The Most Common of Buildings: The Design and Construction of U.S. Homes and the Households That Occupy Them

By Martín, Carlos E. | Cityscape, May 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Most Common of Buildings: The Design and Construction of U.S. Homes and the Households That Occupy Them


Martín, Carlos E., Cityscape


During our nation's recent housing boom and the subsequent contraction, images of homes of varying size and designs, and in various stages of luxury or disrepair, littered the covers of popular magazines and newspaper articles. Any glimpse at cable television programming devoted solely to consumers' stylistic preferences would extol the latest and greatest in housing size, functional layouts, and architectural finishes. All these images have served as visual markers of their times and, in some recent cases, historical ruins.

Behind the facades and walls, however, the design and construction of housing of all types are manifestations of numerous industrial, economic, and cultural trends as much as they are symbolic of those trends. The physical structure, function, and aesthetics of homes also contribute to numerous social outcomes-not the least of which are resident well-being, household financial outlays, and social status. Indeed, the connections between our physical housing and housing's social and economic import are numerous.

Some of these associations appear obvious. For example, the renaissance of préfabrication and mechanization in home construction during the boom years responded to the difficulty of supplying housing efficiently and rapidly enough to meet the immediate demand fostered by increased mortgage access and rising home values. Other relationships between the physically tangible changes in our housing and broader social and political contexts have been evolving over time but can be measured as easily. One such case is the recent explosion of green building products and practices, which are the fruit of a growing awareness of the constraints on our physical environment-and the implications of those constraints for utility bills and occupant health-that has been steadily growing since taking root during the 1970s oil crisis.

Finally, other connections relate historical transformations in houses to broad demographic and cultural shifts. The amenities and technologies within rooms, the layouts of rooms within homes, and the physical connections between homes within neighborhoods all manifest centuries-long notions of race, class, and gender and reflect the contemporary realities of household incomes and housing prices. In short, design and construction belie an evolution in both the demographic record of U.S. households and the importance-social, financial, and symbolic-of shelter in the American reality and imagination. Although much of the scholarly record and evidence supporting these connections is compelling, it remains unfortunately slim.

Scholarly Perspectives: Housing Design and Construction

Several scholars have created a foundation of empirical inquiry in relation to the design and construction of the physical American built environment beyond housing. This foundation includes the work of Crawford (1996), Hayden (1997), Jackson (1994), and Jackson (1987) on the design of rural landscapes, suburban communities, and urban neighborhoods. Precious few scholars have focused on housing design, technology, and construction. Many of those few scholars connect broader psychosocial concepts with housing design's symbolic aspects (Rybczynski, 1987). Others have focused on key social, economic, and political phenomena in relation to housing design. For example, Lubove's (1963) seminal book documented how the Progressives of the mm of the 19th century carefully studied tenement house designs' effects on resident well-being. That study led to advocacy, which led to the nation's first health and construction codes for existing buildings.

Other scholars, notably architectural historians, have taken the subject of U.S. housing design and constmction and its complex relationship to social and economic change further, beyond basic categorization of design styles. In particular, Wright's (1983) groundbreaking work examined the concept of model homes and home designs with regard to social orders throughout U. …

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