Through The Years

BUILDER's Special 25th Anniversary Issue

When we asked 10 well-known "pundits" to comment on housing's progress in the last quarter century and its future promise, we had no trouble finding a common thread. In fact, it's more like a steel cable that links every concern about housing, from land use, to innovation, to mere survival. We're talking, of course, about affordability.

The nation is better-housed today than at any time in history, with more than 68 percent of households owning a home. But despite low interest rates and a vibrant secondary mortgage market, the income of a growing crowd of Americans can't match appreciation in home prices.

Our pundits may disagree on who or what to blame for today's affordability crisis. But they all seem to point to the same conclusion: Unless steps are taken to address the cost of housing, our industry may fail in its unspoken mission to provide quality shelter for all.

Witold Rybczynski

A thoughtful chronicler of American architecture and land planning considers housing today.

One might expect that legendary architectural historian and critic Witold Rybczynski to prefer development patterns of the past. But Rybczynski, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of books such as Home: A Short History of an Idea, evaluates today's housing with respect for both the old and the new.

"One could argue that nothing in America grew organically, because it was all built very quickly," Rybczynski says. "That's always been part of American life, because what can you do when you come to a new place? You have to build a street, houses, shops. There's an element of artificiality, whether it's Thomas Jefferson building Monticello or a developer building today."

In today's suburbs, builders give rise to entire towns within a few years, constructing parks, pools, and even schools to go along with houses. It sounds like a trend, but Rybczynski says it's actually a tradition.

"There is a long history of developers who have been social engineers. They knew to put in places where people could meet and greet," Rybczynski says, citing as an example Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser, who held a cocktail hour every Friday for early residents. "They knew when you're starting something from scratch, you have to prime the pump."

If Rybczynski accepts current development trends, he longs for the industry to create better-designed communities. "I wish that the home building industry could find a way to make better use of architects," he says. "In my opinion, the high point of American housing in many ways occurred in the 1900 to 1930 period, when there was real design innovation with prominent architects setting the design bar quite high. Today, architects and home builders have drifted apart. The industry doesn't see a demand for 'design,' and so we have housing products that are excellent in many ways, but unfortunately often ugly."