How Living Traditions Learn From Mistakes

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   A living tradition is the best mistake-correction system ever developed in architecture by a large margin, and the reason why is simple math: a living tradition engages an entire society to varying degrees in the design of its buildings, activating everyone with four simple words: “we do this because…” When you empower many to think, you get many possible better ways of doing things. Think of it as crowd-sourcing architectural wisdom.

   This is nowhere more obvious than on what I call the Caribbean Rim, where the climate, conditions, and culture are a gumbo of heat, humidity, and hurricanes seasoned withAfrican, English, French, and Spanish cultural influences. Here’s how it worked:

   If you were fortunate enough to survive a hurricane in 1725, but your house was unfortunate enough not to, when you crawled out of the wreckage of your house and saw your neighbor’s house still standing, you undoubtedly would have said “I’m gonna rebuild like that! Simply put, the wisdom of living traditions was hard-won. It was a significant part of the act of survival.

   Today, “tradition” has a bad rap in architectural circles. It is considered to be a set of handcuffs, restraining architects’ creativity. And depending on how you approach it, the architects may be exactly right.

   Many traditionalists approach architecture as a test of taste. They regulate on the basis of “thou shalt do this because I have better taste than you.” “No you don’t!” “Yes I do!” Repeat endlessly. I have served as a Town Architect since the mid-1990s, doing somewhere close to 10,000 individual reviews during that time. I tried all the normal ways first… long enough to find how they failed. And then I came up with another method where I sit down face-to-face with the designer and builder and explain everything on a foundation of principles rather than taste. “We do this because…” And in all those years, I can count on one hand the number of times someone has left the room in substantial disagreement.

   Simply put, principles are the friend of the architect, the builder, and the owner. Once the basic principles of how best to build in this place are established, everyone is free to thing, create, and develop the best solutions for them.

   This is one of the core foundations of A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas]. I just finished the second edition, and the totally rewritten first and last chapters contain answers to questions I’ve had for years, if not decades. If you have the new edition or pick it up anytime soon, I’d really love to hear what you think about these new ideas!

   ~Steve Mouzon

One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is learning from mistakes. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
some kind of mistake

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Learning from mistakes in architecture

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Archi-scar - That Will Leave a Mark!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"Learning from Mistakes..."

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Forgotten Mistakes

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Are Architects Experts?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
A, B, C, D, E...

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Learning from Mistakes

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Learning from mistakes


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The Water Will Come

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foaming waves and their salt spray crashing against a deep blue Hawaiian sky

   Sea level rise is considered a distant problem by millions today; either distant in years, distant in miles, or both, but they are greatly mistaken. I’ve just finished the book The Water Will Come, much of which is set in Miami Beach, where I live. For Wanda and I, the problem is here, and now. I remember the king tides in the fall of 2013, when I recorded South Beach at Sea Level, and I’ve worked with local leaders on ways we might adapt. And the decisions we make as a city today will determine whether we survive in the future, including decisions that allow us to preserve the character of this place that attracts people today from around the world.

   Not every coastal town will survive. Actually, most will not. And the terms of retreat will have a great influence on whether the impact across America is orderly, or whether we descend into chaos, or whether it’s something in between. But make no mistake: when thousands, then soon millions of people begin to retreat from the places that cannot be saved, that great migration will affect all parts of this country, not just the coastlines.

   I was a participant at the CNU Climate Summit in Alexandria last fall, and drew up a proposal for the real estate end game which is laid out below. The key point is that not every place is the same, and so what those places do to adapt will vary greatly.

Elevate & Harden

palm trees march by the iconic Art Deco hotels on South Beach's Ocean Drive

Miami Beach’s iconic Ocean Drive

   Some places have enough money to adapt in place by raising and hardening. Miami Beach is likely to be one of them. I’ve been involved in the conversation there as noted above, so this is a report from the front lines, not just a guess.

Choice Criteria

   The degree of sea level rise is uncertain, of course. City leaders in Miami Beach have aggregated sea level rise projections and are now adapting for their best guess of what would still work a century from now. The choice is a local choice, made by the city and not by larger entities.


   Miami Beach is raising streets; the lowest streets that have had the worst sunny-day flooding are being raised as much as 42”. The elevation tapers to zero near the middle of the island where the natural grade is this much higher. Water and sewer lines are being raised and upgraded on streets that are rising, and the new storm sewers drain to huge underground detention tanks on the West side of the island, from which water is pumped out into the bay. Unfortunately, this leaves the buildings in a hole. Buildings are already flooding as storm drains inevitably clog. To date, the city has been able to plead with insurance to pay for the flooding, making the case that it was a rare event cause by an incomplete tank-and-pump system. It is not. Buildings inevitably will have to elevate. Short buildings can elevate easily; tall buildings can give up their second level and move their ground floor up a level. There may be a “sour spot” of maybe 4 or 5 to 12, 13, 14, or 15 stories where the buildings are too tall to elevate but for which it is not economically feasible to give up a floor. These at-risk buildings are often some of the iconic Art Deco buildings which are a huge source of tourism, and some local architects are salivating at the chance to destroy them and replace them with their own ego towers. If the architects succeed and do not respect the character of what they are replacing, it could be economically crippling to the city to go from being a world-class center of Art Deco to just another beach town with a random collection of architectural styles du jour.


   We have no illusions that anyone is going to bail us out. Fortunately, the math is pretty simple, because insurance premiums decrease the higher buildings are elevated above BFE. With insurance rate trends now, the payback on elevation is probably a decade or less. The absolutely critical key is to get the insurance companies to lay out what the premiums will be at various levels of elevation so that people can make informed decisions. Without this, the entire process will fail.


