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VOL. 6, NO. 1 -- SPRING 2004

The NAHB Builders Show: Reflections from Las Vegas

As a Miami resident, I grew up witnessing the proliferation of suburban builder-house subdivisions. Each subsequent subdivision stretched farther out beyond the town's fringes. As an apprentice while in architecture school during the mid-'80s, I learned to produce these houses in assembly-line fashion. I wondered then how long it would take to exhaust the land with these places, with names like "Lakes of the Meadow" and "Sunset Harbor." These mostly consisted of homogeneous houses dominated by double garage doors on sinewy streets. They seemed to be, even then, mere placeholders for a more permanent form of settlement.

Builder subdivisions continue to be the American norm, however. The National Association of Housing Builders (NAHB) held its International Builder Show this year in Las Vegas, the town on the desert self-proclaimed to be the "playground of the world." Over 100,000 attended this year's event, held January 19-22.

Former President George H.W. Bush delivered the keynote speech. In it, Bush praised the homebuilding industry for its contribution to the economy and celebrated the recent vote by Congress approving S.811, the "American Dream Downpayment Act." This program, scheduled to start during spring 2004, is expected to provide $200 million annually to assist low- and mid-income families towards home downpayment and closing costs. It will also boost Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured loans for rental apartments in high cost areas, such as New York and San Francisco.

New urbanism was represented at a session moderated by Todd Zimmerman. Zimmerman, a market analyst and principal at Zimmerman Volk, observed that Boomers (numbering 82 million) are moving into a new life stage -- out of the full-nest years into the empty-nest years, which means that many will move back to the city. Qualitative research on Boomers'attitudes have suggested that when they move to the next lifestage (retirement) they will typically not opt for the age-restricted projects, but rather seek more authentic, all-age neighborhoods. The Millennials (currently age 7-28 and numbering 78 million) are already voting for urban environments with their feet. When these two waves (Boomers and Millennials) coincide in a decade or so there will be a shocking change in national attitude toward the single-use subdivision.

The panel also included town builder Terry Stamper, planner Victor Dover and architect Michael Medick. They presented components of new urbanism to a curious audience contemplating alternatives to conventional sprawl. This, the speakers said, is achieved by implementing details such as an interconnected network of streets, public spaces, mix of uses and range of building types. They also gave advice about getting it built. "Building is more easily implemented when the town works with you to deliver new urbanism," said Stamper.

Despite the acknowledgement that new urbanism and traditional neighborhood design is a desired goal, not much else was in evidence at the convention. New urbanism is still the exception with builder groups, as with the trade media. A recent issue of Metropolis magazine posited, "How will we live in 2010?" The cover illustration was a digital rendering of an immersive environment consisting of recycled steel shipping crates on stilts hovering above a forest planted to mitigate a contaminated site. While this is, admirably, an inspired solution to affordable housing, this does not create urbanism. Neither does the standard builder product of today; places made of banal garageland houses -- about 1.8 million built and sold in 2003 alone, the highest rate in 25 years. I've also noticed that new urbanism and its associations with traditional architecture continue to be misinterpreted by the building industry. For example, Bill Lurz, senior editor of Professional Builder asks, "If precision and craftsmanship in putting the product together is all it takes, why isn't everyone building frontier-style boxes with windows the size of rifle ports?"

Surveying the booths displaying seemingly every component in a house, from faucets to heaters to doors, what struck me was the high quantity of synthetic products to simulate traditional building materials, such as wood and stone. There were synthetic balusters, moldings, porch decking, doors, windows, exterior siding, and furniture. As one salesperson noticed me observing the corrugated forms on the underside of exterior synthetic wood decking he added, almost apologetically, "You can sand down at the edges, so you don't see the wavy underside, you know." Unlike some synthetic materials that have superior qualities and are aesthetically pleasing, such as Hardiplank fiber-cement siding, most products are ill-designed, and kitsch traditional. Still, there were exceptions, and there were instances of building craft thriving in the industry. One company fabricated copper and titanium zinc metalwork custom to order and from their inventory, which dated to 1848; their craftspersons trained in the guild apprenticeship tradition.

It was also encouraging to see winning entries among the "Best in American Living" builder awards program, that demonstrate an awareness for both good design and urbanism. From the pages of Professional Builder magazine, such projects include the traditional contextual brick rowhouses at Melrose Commons II, in the Bronx, which won a HUD Secretary's Award for Excellence, as well as the sleek six-story building and architecture at Thea's Landing, in Tacoma, Wash., which won a Best Urban Smart Growth award. These all merit a closer look. With luck, the builder industry will evolve in both building design and urban design. It will arrive reformed -- if it hasn't already -- to your town.