Week of July 31, 2009

  • John

    I’d like to suggest that you should do a segment dedicated to front garages. It’s clearly a recurring theme on Slow Home, but I don’t think you’ve ever focused specially on it. I’d be very interested to see what you (and your readers) would propose to replace the typical cookie cutter designs. I think this discussion needs to be grounded in reality, and not simply be an exercise in wishful thinking. I’d specifically suggest that “public transportation” and “walkable neighborhoods” are not viable alternatives to garages, and fall into the “wishful thinking” category. Given the reality of the world as it exists today (e.g. lot sizes, zoning, building codes, construction costs, etc.), is there a better way to design a front garage?

  • John Y

    I think a segment (or even a themed week) focusing on garages is a great idea.

    While I don’t necessarily agree that public transit and walkable neighborhoods have to be wishful thinking (especially walkable neighborhoods — but that’s an urban planning issue), even those people need cars sometimes. My wife and I live three blocks from a subway station and can walk for most of our errands, but we still have a car for out-of-town trips, picking up larger items, getting to specialty stores, etc.

  • James Scott

    I welcome the discussion on the garage with open arms, and hopefully an open mind.

  • John Brown

    Who can argue with that kind of consensus.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with this. We may need to break this up into several different sessions- one on garages another on lot design, and perhaps another more general discussion about neighborhoods.

    I will start the preparations…

  • Jim Argeropoulos

    I was talking about TheSlowHome with someone this week and their first comment was, “What kind of discussions are there about about colors and materials”? There is nothing wrong with that topic. The current home magazines and television seem to focus on that. I for one am so glad that what is discussed are more fundamental issues that have a much larger impact on livability and are so much harder to change.

  • John Brown

    Thanks for talking up slow home. Word of mouth is a great way to expand our viewership.

    I believe you are correct in your assessment of most design discussions on broadcast television. Too often it is reduced to a combination of entertainment, sensationalism, and decorating that can be fun to watch but not particularly useful. Add in the “flip this house” genre of remodeling shows and the bottom line is that there is not a lot of substantive design discussion going on out there. This is the very void that our site is hoping to fill.

    Good design is too important to livability and sustainability to be left just to the entertainers.

  • Sean

    It is good to see that my long rant about garages may have helped catalyse a larger discussion about large garages and the blight they can be to a pleasant street-scape. This is not helped by the lack of hedges or something separating one property from the next visually, that can help mitigate the impression one gets of a street being a long parking lot punctuated by small expanses of lawn and a few plants.

    I also like the idea of examples of what is right with some house designs. I believe a lot of the current bad design results from a marketing approach where function is trumped by form and impression. It is too bad that experience and lessons learned from the past are forgotten in the desire to label things “new”.

  • John Brown

    You have made some good points about front drive garages. My hope is to frame the discussion in a way that helps us to explore the issue in more depth. Good examples are important for this.

  • Terri

    Hello John,

    I got a chuckle from the architecture students’ humour regarding streetscapes of driveways and garage doors. I’ve been thinking about garages now that we’re talking about trying to re-design the two-car garage, and I think it could be a timely topic.

    One of the things that homeowners with children may have to face is paring down the size of vehicle they drive. I know that as I was raising my two kids (now in early 20s), I got along with the smaller, older-model Accord and Camry, while at the school I usually saw mini-vans and SUVs. Perhaps the car culture led to the garage explosion. And now that the North American car market is under review and having to rethink its future, it seems a good time to be rethinking the homes for those vehicles as well.

    I’m looking forward to this garage topic too.

  • John

    My interest is how good design can be applied within the constraints of the real world. I’m not out to build a better world; I’m a pragmatist, and I want better houses within the world we’ve already got. I’m assuming that lot sizes aren’t going to increase, suburban subdivisions aren’t going to have alleys, people aren’t going to drive fewer cars, constructions costs aren’t going to fall significantly, and incomes aren’t going to rise significantly. Can we build better houses on the same size lots, for about the same cost, as we’re doing it today? I hope so. If not, then the criticism of “cookie cutter” houses starts to sound like elitist snobbery. “You could have built a much better house for just $100,000 more” is not a good answer.

  • John Brown

    I share your interests and your pragmatic tendancies.

    A real difference has to be made within the constraints of the real world. However, I would not be quite so quick to assume that all of the things you mention have to be “givens”. Somethings are going to have to give if we are going to have significant change. That doesn’t mean more money, but I think it does mean adjusting expectations.

    I am also very interested in what incremental improvements can be made to the status quo that do not require these larger shifts in perception.

  • John Brown

    The idea of adjusting the type of car we drive is an interesting one and would certainly have some impact on garage design. In some jurisdictions small cars pay discounted street parking rates and some parkades have special small car parking spaces that are in especially convenient locations. Garages in other countries are much smaller because the cars that most people drive are much smaller.