   Because there is financial incentive for elevating higher, pattern books are needed to deal with the private frontage conditions created by elevation. In all likelihood, buildings will elevate higher than streets, creating different conditions than exist today.


   Galveston elevated both streets and buildings to above the 17’ elevation of the new seawall after the hurricane that remains the deadliest in US history. Many buildings were wood frame, but some were masonry as well, including a large church building. Chicago elevated many blocks of urbanism near the river in the late 19th century because of flooding and disease. They raised both streets and buildings, creating “Underground Chicago,” which is largely used for parking today. Most often, they were elevated a block at a time to avoid the problem of party wall buildings. They were elevated with screw jacks operated by human labor to the beat of a drum to keep the progress equal all down the block. They usually did so without cracking a window pane anywhere in the block, and one landmark hotel was elevated while still being occupied by guests every night! Underground Atlanta did not elevate the buildings, but began by building a series of bridges at the second level which were later connected to form continuous streets. Shopfronts were moved to the new street level and the old street level space was first used for storage, then became an entertainment district complete with speakeasies during prohibition. It remains an entertainment district today, but is currently closed for renovations. Bay Village is a small Boston neighborhood at the southeast corner of Back Bay that began flooding badly when Back Bay was filled, as much of the Back Bay runoff flowed across Bay Village. Almost all of Bay Village is masonry bearing wall construction from the early 19th century and earlier. It was elevated 23'-26’ using manually-operated screw jacks in the mid-19th century, much like Chicago a few years later.

Individual to Receiving City via Insurance

Detroit's vibrant Bricktown street lined with restaurants just before the lunch hour, with string lights above, awaiting the evening

Detroit, given up for dead for decades, could be a classic receiving city.

   This may be the most commonly-used method. It will be the most gradual and orderly method, and will likely happen over a number of years in most places. At best, this method compensates homeowners a maximum of $250,000 by flood insurance plus whatever price they can get for their flooded home.

Choice Criteria

   In the wake of repeated insurance rate hikes in places not wealthy enough to elevate & harden, individuals will realize that it’s simply too expensive for them to live in this place any longer, and will choose to move elsewhere. This will work best in the early years, when there are still buyers for the real estate being vacated, albeit at reduced rates. Later, when there are no more buyers for anything higher than just the land value, this may become more chaotic, especially once cities can no longer afford to service the flooding areas.


   In order to walk away from their home, there needs to be a broadly-understood narrative that compares their cost of ownership all those years with the cost of renting. If someone can say “I would have spent more renting than what I spent owning,” then it makes it easier to walk away.


   Even if they wait long enough that their property is widely recognized as being uninhabitable, there will likely be some uses for the land that gives it some value, so they may be able to sell it for something like a rice farm, which is expected to be flooded part of the year. The more likely transaction is to a developer looking to aggregate properties to the point they can elevate and harden the property for some use, whether resort or industrial. In short, they may be able to sell out at a steep loss, but leave with some cash in their pockets beyond the insurance proceeds.


   There will likely be sites and apps aggregating cities looking to attract sea level rise refugees, and laying out their proposals. “Our deal is better than Detroit’s deal, and here’s why.” At the very least, the move itself should be covered. One aspect of the sites and apps is that they should tag trades and skills the places are looking for, so a grocer or a metalworker could decide where they’re most needed. Another essential tool will be the single-crew workplace, as the refugees are unlikely to be able to set up their new operations at the scale of their old. Single-crew workplaces can operate from tiny quarters such as food carts and retail shacks such as Perspicasity at Seaside, where those humble plywood boxes are so beloved that the Town Founders have been unable until now to remove them and replace them with something more substantial. Without single-crew workplaces, many refugees would not be able to set up in business again. Receiving cities must therefore have codes which allow single-crew workplaces in temporary quarters, at least in Receiving Zones. Many Katrina Cottage principles will be in play here, allowing people to regain a foothold in their new home with a tiny footprint which they can expand later.


   Seaside, Florida is the birthplace of the New Urbanism and also the best precedent in our time for a broad spectrum of temporary structures. Single-crew workplaces exist all across the developing world, especially along the Caribbean Rim.

Individual to Receiving City
via Government Order

protesters massed on the streets of Paris with banners and placards

Serious protests will likely lead to worse things in relocation by government order.

   This may be a common method as well, but will be more disruptive than the methods above. See New Orleans ex-mayor Ray Nagin’s proposal to abandon the Lower 9th Ward, and the firestorm that ensued, prompting him to withdraw it 24 hours later. Telling people they cannot come back home is one of the most difficult things a politician will ever attempt.

Choice Criteria

   This is a mandate by the city, the state, or the federal government. The individual property owner has no choice under this model.


   The first measure is likely martial law, without which there could be a revolution, depending on how broadly the evacuations are ordered. If several cities in one region are evacuated, a revolution is likely; if statewide or broader, count on it. Beyond that, there must be a strong story-telling initiative of the renting-vs.-owning narrative described above.


   The ordering entity must bring truckloads of cash, or the revolution may proceed anyway, even if it’s only ordered in a city or two. Of all methods, this will be the most expensive, and will likely get tied up in the courts for years as countless homeowners sue the government.


   First, bring force because this method could get out of hand and quickly turn ugly. Beyond that, the government issuing the order needs to be actively promoting the story-telling and the relocation apps, and should probably be prepared to help the receiving cities with mobile structures for dwellings and single-crew workplaces in their new hometowns. The ordering entity should also be prepared to provide refugees with food for their journeys and some colder-weather clothing for the long term, as most migration will be northward.


