Thursday, October 15, 2009

Co-Housing: Part One – Matters of Style

Query: ‘So, you’re arguing that everyone in detached housing ought to be mobile, right? Doesn’t that conjure up the North Shore Oahu crowd in the 1960s, living along the beach, or the movie-conjured, white-trash, trailer-court life styles?’
No, I’m not saying folks should be eager to pull up stakes and move their homes on 24 hours’ notice, or that a highly transient society is the optimal way to build neighborhoods. Of course, I’m not too sure that a lot of the communities built in the last 10 years in the conurbations feel like a neighborhood; and what do we mean by a “neighborhood,” anyway?

Recall the conversation between author John Steinbeck and the fellow with kids in the trailer court described in Travels with Charley. Steinbeck asks the man how he feels about raising his children without “roots.” The man replies: “What roots are in a housing development of hundreds and thousands of small dwellings almost exactly alike?” Then, for emphasis:
“Who’s got permanence? Factory closes down, you move on. Good times and things opening up, you move on where it’s better. You got roots and you sit and starve.” (See pages 78-79, Penguin Classics edition, 1997)

In a neighborhood of the idyllic type, the rooted would not “sit and starve,” because the neighbors wouldn’t let you starve, not if they could prevent it. Since I don’t exchange 1,000 words in a single year with more than twenty percent of my neighbors, my principal residence isn’t located in some idyllic gathering of family-minded, look-out-for-each-other folks. We are civil to one another, mostly, and we keep to ourselves, by and large, now that the common bond of young children was erased by the departure of ours from our street. Our back yards have six foot-high, block walls anchored at the common boundaries. I know the people in my office environment or in my classroom better than I do the folks along my street where I’ve lived 21 years. I don’t know my neighbor’s kids’ names or ages, for the most part. (Genders, well, those I’ve got figured out; it’s how they dress for school.)

This is no sorrowful reverie on the loss of community. The point is that home ownership in the conventional sense of an 8,000 square foot lot with a 2,000 square foot, 3-bedroom house built upon a concrete foundation with a two-car garage may no longer be purposeful, if our culture truly values sustainability and affordability. There’s no apparent justification for building from bricks, block, mortar and other “immovable” materials under the guise of creating “roots” in a village. At least where I live, the expense of ownership isn’t outweighed by a set of treasured friendships. When the market values went stratospheric in 2006 and early 2007, the profit-takers in our neighborhood grabbed the cash and fled somewhere else, sans a forwarding address. You move on where it’s better, the father said.

I uncouple the idea of conventional, permanent detached housing from the concept of community. Community exists, I think, when people value getting to know other people in close proximity for however long the opportunity exists to experience them. Whether there’s 20 feet or 2 feet between the walls of their respective dwellings and whether you own your own parcel of land seem mostly irrelevant, nuisance issues aside, to caring to know one’s neighbors.

Prefabricated dwellings are an option that combines affordability with the potential for mobility. They are still the tiny minority of residences in metropolitan Phoenix because large-scale conventional builders were efficient, when building, which reduced the cost advantage for manufactured housing. That, of course, was “back in the day.” How will those builders fare when the target population can’t get a loan from a conventional lender large enough for the balance of the price, and haven’t got enough savings to make a down payment?

There are four leading types of manufactured homes in circulation today: Modular (site assembled, pre-built sections called modules); panelized (walls with windows, doors, wiring and siding assembled at the home site); pre-cut (kit, log and dome-style houses); and classic mobile homes, built on a steel undercarriage and pulled to the home site where the wheels and axles are removed. There are many price points for manufactured homes from about $90 thousand northward, and some manufacturers are working on increased sustainability and energy efficiency to afford the homeowner some return on investment. Here’s the real issue: durability.

Manufactured homes still suffer from the “first two of the Three Little Pigs” stigma. That suffering isn’t completely undeserved; just watching footage of tornado strikes convinces most of us how devastating the destruction to a manufactured home can be. The industry has a response to the public’s skepticism, as follows: Most manufactured homes are built to withstand sustained winds in the range of 70 miles per hour. Above this range, a manufactured home will sustain damage. Only in the case of severe weather, such as a tornado, is the public likely to experience winds in excess of 70 miles per hour. Meteorologists estimate that approximately 40 percent of all tornadoes have winds exceeding 112 miles per hour. Tornadoes can have winds in excess of 200 miles per hour, in extreme cases. Current building codes and practices, for either manufactured homes or site-built homes, do not require dwellings to withstand winds exceeding 110 miles per hour. So, a direct hit from a Category F2 (and higher) tornado will bring about severe damage or destruction of any home in its path. A tornado's deadly force, like that of a hurricane, does not selectively discriminate between site-built and manufactured homes.

Yeah, maybe. The last proposition is almost certainly true, despite appearances; the difference, it seems to me, is anchorage. If the home is truly attached to the foundation and is made of heavy - enough materials, then gravity will save the superstructure from all but the most savage wind storms or storm (water) surges. But a manufactured home doesn’t have weighty materials, because they can be hauled long distances on an 18-wheeled tractor-trailer. So its walls are more susceptible to being ripped apart, especially when the walls are fastened with something weaker than mortar.

Which is why the manufactured home industry (and the site-built residential construction industry, for that matter), needs to turn its attention to employing new materials light enough to haul to a final-assembly site that are still relatively indestructible. Steel boxes known as “shipping containers” come to mind. There’s a few to be had, cheaply, in every port community in this nation, and in a lot of other U.S. cities. Now, there’s some stylin’; more next time.


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