planner named Bill Dennis said to a gathering of small-town officials and residents, "Remember, the people who built this country weren't rich, yet they built great towns." I wanted to stand up and cheer.Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home, by Karrie Jacobs. Copyright © Karrie Jacobs, 2006.

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