   Antigua Guatemala (the old Guatemala City) was hit with an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, and a flood within about 15 minutes in 1773. The earthquake/eruption shattered the volcano's crater, which held a lake, hence the flood. The government deemed the city cursed and ordered everyone to leave for the current Guatemala City, under penalty of death. Some did not comply, of course, and hid in the ruins for decades, subsisting on avocados, hence their nickname “panza verde,” or “green bellies.” This will happen in our day as well.

Neighborhood to Receiving City
via Insurance

neat, almost festive mobile home community just off the water in Bradenton Beach, Florida

Tight-knit, low-lying, low-budget community

   Some neighborhoods, because of their family and civic bonds, may elect to move together to a receiving city when their homes become uninsurable.

Choice Criteria

   Neighborhood and family elders will make the decision to leave on economic issues centered on insurance price hikes.


   This will be one of the most orderly evacuations and require the fewest imposed measures, because the decision to leave will have been made by the elders. The renting-vs.-owning storytelling will be a strong measure, imposed by the most trusted members of the neighborhood.


   The financial model will be similar to that of Individual to Receiving City via Insurance: a combination of insurance proceeds and real estate sales at much-reduced prices. And to make matters better, community elders are likely to negotiate better deals with the receiving city than any individual could.


   The tools should be largely the same as Individual to Receiving City via Insurance, with the immediately preceding caveat about the better negotiated deal.


   I don’t know of an entirely parallel precedent, but study the migration of entire rural communities from Kentucky to Ohio in the 1950s seeking work. My mother’s family was from rural eastern Kentucky and the entire immediate family moved to suburbs of Cleveland in this era (but without the help of insurance).

Neighborhood to Receiving City
via Government Order

   This will be like Individual to Receiving City via Government Order, but much more orderly because the government entity will negotiate the departure with community elders, who will then persuade the community as a whole. Also, because the neighborhood will be moving largely intact, it will seem less disrupted in its new home than individuals would be moving alone. The downside is that because they are moving as a large group, that is likely to be disruptive to their new hometown unless it is a place like Detroit with large abandoned areas.

Individual to New Town
via Insurance or Government Order

Bento Cabins designed by DPZ CoDesign

DPZ CoDesign Bento Cabins

   This method will invoke the most New Urbanist tools and techniques, and this may be more common than is generally assumed today. The standard narrative is that governments at all levels will be financially stressed by sea level rise refugees and will be less likely to fund the construction of new towns, but new towns in the US have only rarely been built by government anyway. They have almost always been built in this country by private town founders.

   There is a very different dynamic in play with new towns versus receiving cities. A receiving city is one which has experienced failure of some sort in the past, and therefore has underinhabited areas available to receive sea level rise refugees. Detroit is the iconic receiving city. A new town, on the other hand, is emblematic of a fresh start. Some people are more drawn to places with long histories and established culture; others are drawn to places fresh and new, but with most of their cultural assets not yet built.

   For most of American history, the inaugural condition of a new town was dirt streets lined with tents, until the people could build log cabins, sod huts, or some other humble dwelling to seriously get started with their new life. Fortunately, we’ve moved a bit beyond those early American starting point, and some really smart people are working on some cool alternatives. DPZ was one of the founders of the New Urbanism, and Andrés Duany and friends at DPZ have been spending most of the last couple years designing a series of mobile dwellings such as the Bento Cabins shown above which can easily be used to found a new town or to reinhabit parts of  a receiving city.

Choice Criteria

   An individual or family could choose to move to a new town over a receiving city for reasons as varied as they are. The only commonality I anticipate is that the appeal of a fresh start in a new place could make the move easier emotionally to those moving, so they may be less predisposed to be part of the uprising that will take place in many places evacuated by government order. The better the founding stories of the new towns, the easier the move may be. Governments ordering evacuations should take note, and do everything they can to help the new towns succeed. As a matter of fact, the success of the new towns may play as large a role as any in limiting violence due to sea level rise.


   The strongest story-telling measures will come from the destination town, not the departure town. As with other migrations, the renting-versus-owning departure narrative must be strong, but that should be outweighed by the story of the new town, which can and should be powerful, in large part because the new place hasn’t screwed up anything yet.


   Because this process works best with more financially solvent refugees, new arrivals are more likely to have significant assets than those of other migrations. This bodes well for the relative success of the new towns.


   The apps and sites mentioned above will be helpful, but due to the scale of the new towns versus the much larger receiving cities, the appeals to certain trades, skills, and businesses can be more precise. “We need a grocer” is more impactful than “we need a few more grocers,” and more likely to get a grocer to move there.


   This is what happened in almost every US frontier town of the 19th Century. We’ve done this before; we can do it again. That was the westward expansion; this is the inward expansion.

Old Town to New Town

red & white cottage at the Waters in Alabama flying the red, white, and blue

New town shops and dwellings that don’t start as mobile structures should still start small so as to not
burden the financially stressed people moving there from their old town.

   This method is rare, and requires the most work, as the governance of the new town must be set up in advance in the new place by the leaders of the old town, who must have agency in the new place.

Choice Criteria

   The choice to move from an old oceanfront town to a new inland town is a decision made by the city leaders, who then persuade their citizens (or at least the great majority of them) to make the move with them.


   The story-telling here must be heroic in order to succeed. Enticing individuals from coastal places all over to a new town is easy compared to the much taller task of persuading the great majority of the residents of a particular place to move to a new town somewhere else. But the benefits of maintaining cultural connections and supportive friendships is great, so this method should be encouraged.


