Appearance vs. Reality



The Infinite Marketability
of the human estate
insists that we all have a price.

We all have value.

Some of us are not for sale.

ARTIZENS BANK…small change matters

(a letter to a friend who works in city planning; following on an exchange about the practicality of building small affordable houses in an upscale neighborhood, an effort which the city supports in theory but apparently sabotages in practice)

Appearance vs. Reality

Last year I became interested in the Rural Studio, after taking in Andrew Freear’s presentation at the UofA. In particular, the $20k House appealed to me. As I looked further, it turned out that the initial idea was “what if we could build a house for $20,000?” allowing $10k for materials and $10k for labor. As it turned out that materials were going to cost out at $12k, they simply adjusted the labor factor down to $8,000. Wow! Brilliant, eh?
Add to that, the initial designs were in the 500-600 sq. ft. range, materials were donated, and labor was provided by the student/architect/designers. So far as I can determine, the $20k House has never been actually built in real-world conditions; i.e. materials purchased at market cost, contracted labor paid fairly, insurance overhead profit etc.
Over time, the $20k House has grown to nearer 1000 sq. ft. as the reality of housing a family was encountered. Still, Auburn insists on calling it a $20k House, and will be offering plans for sale. Appearance does not reconcile with Reality…

Cottage Housing appears to be a wonderful idea. Is it as unrealistic as the $20k House?(that’s all from their website, btw)

Last weekend, I met Jim Crow. Jim has taught classes for the American College of Building Arts in Charleston, and shared some of his experiences and perspective on the school with me. Unaccredited, mismanaged by social position taking precedence over competence, more impressed by academic credentials than practical abilities, the school is steadily sabotaging its mission and students.
There is no real standard for comparison.
I’m sitting here watching images from my carport raising, knowing (as you know as well) that there are very few people capable of executing a piece of work of that scale and complexity. You have barely skimmed the surface, and have no realistic idea how to apply what you do know. I have studied drawn modeled built numerous structures larger and more complicated than that carport. How then shall I subject my authentic imagination and skills acquired over a lifetime to a bureaucracy with merely borrowed ideas about building? The truth is that I can’t.

What I am going to do is provide an avenue for a few people to learn some of those skills; however much the City of Fayetteville chooses to acknowledge or support this effort; whether you choose to participate or obstruct; I have no real expectation of success; our society has neglected to train and reward artisans for far too long; that damage is beyond my ability to repair.
Michael Langford

“everything that has form is tool, everything that is without form is Tao” ⛩

About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
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7 Responses to Appearance vs. Reality

  1. Matt horan says:

    Assuming the developer did not on his own draft minimum square footage requirements for houses, how does the city discourage or prohibit small houses on street addresses in town?

    There may be minimum lot sizes in town that discourage small housing. A 600 sf house is 30 x 20, say. If minimum lot size is 50 x 150, the ratio of land cost to building cost is skewed. The house becomes a knock-down for a subsequent buyer who wants the location, location, location, and that is economic waste. A neighborhood plan would need to be developed for small homes, with covenants that prohibit structures over “800 sf,” for example. There would then be density and traffic issues, and need for common areas. Then there’s the issue of transportation. Mom and Dad work. So doesJunior. How many vehicles per unit can the neighborhood sustain? Carport can be unsightly and pull down values for the neighborhood, but clearly no “$20,000 house” will have an enclosed garage, let alone a three-car enclosed garage!

    Is the $20,000 house an arbitrary construct? Was it a book idea, only?
    Maybe a planner can write a book called the $20,000 House Neighborhood
    and show how a neighborhood can be developed to prevent knock-downs and waste. Otherwise, the $20,000 House would be a stand-alone in the woods and not a coherent way to supply affordable living space in an urban environment.

    • Rural Studio is an outreach program of Auburn University’s department of architecture. They have a website, if you’re interested.
      Cottage Housing is an ordinance adopted by the City of Fayetteville, apparently without due consideration of the bureaucratic obstacles (thus increased cost) imposed on a process and product that would be only marginally profitable under the most favorable conditions.
      Timber framing and sophisticated joinery: I estimate materials 20% / labor 80%.
      Labor = material is LCD, fences decks framing.
      RS arbitrarily shifted that paradigm to material 120% / labor 66%. In reality, architects do not stipulate cost. The market (elaborate bidding procedures to insure fairness) does that.