    Will people start buying smaller cars?

    It does bring up the issue that John raises in his comment about working within the real world. What it also does is illuminate the other reality which is that a lot of these issues and choices are interconnected and that there are limits when only looking at the issue from the point of view of a single house.

  • Leo

    I too am more of a pragmatist. People will not willingly give up two car garages if they have two cars or even the eventual possibility of two cars; not even if they do not store their cars in their garage. They like the idea of having a two car garage in case they might one day want to store their two cars there. People will not give up larger cars until there is a deterrent ie higher gas prices.

    As an owner of a van, I feel a need to defend myself. I have three kids in car seats. There really are not a lot of alternative vehicles that can (safely) fit three car seats, especially without putting my back at risk.

    In many parts of the country, the two car garage has become a standard. Not having one seems to be some sort of blemish. Like the gas fireplace and the jacuzzi tub (please correct me if I am wrong) these things have come to be expected, irrespective of whether or not anyone uses them. A developer has to sell houses, and these things have come to be expected in any new house. And even if I don’t want or need a house with a double car garage, I do want to be able to resell my house at market value if the need arises; I don’t want to risk a realtor telling me that my house is worth less because it lacks a two car garage. We thus end up in this vicious cycle; everyone wants a double garage because everyone thinks that everyone else wants one.

    It either takes a zoning change or a very forward thinking developer to risk making a development of detached or semi detached housing without a two car garage. I don’t know that you are going to find many of those anywhere at this time.

  • James Scott

    Pragmatism and the art of buying your next home.

  • John

    @John Brown: “it does mean adjusting expectations.”

    I’m an American, dammit! I want it all, and I want it now! Not only do I want it all, but I *deserve* it all. I’m not interested in adjusting my expectations! :-)

    In all seriousness, I don’t think anybody is going to get elected on the “adjust your expectations” platform. It just isn’t going to happen, at least in the US.

    @John Brown: “Will people start buying smaller cars?”

    Maybe. We’ve seen that US$4 gasoline can change consumer behavior, but I don’t think consumer preference changed all that much. More people may feel compelled to buy smaller cars, but they’re not liking it. Given the choice, many will go back to buying large cars, SUV’s, and trucks.

  • John Brown

    John and Leo,
    Fortunately I am not running for office.

    But more seriously, I agree that making any argument for “reducing” anything is a very hard one to make. That is one of the reasons why we are in the environmental mess we are in right now.

    I think we need a two pronged approach. First,we need to work on those “adjustments” that can be made that do not require a “reduction” but simply a smarter, better way of providing the same level of service.

    In other words, what can be done to improve the livability of the home, to the front yard, and the quality of the street environment without eliminating a two car garage from the equation.

    This is the so called low hanging fruit of simply designing the status quo house and community in a better way. I believe that there is a lot of work to be done in this area and that most of it is readily achievable with minimal cost and time. That is why it is the primary focus of the slow home design school.

    The second level is more radical. It does involve more comprehensive changes to behavior and expectations. The question as to whether our society would willingly accept this kind of thing is a good one. It may very well be that things will only change when there is no other option – as in the gasoline argument for example.

    In the meantime, I believe that there is a lot of improvements that all of us can make at the more incremental level that will improve the livability of our houses and neighborhoods and reduce environmental load.

  • Grace

    Ahem! I’m an American, too, as are all the Canadians on the site. I’m also a U. S. citizen, one of a multitude who do not fit into the Ugly American stereotype offered above. I’m also a member of the Real World and thus aware that the real world has always been, and still is, subject to change. I’m a pragmatist and know that pragmatists are best equipped to build a better world; in fact building a better world is the ultimate pragmatic act.

    It is pragmatic to stop depleting natural resources, to adjust expectations, to build houses that take advantage of natural light, that humanize interior spaces, that afford privacy and community, that nourish human aesthetics, that are practical in layout and design.

    Pragmatists, and marketing execs, know that taste and desire, both of which are cultural products, can be manipulated for sales. Pragmatists who are also educators know that taste and desire can be developed and nuanced as new knowledge and ideas are brought to bear on ingrained habits. It’s a slow process. And here we’re back to the pragmatic building of a better world and to discussions on the slow home site.

  • Terri

    I agree with John Brown’s comments above. Change always happens in increments–except for times of crisis. As far as our car-loving society goes…with any luck zero emission vehicles will be more readily available before we hit a peak oil crisis which forces change upon us.

    In the meantime, yes, let’s try to allow for the two-car garage, why not? It should be a good challenge–maybe there’s a new approach that’s waiting to be seized upon, and voila! there will be a desire to adopt it. Is that wishful thinking?

  • Paul C

    Looking forward to the in depth discussion/review of the ubiquitous front attached garage.