   Because the town moves largely intact, the business owners and employees largely retain their original roles in the new place.


   Fewer of the tools above are needed here, because there is less disruption of connections. The grocer here will be the grocer there, for example. The big difference will be the fact that pretty much everyone will be impoverished by the move, and so lean urbanism tools like single-crew workplaces will be important to allow people to restart their lives, but at a smaller scale.


   I haven’t found confirmation yet, but I believe that Anderson, Indiana was founded by people from a Tennessee town which picked up en masse and migrated there.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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Planting Seeds of Better Design

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   If you want to have the most sustainable healing impact on our damaged built environment, the architectural ideal of the lone genius isn’t the best way to go about it. If you have a choice between becoming that lone creative genius yourself and helping many others do better work, then by all means choose the latter.

   Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are the two highest icons of this approach in my experience. Once, they were partners in Arquitectonica, a high-profile Miami firm doing unusually good work that changed the face of South Florida and helped transform Miami from the decrepit victim of the Mariel boatlift into arguably the most glamorous city on this continent. Yet what they did post-Arquitectonica at their firm DPZ dwarfs their previous work because they learned this simple lesson: you can do far more good by helping many do better work than just by doing better work yourself. And so they opened doors for many and propelled them into realms they never could have previously imagined. Wanda and I are two such beneficiaries of their generosity.

   But Andrés and Lizz would have never found us had we not found a way to move in this direction ourselves. It all began with the conversation with Wanda in a grocery store parking lot mentioned in the last post. From that point, I began thinking of things we could create once and distribute to many. The following are some of those tools and resources:

Stock House Plans


Ash Lawn

   I had been taught that it is disgraceful to design anything without knowing the intricacies of the site. So designing a stock house plan must surely be akin to architectural malpractice. But at some point, I read where 97% or so of the homes built in the US are built from stock plans, not custom designs. If that is so, is it not our responsibility to try to help elevate the level of stock plan design? Wanda and I thought so, and looked into several outlets, eventually settling on Southern Living, the most reputable source of good stock design in the region, populated frequently by New Urbanist plans.

   Our first design, Ash Lawn, was our homage to Jefferson’s Monticello and opened many doors for us in 1996. We continued to design new plans pro bono for a year or so, until we built a good enough body of work that people started seeking us out… and some of those plans ended up on the Plan of the Month page as well.

Town Architect


   A Town Architect is someone who reviews other people’s designs in a neighborhood or town to ensure that all the buildings are neighborly, and that the vision of the place is carried on. The first place to use our plans was one I was able to steer in the direction of the New Urbanism, and it became the first TND (traditional neighborhood development) in town. They soon hired me to be the Town Architect there, and I continue to serve as Town Architect in several places. I quickly discovered that we can do far more good this way. Working as an architect myself, I can get one excellent design out per month if it’s small and simple and I do nothing else. But working as a Town Architect, I can help dozens of designs get better in a number of places. To me, the balance of benefits is not even in question.

   Seven years into my Town Architect career, I had tried every method except the Resident Town Architect, in large part because I couldn’t afford to live in the places where I worked. Every method had flaws. But I kept tinkering with it until I came up with the method I use now, where I come once per month and sit across the table from the designer, builder, and owner (if it’s not being built speculatively) and lay out the principles of getting stuff right, not just the particulars of where they got stuff wrong. This has proved to be a huge boost to starting a new living tradition of architecture, which is the ultimate tool for planting seeds of better design. And it all works on the basis of “we do this because…"

Catalog of the Most-Loved Places


   In the late 1990s, I had a debate with another Town Architect about a window detail, and he wasn’t persuaded. It was Friday afternoon, so I took off on a photo safari to get some pictures that might help. But somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that it might be useful to shoot every house in the neighborhood. When I returned home, I shot the downtown historic district throughout the weekend, and by Monday morning, the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places was underway. For several years, I just shot great places for my own benefit for some time, but then it occurred to me that others might find the images useful as well. When Andrés Duany came to town in 2002 to design the Village of Providence (where I have served as Town Architect almost ever since), the Catalog seemed to be one of the items with which he was most enamored, which led to a collabortion spanning almost two decades at this point.

Traditional Construction Details & Patterns


   That first place to use our plans was nerve-wracking, due to a development partner who has long since gone elsewhere. The landowners were complete gentlemen. But the other guys were allowing all sorts of ostentatious stuff, and so I knew I had to do something to steer the place back to the original vision. I developed a collection of construction details to help steer the place, and in the interest of expanding the collection, I bought a set of details from McGraw-Hill. When I got it, my response was “our stuff is a lot better than this,” so I called them up and told them. Their acquisitions editor said “you can send me your stuff if you like, but I can’t guarantee I’ll ever look at it.” I FedExed it anyway, for morning delivery. At 10:10, she called and said “you weren’t kidding… this is great stuff. We’d like to publish you!”

   And so they did, first digitally, then in a book of 1001 details that was as thick as War & Peace. A few years later, they published Traditional Construction Patterns, which remains a bestseller on Amazon to this day. Those books opened a secret door: we discovered that if you’re an author, you get all sorts of respect you never got before, even though you’re the same person you always were. Everyone should put their life’s work out there, where it can benefit others.

The New Urban Guild

   Nathan Norris and I founded the Architects’ Guild in 2001, and he encouraged me to rebrand it myself as the New Urban Guild when concerns came up over the fact that not every architect is an architect in all states. The Guild approached the problem of better design from the supply side: if we designers working in the traditional neighborhoods of the New Urbanism could get together and share what we knew, we should get better at what we do, right? And it worked out that way; I’m a much better architect today as a result of working side-by-side with these rare talents.

