It sometimes seems, proponents of alternative housing say, that in an era in which every other institution and tradition is changing, the housing industry is on hold. As Dana Cuff, a USC expert on architectural environment and culture, put it: "The only radical change in houses in the last 50 years has been removing the wall between the dining room and the kitchen."
Home builders recognize the architectural time warp. Assessing the domestic housing field, National Assn. of Home Builders president Dale Stuard acknowledged: "If you just take a look at the outside, houses haven't changed a lot in 200 years. We've moved the kitchen and plumbing inside--those were the major changes."
Trying to fit changing households into unchanging houses has resulted in what architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant have called the problem of the "mis-housed." And a host of architects, sociologists, planners and other social scientists are beginning to call for a re-examination of the single family dwelling, and a search for new options.
Some Progress Seen
What such experts are finding is a lot of theoretical thinking, and at least a few architects and builders who are "doing some interesting things" on a limited scale.
USC's Cuff is co-author of a new book titled "Architects' People," a series of interviews with contemporary architects exploring their ideas about the people who will live in their buildings.
"One of the strongest themes in their vision of the social world is the need for order," she writes.
"Many architects see the world as a disordered place," she explained in a recent interview, "and in architecture, as in other fields, one reaction to this is a collective conservatism that manifests itself as nostalgia."
This conservatism, Cuff said, works against introducing housing innovation on any large scale.
"If the building professions are dominated by older men, they are naturally more likely to have traditional families and therefore not understand emerging household needs."
More Open Thinking
But Cuff, who has a Ph.D. in architecture from UC Berkeley, believes a growing diversity in the architectural ranks will help to open up thinking: "I think it is inescapable that people have to figure out that both Mom and Dad work these days, and we don't have anybody at home. We have to think about communities, not just housing, and it has to be within a broad economic grasp.
"We shouldn't be looking for one solution like a tract home," she said. "We should be looking for 20 different solutions."
She cites a few experiments that have surfaced over the past few years: Houses built over garages, "mingles" for two or more single people, "congregate" living, combining a home with health care, for the elderly.
"None of these is easy," she added. "This question of why the house hasn't changed along with our population patterns is a complex one. The housing market is stifled by a whole landscape of connecting issues--zoning, parking regulations, transportation systems, jobs, financing."
Three Options Emerge
The idea that we need new kinds of spaces for new families also has intrigued New Jersey Institute of Technology environmental psychologist Karen Frank.
Frank, who teaches in the Institute's School of Architecture, has just completed a book titled "New Households, New Housing," an overview of alternative housing in this country and Europe, a subject she spent two years examining with the help of a National Science Foundation grant. In the book, she and co-editor Sherry Ahrentzen focused on three emerging housing types.
--Collective housing. "This is not shared housing, but housing in which you have your own independent unit, including your own kitchen, and you have additional common space, which makes it different from a commune. There is a lot of cohousing in Scandinavia. And we also talk about historical types such as apartment-hotels where families could order room service food or eat in the dining room."
--Housing for single parents. "The expectation is that single parents will need more support, both from neighbors and day care centers. And it needs to be located with easy access to sources of employment and social services. There are a few examples either being designed or under construction."
--Single-room occupancy housing. "This is SRO, which is often being provided by renovating former hotels to serve as long-term housing for single people. Again this was quite an accepted form of housing in the early 20th Century, especially for unmarried men who could live in pleasant, well-managed hotels. Now there is a great interest in renovating buildings for SRO, and not just for the very poor."
Market May React
Frank said she and Ahrentzen "discovered more projects than I expected, but there is still not enough going on." Frank said that, although it seems to be stuck on the single-family dwelling, "if the market sees some financial advantage in alternative housing, there is no doubt it will eventually react."
Samuel Aroni, UCLA professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, agrees.
"The problem is that of adjusting to the way the housing market works," he said. "Most of us don't have our shoes or clothes made to order, we must use what is made by producers."
He suggests, however, that the producers can be nudged.
"Developers react to the market, and the minute the market seems to be changing, so will the developers." The growing number of elderly people, for instance, has prompted creation of a number of new housing options.
Middle-class buyers should be more imaginative, he says. "If there are enough people, they can approach builders with what they want. They can get a group, buy one lot or two lots, put in their own equity, whatever."
In short, the country's mis-housed should show a little initiative, he said.
"That's an American trait."