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Home for Life

By Andrés Duany

The absence of the sense of community has become commonplace in American life. There are several reasons for this, but certainly one of them is the phenomenon of the short housing life cycle. Americans change their dwelling place an average of once every five years. The cause may be a change in employment or dissatisfaction with such circumstances as the dwelling's size or location. But neither of these reasons accounts for this extraordinary rate of moving about.

The actual explanation is that the house does not accommodate a family's evolution of growing and then decreasing in size. The standard American house available today is incapable of adapting to this, so it is traded for another. Such exchanges for a better fit of house would be wholly welcome occasions were it not necessary to discard the community along with the dwelling. This is distressing when a neighborhood has become familiar and even comfortable, particularly for the elderly who have too large a house after the kids grow but do not want to leave their familiar place.

This was not always so. In the past, a house could easily adapt to the changing family. Think of the farmsteads of New England with their sequential backbuilding extensions, or the houses in Virginia with their collections of dependencies in the back; and consider the Hispanic house of the Southwest, growing gradually around a patio. Because these houses were flexible, families could stay in place if they wished. The homestead was an heirloom; it could accommodate the lifespan of a family and be available for the next generation.

A lifespan house must be designed to start small, grow in phases, and then diminish, reflecting the evolution of the typical American family. It must also be detailed to participate in the methods of the American building industry. While a lifespan house is not for everyone the option should be generally available for those who wish to choose it.

Family Phase I - The Starter Cottage

The first phase of construction is a small, complete cottage. The starter dwelling is like a studio apartment of only 780 square feet, eminently affordable for the young couple. Rather than renting an apartment, one has already bought into the neighborhood.

Family Phase II - The Main House

With the addition of children or larger incomes, a two-story addition can be built. This main house adds three bedrooms, as well as a new living room, dining room and a big kitchen. This section is 2,170 square feet, not including a generous porch and a garage that can be built later.

The original starter cottage is now a wing of the main house, becoming available for a number of uses. It could become a family room, with the original bedroom as a media alcove. Or, with its separate entrance, the wing could be a home office for the parent staying at home with small children. It could remain as a separate apartment for a grandparent or nanny, or it could be rented to help with the mortgage. The original kitchenette could remain as it is or become a pantry for the new kitchen in the main house. All of this is accomplished by simply locking certain doors.

Family Phase III - The Backbuilding

Family incomes usually rise with age and, coincidentally, houses tend to feel smaller as kids become teenagers. This third phase adds a one-story backbuilding to the rear of the main house. This additional 780 square feet provides a substantial family room and a comfortable master bedroom. Both could have high ceilings, creating the loft-like character sometimes called a "great room."

Family Phase IV - The Double Dwelling

The fourth phase of the house spans the extended maturity that results from today's good health. It requires no additional construction as, at this point in the evolution of the family, the children are gone and the house seems larger than necessary. A portion of the house can be sealed off, leaving a luxurious first-floor empty nest that includes a master bedroom, family room, kitchen, dining room and the living room of the main house. The remainder includes the living spaces of the original starter cottage connecting to the three upstairs bedrooms to form an independent ancillary dwelling. This is done by the simple expedient of locking two doors and using the independent entrance.

This ancillary dwelling could become the first dwelling of a child returning with a new family. Thus, the next generation begins to inhabit the lifespan house.