Living Tradition Pattern Books


   We began writing architectural pattern books starting nearly twenty years ago. Originally, they were all style-based, which meant they were based on a random collection of historical styles the developer thought would sell well. And while they did improve the quality of the architecture markedly, they had a big problem: If you use a style-based pattern book to replicate a historical style today, and use it again in fifty years, you’ll get the same result. But anyone with a copy of an architectural history book like Bannister Fletcher’s can easily see that architecture has always evolved over time, like a living thing. So that type of pattern book had no power to bring architecture back to life.

   I worked on this dilemma for years, and discussed it with the top pattern book experts. Nobody had answers. But finally a fortuitous conversation unlocked a mystery I had carried with me since the day after Thanksgiving, 1980. Here’s the full story. The answer was quite simple, and bound up in just four words: “we do this because…” If every pattern in a pattern book begins by saying what to do, then explaining why, it gives everyone working on designs the license to think again, rather than just following a recipe. And so architecture can take on a life of its own again and spread, long after the pattern book author is gone.

   But in order to be able to explain why we build the way we build here, you can’t use random styles. Instead, you have to tease out what is the most indigenous and sustainable architecture of the region, from rural to urban and from vernacular to classical. Only then does “we do this because…” have a chance at deep meaning.

   Our most notable book to date is A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas], which won a charter award from the Congress for the New Urbanism just after its release a decade ago. I’m delighted that we finished the second edition earlier this year. The meat of the book (the patterns) have been freshened a bit, but the first and last chapters have been entirely rewritten, and are filled with things I’ve been trying to figure out for years. If you’re interested, here’s where you can find it on Amazon.

   Thanks in advance for your interest in the book! And if you get one, please let me know what you think!

   ~Steve Mouzon

One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is designing for others. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
designing for others – how hard could it be?

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"designing for others"

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
How To Design for Others

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Just say no

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Designing for Others

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Designing for others

Anne Lebo - The Treehouse (@anneaganlebo)
Designing for people


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You'll receive an email from me with the subject line "Mouzon Design: Please Confirm Subscription." Click Yes to confirm your subscription for A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] book updates.

A Strange Career Path

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composite selfie

An old-style selfie… the Photoshop version. And that’s Sally on the right, on the first day I met her when Wanda brought her home from North Carolina.

   Most architects chart their own path, but Wanda has changed my career path on so many occasions that it’s almost more her story than it is mine. We got married after my first year in architecture school, and while it seems unthinkable judging from pictures of us like the one above, she already had advanced degrees (microbiology and bacteriology) before I graduated from high school… due in part to the fact that she was really smart and graduated early.

   But in any case, Wanda would entertain herself in the evenings by coming down to the studio where we were all slaving away on our projects, and got intimately acquainted with what an architecture education was all about. She showed up at all my juries that occurred when she was off work, and eventually asked me this question: “In all branches of biology, and indeed of all science, there are standards to which ideas must measure up, otherwise they are discounted. At their core is the scientific method. Buy you guys in your juries do better or worse seemingly based solely on who is the best debater. Why is that? Is there no standard in architecture by which you can say ‘this is better than that?’”

   I had no answer. Nor did my professors. They all talked about genius, creativity, and freedom of expression, but only once in my academic career did I have any conversations with a professor who even hinted at anything that could be considered standards of goodness in the built environment. That professor was Dan Woodfin, who just retired from Ball State this year. He was my thesis advisor and a big advocate of pattern languages. I was fortunate to meet the author of the idea, Christopher Alexander, briefly many years later just after creating his Athena Medal graphic from a bronze casting at the Congress for the New Urbanism. I remain good friends with one of his close colleagues, Michael Mehaffy, to this day. The idea of languages of patterns have been invaluable to me throughout my career, and lies at the foundation of the idea of living traditions.

   But back to Wanda. On the day after Thanksgiving 1980 she and I were at my parent’s home in Huntsville, Alabama. We had eaten too much the day before, so she and I, along with my sister Susan and her boyfriend at the time, ventured out to Mooresville, Alabama to walk off some turkey because Huntsville was completely unwalkable in those years. I’ve told this story several times on this blog, most recently here, but I’ve told it as my questions to myself. In reality, Wanda was asking several of the questions as I recall it now. “Steve, your professors tell you you’re the greatest generation of architects ever because you have computers and your builders have bigger power tools, but how could these simple farmers and tradespeople have built a better town in 1818 than the best of you can today? I had no answer. But I took the mystery home with me, feeding it and watering it until the answer opened up almost a quarter-century later.

   A year after that Thanksgiving, we were lying in bed about to go to sleep when she asked me a question that again rocked my career: “Why is it that you refuse to design anything that anyone else I love would love?” “Do I?” “Of course!” “How do you know?” “Have you ever listened to non-architects talk about architecture?” “No, our professors tell us that we should educate our clients!” “Well, if you’d listen to some of them, you might actually learn something!” And so that began a decades-long quest to try to figure out what non-architects actually love, and why. Along the way, I discovered that lovability is actually the first foundation of sustainable architecture. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last.

   I could go on for hours with all the ways Wanda has redirected my career path, but this post would be far too long. Here’s just one more: We were standing in the parking lot of a grocery store in the late 1990s when she said “in the medical profession, I see many doctors who live lavish lifestyles, but when they retire, they have nothing left to sell because the only thing they ever had to sell was their time. And if they keep up that lifestyle, they very quickly come to poverty. You could do the same. You should instead think of creating tools useful to many people which you can build once and sell many times. And over the two decades since, that is exactly what we have done. At our core, we are now tool-makers, hoping to build things that will benefit many people we will never meet, in places we may never go, both during our lifetimes and beyond our time. That’s our hope, and we’re sticking to it.

