Square Feat: Affordable Feet

Guest writer Dan Maginn is a principal with el dorado inc, an architecture firm in Kansas City, Missouri. This four part series, "Square...

Guest writer Dan Maginn is a principal with el dorado inc, an architecture firm in Kansas City, Missouri. This four part series, "Square Feat," will explore the myths and realities surrounding affordable housing. I'm a relatively smart guy. I have read the opening pages of numerous Thomas Pynchon books, and have a working vocabulary of over 60 words-nearly half of them polysyllabic. As an architect and a citizen of these United States, "affordable" and "housing" are two words that occupy my word-bag, and I use them all the time (i.e. "These cheeseburgers are affordable. Let's eat them and talk about housing."). They are solid, workhorse words-but when they get clumped together (i.e. "Let's eat these cheeseburgers and talk about affordable housing") things start to go south rapidly.The topic is a favorite in numerous design magazines. Stories on groovily designed "affordable" houses abound-complete with sexy images of attractive albeit not-quite-affordable-looking people living in the houses. Like thousands of others, I'm drawn to these images. I'm interested because-someday-I really want to abandon the grumpy box of walls that I occupy with my wife and live in a cool new house. And we don't have a ton of money.So why are my Champion Brand boxer briefs so tightly knotted about this issue as it has played out in the media the last couple of years? They are knotted because the discussion is often based on misinformation or inconsistent assumptions. Armed with my discerning, distrusting eye (developed after 20 bitter years of architectural practice) I can usually see through the marketing spin to the naked, quivering truth of architectural things. Typically, in the stories I read or lectures that I attend, there is some cleverly obfuscated tidbit that clouds the issue. Because so many of us are seeking the Holy Grail-a cool house that you can actually afford to buy-we want to believe, and we find ourselves conveniently blocking out the pesky facts that might disprove the claims of affordability. Only with serious sleuthing can one discover the truth: that this affordable modular house over here was built with donated material and student labor; that that affordable factory-fabricated house over there is way smaller than the photo seems to suggest; and that this shiny pink kit house, way over here, with all the reporters clustered around it, requires an expensive foundation that isn't mentioned in the brochure (among other disappointments).
We want so bad to believe that we can have it all-a cool design with lots of space, for not a lot of money. But we can't have it all.
Without a clear understanding of all of the variables involved (size, quality, erection method, operational expenses and the like), the discussion can potentially mislead those interested in the topic, imbuing their receptive and well-meaning brains with inaccurate non-facts. A meaningful discussion of affordable housing steers away from clever misdirections and obfuscated tidbits and hones in on the grinding but necessary variables, in all their uptight glory. Although such a discussion is perhaps not quite as miraculous-feeling as some of the (sort of) affordable housing stories in the mags, it is nevertheless far less disappointing and abandoned-in-the-parking-lot-at-the-prom-feeling in the end.To get a new conversation started, let's look at size. Size is one of the most important variables in the affordability equation. It sounds obvious, but it is surprising how often this is left out of the conversation. When it comes to our cars, we seem to intuitively understand the relationship between size, quality, and cost. Shelter, however, causes many of us to suffer a cognitive lapse. (This lapse in understanding scale equates to a child's perception of adult age. Back in the day, my 7-year-old niece confidently informed me that her father was more than 200 years old.) We want so bad to believe that we can have it all-a cool design with lots of space, for not a lot of money. But we can't have it all. Size, quality, low cost: we can only have two of the three. Anyone that tells you differently is a clownish boob and they should be pushed and yelled at.The first step to understanding affordability is to understand the relationship between size and cost. Architects think in terms of square feet. It's part of our job to understand how our clients really live and to translate that all back into well-designed chunks of square feet. When the system is working well, our clients wind up with an appropriately sized space, and they are happy, and they pay us money for our efforts, and then we are happy.What "appropriate" means in different cultures is a fascinating subject. For instance, I'm writing this at a small round table, in a coffee shop in Kansas City, Missouri. My body is physically taking up about three square feet. Given my social air-rights to the zone immediately around me, I'm currently leasing about 12 square feet, and that feels appropriate. As I look around the room, I see a number of other Kansas Citians engaged in various other functions within their square feet. I've got my chunk of square feet; the barrista has hers; so does the cashier. We all have our feet, and it feels about right. Social air rights are tighter in dense urban areas. New Yorkers, Parisians, and Singaporians don't mind bunching up a bit more. (When these people visit the midwest, they are wracked with a curious ennui owing to their perceived isolation.)
Square feet are important to understand, because each one-each precious chunk of material and air-is a commodity.
Square feet are important to understand, because each one-each precious chunk of material and air-is a commodity. Each square foot-be it a Kansas City square foot or a La Jolla square foot-costs real, cash-dollar money to construct, and that cost differs greatly depending on the nature and quality of the stuff in the foot. In my neck of the woods, a basic, one-off, architect-designed house with one bell and two whistles costs about $200 a foot to construct-and that's pretty low compared to the rest of the country. A builder-grade house selected from a plan book, with limited options can cost between $90 and $150 a foot.So, if you're one of the thousands of everyday folks that doesn't have a ton of dough, but still wants a cool house to live in, start by thinking hard about how big a house you actually, truly, absolutely, definitely need. (Think small. Small is huge. Small is good-it costs less than big.) Armed with your new-found appreciation of the wee, you can then start thinking about the next variables in the equation: the quality of the square feet themselves and how much it will cost to live in them and maintain them.
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