The Great Age Of Headroom

Sometimes, David Brooks makes me tear out what remains of my hair.

Other times I agree with him so strongly, I wish I’d written his words myself. That happened again last week, when the New York Times columnist wrote that one result of our current economic woes is that “the great age of headroom” has ended.

Yours, for only $5,825,000.

“The oversized now looks slightly ridiculous,” he writes.  “New houses had great rooms with 20-foot ceilings and entire new art forms had to be invented to fill the acres of empty overhead wall space.”

Online, the Times invited experts to respond.

Architecture professors Ellen Dunham-Jones and Jill Williamson said:

Facing the ongoing deflation of the housing bubble, it’s time to dramatically rethink the types and locations of dwellings we build….

For the past 60 years the housing market has catered to boomers with a “move-up” model providing ever-larger houses.  It worked while they were receiving raises and raising families – but not as they approach retirement.  Who wants to upsize now – especially with all of the related costs?  Instead, we see great benefits to a renewed emphasis on the lifelong use value of our homes and neighborhoods for all stages of life.

The downsizing of housing is coming at an opportune time.  Because neither of the big demographic bulges, the Boomers and Gen Y, is in prime child-rearing years, demographers predict that 75 percent to 85 percent of newly formed households through 2025 will not have kids in them.

These will be the folks controlling the market. They will be seeking more compact houses and apartments, flexible in use and located in lively settings, both in cities and in the suburban areas where the most job growth can be expected.

To adapt and prepare for a more resilient future, communities would do well to revise their zoning and subdivision codes: increase street network connectivity and walkability, eliminate lot size minimums, permit accessory dwelling units, and allow for the subdivision of large homes into duplexes, even quads.

Recognize the benefits – from reduced carbon footprints to providing options for “aging-in-community” by older residents – of building well-designed multi-unit housing, including rental, in transit-served locations.

“06880” readers are invited to join the debate.  Some questions to consider:

  • What are the pluses and minuses of super-sized houses?
  • How did these homes become the de facto standard?  Why — in these tough economic times — do they continue to be built?
  • Are they appropriate for Westport?  Will they keep selling in the near future — and longer term, as families grow smaller, and our population ages?
  • If “the great age of headroom” has ended, what will replace the current large houses?  Is another type of housing economically feasible in Westport?
  • Is Westport unique in this debate — or are we just another suburb?

Be thoughtful.  Play nice.  Don’t drag your neighbors through the mud.

15 responses to “The Great Age Of Headroom

  1. The long-term forecsats about family size and whatnot, cause me to think back to similar forceasts made by the governing class in Westport when they proclaimed that is was necessary to close numerous schools because young people with children could no longer afford to live in Westport. How’s that forecast working out? Where you are dealing with a non-stationary process, it is best not to make forecasts. I hope every house in Westport is more highly valued than mine.

    • The Dude Abides

      They closed many of the elementary schools in the 1980’s for lack of attendance as described above and financial reasons. Plus, some were falling apart. Were they suppose to wait around for a decade or so until the kiddos came back??? I wish there was more forecasting that was accurate! You live by the beach, your market value couldn’t have decreased that much?

      • Market values down by the beach have declined in line with those in other areas. Closing the schools was a bad move. We paid for that mistake.

  2. As Jeffxs says, this is not new. The progression from apartment to ranch to cape to colonial and then retire to a ranch or townhouse in Florida has been going on since the end of WWII. It’s still based on supply and demand – and the demand for Westport is still strong.
    However, some people have started to think that your primary residence will no longer be your primary asset or investment. Up until now, we have been encouraged to invest in real estate by purchasing the biggest house we could afford, knowing that it would provide a large rate of return (when everything is factored in). If housing prices don’t rebound in the next few years – THAT will change the way we look at home ownership.

  3. As a native Westporter, I tend to love the Saugatuck area, such as Davenport Ave., or Hogan Trail, which is where I grew up. It really keeps my inner native Westporter alive. I am saddened that has a “Teardown of the Day”. In my humble opinion, these are perfectly fine and beautiful homes. I guess it’s my own simple tastes that think some of these extremely large homes are an eyesore and some of them are just cookie cutter homes. Some are quite beautiful, I will admit, and I have noticed many of them have beautiful exterior lighting, making them quite beautiful at night. I just find many of them lack real character. It’s probably just me, though, as I don’t know that I’ll ever truly get used to the sight of these large homes.