   ~Steve Mouzon

One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is career path. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
Well, How Did I Get Here (Again)

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
a paved but winding career path

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Career - The News Knows

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
#architalks 41 "Career Path"

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
A Winding Path

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Career Path

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Career Path of an Architect (And Beyond)

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Career Path(s)

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Career Path

Actually, there’s another “one more thing” … Walk Appeal is the book Wanda and I are working on now. Please feel free to subscribe for updates!

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Fathers Day for Architects - The Empty Seat

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old empty seat

   I suspect most of my colleagues writing in this blogoff will have really happy, uplifting things to say about Fathers Day and architecture, but I have a different, darker view… but also a way to change it for the better, at the end. See the empty seat in this long-ago photo? That was mine. But I bailed out of our family vacation at the last minute because I had too many pressing deadlines, so Wanda took Sam and David anyway, leaving me to satisfy my clients’ demands. Simply put, this profession can eat you up, and leave you with many regrets.

   The architect I worked for after graduation lamented that he felt badly about the fact that he worked so hard in the early years of his career. “I feel like I never got to know my daughter,” he said repeatedly. But when the deadlines came, he pushed us all just as hard, and the fact that we had been conditioned to long hours in school with all the all-nighters meant that it was far too easy to fall into the trap of 80-hour weeks when the deadlines came. And when I opened my own firm in 1991, 80-hour weeks became my new normal, as that’s what I averaged over the course of each early year. Eventually, that grew to a 90-hour average about the time this photo was taken, and the last three years I kept timesheets I was averaging over a hundred hours per week. So in those years, I was pretty much an absentee father, and nothing will ever give me those years back with my kids.

   Why do we do this to ourselves? Answers could range from the culture of the profession to the pressure we feel due to under-valuing of the profession to many other things, but I believe there’s also a dark underlying motivation nobody talks about: the necessity of uniqueness. For most of history, the high standard in architecture was excellence. But beginning in the late 1920s to early 1930s, that standard was displaced by a new high standard of uniqueness. If you wanted to be significant, you must be unique. I believe this was driven in part by the ascendency of Modernism and its love of the new, but also by the rise of the modern architectural press, which was seeking novel things to publish, not just the same old stuff from last year.

   The necessity of uniqueness is welcomed by the rare geniuses who are able to crank out excellent unique things in a steady stream. But it’s a recipe for failure for everyone else. Unfortunately, almost all academies base their teaching on the premise that they will educate the next Frank Gehry. So what actually happens in school is a curious dance of deception. A normal student usually did their best work when they were ripping off something a master had done. And because of the necessity of uniqueness, there was a vast store of published work to choose from. I remember the game. Whenever someone did something particularly well-executed, we all set about on a frantic search to find the original in recent magazines from which it had been plagiarized, all while the student was asserting it was a unique creation.

   There was one guy who was different; he made no mistake that he was a huge fan of Richard Meier, and ripped him off regularly. One Sunday afternoon, I remember him coming into the studio and laughing at us all… “you bunch of fools! You’ve been slaving away all weekend, haven’t you? And you’ll probably pull an all-nighter tonight to get done for the jury tomorrow, won’t you? Watch what I do!” And he sat down and in about 4 hours had produces a competent Meier ripoff. And got an A the next day. Because speaking in a known language is immeasurably easier than trying to create your own new language. Every. Single. Time.

   I believe that if we want to take our family lives back, and actually be good parents as architects, we really must discard this ridiculous necessity of uniqueness the profession has been burdened with for nearly a century. Children of future generations of architects will thank us for making this break from the recent past.

   The wisest and most effective way to do this is to seek out the most sustainable architecture of your region and begin working in that language of architecture. Much of it was probably worked out by the old folks before the Thermostat Age, so this is not something you’ll have to completely invent yourself. But if you learn why they did what they did, then you’ll be able to follow those principles to update the architecture, because some of today’s needs didn’t exist several generations ago. So architecture can take on a life of its own and live again, evolving to be the most current architecture of the day, but based on principles instead of just raw novelty.

   Wanda and I have dedicated ourselves in recent years to building tools that help others do better work rather than pushing to do more design ourselves. When you work within known languages of architecture, it is easy to build tools many others can use because we use the same “words,” or patterns, of the language. For example, we’re about to publish a broad and deep collection of SketchUp components for southeastern US languages of architecture, and another for the architecture of the Bahamas. I’ll blog on that when it goes live.

   In a world where the sharing economy is so strong in so many other realms, why should architects not be allowed to share? Let’s give up this harmful necessity of uniqueness that has caused so much neglect of our families for so long, and speak in known architectural languages. The public realm will benefit greatly but the greatest beneficiaries will be our children.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This is a Blogoff by some of the same characters who bring you #ArchiTalks each month. My colleagues’ posts are here:

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Happy Fathers Day #archidads

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
The Dad -- The Architect

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
#Archidad - A modern approach

Rusty Long - Rusty Long, Architect (@rustylong)
Life as an Archidad

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Being ArchiDad

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)

Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
A Daddy Architects Work Life Blur and My Escape

Jared W. Smith - Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL)
ArchiDad on Father's Day

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Starting Wrong - The Amazon Mistake

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   The 20 cities that are finalists for Amazon's HQ2 are starting out with a classic error of 20th Century thinking, and it is a mistake with colossal implications which may reverberate in the winning losing city for decades. It’ll be the “winning losing” city because while it will win the competition, it will be at risk of losses bigger than the win because winning a single big prize like HQ2 dims focus on the many small but fundamental things cities need to do in order to prosper in the 21st Century. If cities don’t get the small things right, One Big Thing like HQ2 won’t save them. If they do get the small things right, they may eventually have some home-grown Big Things no matter where HQ2 goes.

