Monday, April 11, 2011


We live in a dazzling new era. In almost every field, vibrant innovation brings great promise for the future. How sad, then, that the housing industry is racing headlong into the 19th century.  

Granted, we’ve seen quantum leaps in residential energy efficiency--most of them compelled, mind you, by government legislation. Beyond this, developers seem content to let meaningless gimmicks and foam plastic frou-frou represent their best ideas for the 21st century. Personally, propellerhead gizmos that fill your Jacuzzi while you’re out stuck in traffic are not my idea of a lifestyle improvement.

While all else moves bravely forward, today’s new homes are instead regressing to the overblown proportions of Victorian times. Now, as a student of architectural history, I love Victorians as much as any paint remover salesman. But that doesn’t make them a paradigm for the future.  

Victorian homes were in large part a response to the industrial innovations of the 19th century. By the 1850s, a new construction technique known as balloon framing (which gave us the familiar 2x4 stud wall) was finally doing away with the laborious joinery of post-and-beam construction. Around the same time, the wire nail machine replaced costly hand-wrought nails with dirt-cheap mass-produced ones. These breakthroughs went hand in hand, suddenly making it both cheaper and faster to build homes of unprecedented size.  

The availability of mass-produced, machine-made ornament quite literally put the icing on this Victorian cake, eliciting a mania for decoration that has only recently been approached again.   

By the close of this era of increasingly bloated homes, it was already obvious that you could have too much of a good thing.  The vast, high-ceilinged rooms of Victorian houses squandered space and trapped heat, while their labyrinthine floor plans made for a lot of wasted steps. And of course those wedding-cake moldings were quickly revealed to be a maintenance nightmare. If this doesn’t sound familiar to owners of today’s new homes, it will soon enough. 

These kinds of failings are a big reason Victorian design was held in such contempt after the turn of the century. A few decades of living in needlessly oversized and overcomplicated homes had given people some real insights into practical living.  The result was a popular movement aimed at designing smaller, simpler and more efficient homes--a concerted backlash against the Victorian era.  

Builders at the threshold of the 20th century had the good sense to recognize and respond to these demands.  It’s notable that even during the boom years of the 20s, they didn’t feel obliged to offer enormous homes for the prospering middle class.  On the contrary; houses became the smallest they’d been in a century.     

Nowadays, the thought of looking to developers for smaller and more practical houses would strike most people as laughable. Meanwhile, as more and more pompous (and profitable) extravaganzas go up, fewer and fewer working people can afford to own a home at all.   

A hundred years ago, builders were meeting the demands of a new era filled with changes and challenges. Today’s developers are once again in a turn-of-the-century mood.  Too bad it’s the wrong century.  

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