    I’m a big fan of freedom – freedom to buy your home and make it your dream home, be it a small bungalow or a 10,000 square foot home. I’m just someone who would rather live in a smaller home filled with lots of charm, history and character. Hey, to each his/her own.

    I used to say if I won powerball, I’d buy the McMansions, knock them down, and build smaller, more “Westport” homes, and then I’d reopen The Selective Eye, Ships and Big Top ;)) But that’s for another 06880 discussion.

    Enjoy your day!

  4. The Jones/Williamson Argument was presnted as part of a debate. The other takes issue with the assumptions made by Jones/Williamson.

  5. The Dude Abides

    In response:

    (1) The plus is that you don’t have to talk with your kids because they can hide out on you. The minuses come every month in form of utility bills;
    (2) Most of the large houses built now are “spec” house built to the desires of those who made the most of the bailouts;
    (3) In the land of keeping up with the Joneses, they are certainly appropriate in Westport. Are you serious? The forefront of “me-first-dom.”
    (4) Smaller houses will be the norm, many from remodels than tear downs. However with the disappearance of the middle class, the artistocratic rich will still be apparent. My prediction for 2050 is still that Westport will return to large estates much like the farms it was originally;
    (5) The suburbs of many major cities are suffering from the same identity crisis. Westport is not alone although it would like to think it is.

  6. Susan Susanka, “the not so big house” series author, covers well the aesthetic, livability, family dynamics, & architectural tradeoffs of gross space vs thoughtful detail. The irony is that many mcmansions are not so livable abodes. A key is educating buyers for smarter design.

    Westport has many fine examples of “small” well-designed houses. A recent new favorite is “The Mouse House” – 324 Compo South;
    Its on my “i wouldn’t mind living there” list.

    Maybe ‘bloat’ is a natural phenomenon signalling an evolutionary dead-end: e.g., bruhathkayo-saurus, hummers, windows vista, CRT’s, battleships, etc.

  7. The Dude Abides

    Archie: Thanks for the tip on the Mouse House. Nice. My fav
    is the 8’x10′ houses that you hook up to a trailer hitch and find
    new neighbors. Seriously rad

  8. The reason why there are so many big houses in Westport and other areas comes down to the cost of land. It doesn’t make economic sense for a builder to buy a lot for $250,000 and plunk a cabin on it And the reason the land is so high is because there aren’t many buildable lots left.

    Does this blog have any readers who live in the McMansions? Why do we only hear from those who live in smaller houses, like me? Who is tearing down the smaller houses and building the bigger ones? There must be a reason. I like my little 1,900-square-foot house, but sure would like to have one more room for my office, excercise equipment or to do my art projects.

    I think people buy the bigger houses for many reasons, including:
    1. It provides space for the nannies
    2. There is more garage and storage space. People have more than one car per person these days.
    3. There is plenty of room to entertain clients without them looking at your kids’ toys.
    4. Everyone gets their own bathroom (C’mon! Who doesn’t want that?)
    5. You can have room for a big gourmet kitchen to house all the appliances that clutter the rest of our houses.
    6. Big houses often mean big lots, which means peace and quiet when you get home.

    BTW, a few years ago, I attended a meeting where Alan Greenspan spoke to high-powered CFOs. Someone asked him about the housing market and Greenspan’s lengthy reply somehow related it back to the break up of the Soviet Union. I was not alone in having no clue about how one was related to the other.

  9. The Dude Abides

    The people that are buying big houses have a lot of money. I don’t find them a particular asset to one’s lifestyle or inner peace. Less is more. I think we are all finding out that the much applauded Greenspan didn’t have a glue about anything coming out of his mouth.

  10. The Dude Abides

    In their minds, no difference until the bubble done burst.

  11. In this economy?

  12. The Dude Abides

    If you think it is the economy, drive by the house at Bayberry and Cross Highway. 37,000 square feet.