   238 cities originally pursued HQ2, and there will be one winner among the 20 cities on the shortlist. Several cities on the list are already coughing up multi-billion dollar incentive package proposals for Amazon, which is racing Apple and Google to be the first trillion-dollar company. So chances are good that no matter how much inducement money (or corporate welfare, if you prefer) the winning losing city forks over to Amazon, the relative cost to the city of those billions will be greater than the relative benefit to Amazon. There’s a cause founded last week by Richard Florida that asks competing cities to support a non-aggression pact. Nearly a hundred high-profile urbanists are signatories to the cause, and I’ve signed the petition on change.org because this is a right first step.


   But the real questions (especially for the other 237 cities) are these: how have we become such suckers for pursuing the One Big Thing we’re very unlikely to get, and what should we be doing instead? We’ve been sold on the efficiency of bigness since at least the 1920s, captivated by the marketing slogan “we’re growing bigger to serve you better.” But somewhere along the way, we haven’t just made it easier for big things; we’ve actually exterminated most small things. In agriculture, that came in 1971 when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz began bellowing “get big or get out!”

Starting Small

   What is the starting point of building a stronger city or town that we’re more likely to sustain long into an uncertain future? Anyone familiar with the Original Green knows there are four foundations of sustainable places: they must be nourishableaccessibleserviceable, and securable. These are physical characteristics. But the societies that inhabit them must also embody certain foundation characteristics if they hope to be able to keep inhabiting those places long into that uncertain future. Two of those characteristics are a good education system and a strong middle class. Improving the education system and a growing middle class are two really big things, but the starting points are small things, most of which cost only tiny fractions of the sacrifice of luring One Big Thing.

Spending Small But Leading Large


   Amazon’s 237 losers shouldn’t just slink off and lick their wounds and then forget about it. Instead, they should use the experience as an opportunity to ask this question: “Are there things we can do that cost a lot less than landing Amazon, but that will have better long-term benefits?” As unthinkable as that sounds with the Titanic focus on the One Big Thing, the answer is probably “yes” for most of them. But here's a crucial caveat: All measures described here, while inexpensive enough to risk occasionally sounding silly, can only work if they have a serious champion in your town. Otherwise, the inertia of the status quo will ensure that none of them happen. So find that group or that person who’s willing to stand up to business as usual, and is strong enough to stand up to one or more of your city department heads, otherwise you’re wasting your time. There are two types of people in the world: those who can tell you why something can’t be done, and those who get stuff done. The latter type is harder to find, but you must have at least one of them. Here’s what they need to work on:


   Good schools are essential to towns that can be sustained long into an uncertain future. Unfortunately, quality of education is not a problem solved by simply by throwing more money at it. Studies have repeatedly shown that there is not a strong correlation between education spending and high achievement. Outliers abound. Techniques suggested here focus on what has been the hardest nut to crack with education: fostering a culture where education is valued more highly, and which gives kids hope.



   Few characteristics of a society are stronger indicators of long-term stability than a robust middle class. But unlike the recent past when many families remained in the middle class for generations, it is now a more tranient status in the US and abroad. There are faster paths to wealth today than ever before, and disruptive events such as the Great Recession move millions quickly down and out of the middle class. Rebuilding the middle class is now, more than ever, a continuous challenge. The middle class is built from the bottom up, not the top down, as those who were once wealthy tend to find their own way back to wealth more easily the second time. At its core, middle-class-building starts with the small, the young, and the disadvantaged. Help those among them who want to start their own businesses, and they will in time hire others who would rather collect paychecks than write them. And those local businesses will help both owners and employees get into the ranks of the middle class.

The Settings

   Cities do not need to build a lot of new things to help fuel the middle class. Chances are, they already have many assets sitting unused all over town. Adopt a policy of No Fallow Land that states that every unused piece of city property is a potential setting for initiatives to help citizens join the middle class by starting new stuff. A vacant lot can be a community garden. An under-used parking lot can become a food cart pod. Empty buildings can be used like this:

Open Maker Spaces


   Identify neighborhoods most in need of recovery and open a maker space in each of them because time and again, they have become morning’s first light of recovery in a struggling neighborhood, and the first hint that place can be cool again. After that, continue with more stable neighborhoods. A maker space needs little more than wide-open space, a (mostly) leak-free roof, electricity, and running water. It is here that people come to re-learn the lost arts and crafts of making stuff. They also teach other makers what they’ve learned, so it’s half-laboratory and half-school.

   What they learn varies as much as their locations; a maker space in the Bahamas probably shelters those relearning something about living in a nautical nation, while one in Boston might focus more on technology. Or not. It all depends on the interests of those using them.

   Be sure to put maker spaces on the field trip schedule for local schools. Not only is it interesting for kids to see what the makers are doing, but there’s a pretty good chance that some of the kids might actually know more about some of the tech things than the makers, and be able to help them out… and maybe even come back after school.

Allow Temporary Single-Crew Shops

   Single-crew workplaces that are temporary or even mobile allow people to open their own businesses years or even decades before they could have afforded a bricks-and-mortar store… if ever. Put another way, raise the initial threshold to brick-and-mortar stores, and most people will never get started and the middle class will not thrive like it could have. Temporary single-crew workplaces run from the most ephemeral farmers market tents to food carts and shop sheds. In every case, they can be moved to another location whenever the town has a higher or better use for the land on which they’re sitting.