  2. Greg Merritt says:

    I don’t believe that new construction is a viable option for affordable housing. The initial cost of land, permitting, sight improvement and utilities is typically well above the aforementioned $20k fantasy. Rehabbing an existing dwelling is a far more viable solution, IMHO. This is where, what I think your plan is, education of the individual plays a huge role. The more skill and knowledge that the buyer has, the less “labor” dollars that need to be factored into the equation.

    This is the route that I recently took. I was able to purchase a home for well under asking price due to the fact that the “improvements” that needed to be done where all within my skill level. All others viewed those improvements using a cost factor based upon hiring skilled contract labor. The figure for most was well into the tens of thousands.

    It seems to me that labor is the only controllable cost in this process. There is no real sustainable way of controlling either material, land or permitting costs. Yes, you can change your geographic location to lower them, but that is about the only option.

    Education and self reliance are the path to independence.

    • I am in a unique position. I own my own home, which is (thanks to favorable market conditions and a lot of sweat equity, worth roughly $400k, probably more). The other property cost us a bit over $40k, and there’s an existing house that will respond to some careful work. The property is just under an acre, and the appeal of developing a cluster of small houses has undeniable appeal.
      Obviously, new build of small houses is going to be higher unit cost. What I’m wondering is whether the difference can be made up with a combination of sweat equity / labor-for-learning. The harsh reality is that there are a lot of younger people who simply won’t ever be able to build any equity in housing unless we devise some creative possibilities. And, likewise, they won’t ever have the chance to acquire any of the skills needed to build anything of any real value for themselves.
      I am fed up with the sort of mindless arrogance exhibited by Rural Studio (yes, their math is seriously flawed; but they should know that in the real world architects are not permitted to set price). Our Cottage Housing ordinance is another well-intentioned screw-up. The difficulties that the city will present (parking, drainage, services, etc.) quickly and effectively kill any potential profit incentive for a builder, not unlike how the RS scenario would play out.
      What I’m intrigued by is that the ordinance is specific about creating and maintaining a “commons”. This is something that I have studied on a lot, and believe that a viable “commons” is essential to social equity. City Hall has just contrived a deal to sell the house next door to a fledgling non-profit, and lease them 2 acres of the adjacent park for a children’s garden. There are issues about public vs. private in the deal that need to be examined; and the notion of commons is just about to enter that discussion.
      Welcome to Hadleyburg (Twain…)

      • Beautiful detailing. No mention of cost.
        Here, we are being overwhelmed by massive apartment developments (commercial loans, outside interests). Small-scale residential struggles with tighter regulation imposed following the sub-prime meltdown. Infill typically builds all the house that setbacks will allow, compensation for higher lot cost. Rural development is stagnant, as are small town economies. Rural Manifesto, resonates with what I see in Arkansas.

      • Greg Merritt says:

        What I like about Chapin’s work is that it illustrates the architectural possibilities that can be obtained with very little material costs and a modicum of skill. A simple shell of house can be turned over to a homeowner who can then add the details. Thus the reduction in labor costs.

        From the little research I have done, the Chapin examples are a little on the high end. It also seems that this is purposely done to ensure the success of the project. They are not treated as an affordable option, but as an alternative option. Most of the people who buy into these neighborhoods are upper middle class. These neighborhoods are also highly regulated internally by home owner committees. While I don’t agree with the implementation, the resulting neighborhoods are great examples of the possibilities.

        The biggest challenge to the “pocket neighborhood” is the assumed perception. Whenever small, affordable housing is discussed, a lot of people begin to envision cheap and unattractive. Thus they begin to devise ways to either prevent or limit the development of these type areas. Examples, such as Chapin’s, can go a long way in easing the concerns of the “powers that be”.

        It will be exciting to see where this path leads you.

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