America is a car-centered culture, and its homes reflect that fact. Since World War II, garage doors have been a dominant feature of suburban streetscapes--and with the widespread adoption of triple garages, they’ve become pretty much the only feature. True, developers perform all kinds of design contortions in an effort to make their garages less overbearing--whether breaking the doors up into single bays, stepping them backward or forward, or giving them happy little roofs. Yet, even in these troubled times, the garage is still king on most new homes.
I thought this situation couldn’t get much worse until a few days ago, when I came across an advertisement for some new tract homes ostensibly aimed at middle-class buyers. I could hardly believe my eyes: The entire first floor of the home’s L-shaped street elevation consisted of garage doors. On one side of the L was a double garage; on the other was an additional single door. In between, looking like the mousehole in a Warner Brothers cartoon, was the home’s entrance. The one meant for people, that is.
After so many years, it’s finally happened: The human resident has become an incidental accessory for the support and maintenance of the home’s real occupants--a family of automobiles.
Most thoughtful people would concede that, in these times, using 30% of a home’s area to store cars is pretty silly--much as we now have the sense to eschew gas-guzzling automobiles. Yet while our battered auto industry has finally throttled back on building gas guzzlers in the face of ever-rising gas prices, developers are still cranking out plenty of houses with three and even four-car garages.
Who is responsible? Those developers, for doing whatever they can to make a buck? Buyers, for preaching one thing and practicing another? Or the governement, for building all those suburb-generating superhighways in the first place?
The fact is, we’re all to blame for the increasingly corpulent form American homes have taken since World War II. For their part, developers claim they’ve only been reacting to what buyers want. Yet their usual reaction time to new ideas--such as the need for more energy efficient homes--has been measured in decades, not months. Developers are the last people one could expect to set the pace for a changing world.
On the other hand, the majority of homebuyers still have to drive to everywhere despite their best intentions, thanks to the infrastructure of auto-dependent suburbs we continue to create to this day. What's more, local government still indirectly encourages driving through their stubborn retention of obsolete, auto-centric zoning laws that encourage suburban sprawl.
Yet there are ways to break this vicious cycle:
• Zoning laws should be revamped to allow more intelligent land use such as courtyard homes and zero-lot-line development for lower-density housing, along with expanded live-work and mixed-use zoning for higher density areas.
• Developers should weigh the potential value of innovation and leadership, not just their short-term risk. To follow an automotive example: In the 1960s, the tiny, strange-looking Volkswagen Beetle hijacked a huge share of U.S. auto sales while Detroit was busy insisting that lumbering, chrome-plated dinosaurs were what people really wanted. So--who has the guts to be the Volkswagen of developers?
• Lastly, consumers who are currently shut out of the housing market should loudly demand smaller and more practical homes that they can afford, rather than pining for overblown, gimmick-laden ones they can’t. Ultimately, it’s homebuyers who’ll dictate what course American housing takes.
And while we all hope to prosper again soon, let's hope we no longer gauge that prosperity by counting garage doors.