Build Craft Workshops


   Once someone has figured out how to do something useful, they need a more established place to do it longterm. When someone first moves out of a maker space into their own workshop, their needs are small. They probably need only enough space for one person to work, plus space to store their tools. Locate workshops on the borders of public spaces (plazas and sqares are best) for three reasons: it will make those civic spaces more interesting while helping create enclosure, drawing more people, and some of those people will become customers of the craftspeople. The third reason might be the most important: by being highly visible in a public place, kids are likely to see them working while coming home from school, and some of them might be inspired to try their hand at a craft someday.

Start Coworking Spaces

   Of the places to work, coworking spaces are the most expensive because they’re built just like a regular office. Their economy comes from the fact that each person uses only a very small part of the building.

Reopen the Old School


Legendary Bahamian craftsman Joseph

Saunders will soon be 91.

   Some old skills will never be needed again in most places. Saddle repair, for example, is a craft once found in every town, but now likely to be kept alive only in places where lots of people still ride horses. But there are many skills we’re now realizing we’d like to have back. Unfortunately, the last people to know how to do them are now aged or dying. Find an old abandoned school or similar structure (church building? office?) and gather the old craftspeople there to teach the young who want those abilities back again.

The Deal

   Remember, the original idea was “take a small fraction of the money you would have spent on corporate welfare and spend it this way instead…” in order to strengthen education and the middle class. The greatest help for a new business should come at the beginning, then taper off as new arrivals to the middle class can stand on their own. So rent charged at these workplaces should be free to begin with for a certain number of months, then transition to a percentage rent, where the city gets a percentage of each person’s gross monthly income. Once they graduate from being a single-crew workplace of one businessperson and maybe one helper, then they should be able to pay regular rent to a normal private-sector landlord.

Making Making Cool Again
(and Learning, Too)


   Being a craftsperson was once a high calling, but by the time I was in high school in the 1970s, classmates who spent their afternoons at the local vocational-technical school were known as “the VoTech losers.” Now, education of any kind is held in low regard in much of society. “It’s not cool to be smart” is sadly far too common, but easy to understand. Since the mid-19th Century, education in most industrialized nations was designed to produce graduates who were normal and obedient, so they could become good factory workers. How is it possible to be less cool than that?? So learning things and making things both need an image revival in most places today. Here are some low-budget ideas to try:

Idea Fairs for Kids

   Carve a little time out of the curriculum, probably on Friday afternoon, and start an idea fair in every grade of schools. Disruptive ideas are cool today, so frame it like “here’s how I’m gonna change this town,” to “here’s how I’m gonna change the world.” Give prizes. Make it the highlight of the month, or maybe even do them every week.

Idea Fairs for Adults

   Maker spaces are good places for neighborhood cultural events, so hold idea fairs there where makers can pitch their ideas to local businesses and investors. Saturdays might be a good time so as to not interfere with the workweek. And the Saturday idea fairs wouldn’t just attract people who might bring a contract with them. Look at Kickstarter’s traffic and it’s clear that many people consider looking at cool new ideas a form of entertainment.

Movie Night

IMG 6323

   Hold regular “movies on the green” screening films focused on kids with great ideas. Pay It Forward should be the anthem film, shown at least a couple times per year. Make this a real neighborhood cultural event, and a family night. Friday night right after the idea fair at school could be a perfect time. Do it as leanly as possible. You don’t need a big screen, for example; just a white-painted wall on the side of a building.

The Idea Board

   Set up a blackboard, whiteboard, or some other waterproof board in a public place like a park, installed at a height so most third-grade kids can reach the top of the board. Divide it into rectangles. You may have seen these before; they’re often framed as “things I want to do before I die,” “things I’d like to see built here,” etc. Do this one as “here’s my big idea; help me out with it” and leave a lot of chalk.

Helpful Infrastructure

   There are some things that can be done to the city itself to help make it a more education- and growth-friendly place for children and adults alike.

Gigabit Internet

   Cities around the US are realizing that if they bring gigabit internet to town, the internet will bring bandwidth-heavy businesses to town. Even small towns such as Geraldine, Alabama have brought gigabit to town to attract businesses. There’s no debate anywhere as to whether it’s worth the expense, and gigabit is a huge benefit to education as well. On a personal note, Geraldine was the last place in Alabama where members of my extended family were served by outdoor plumbing, and that was as late as 1978. Outhouses to gigabit in 40 years!

Pink Zones

   The Pink Zone is an innovative idea from the Lean Urbanism initiative. It’s a place where the red tape isn’t eliminated entirely, but is made a little bit lighter so the small, the young, and the disadvantaged can get started easier. In other words, it doesn’t create a favela zone, but it does allow more freedom than the fully-regulated remainder of town. And a Pink Zone doesn’t cost money; it saves, because it can be administered lightly.

Walk Appeal


   Swapping great ideas shouldn’t only happen at idea fairs, movie nights, and other special occasions and destinations. Smart cultures and entrepreneurial cultures work best when there are many opportunities for chance meetings between people working to figure stuff out. And that begins with getting people out, because you never accidentally bump into someone if everyone stays inside. Places with great Walk Appeal get far more people outdoors than auto-dominated places that are unfriendly to walking, so do everything you can to boost Walk Appeal all over town. Many of these measures cost little, and quite a number of them are in the financial best interest of landowners to do at their own expense, costing the city nothing. Wanda and I are writing the Walk Appeal book; if you’re interested, you can subscribe to updates below.

Third Places

   Your First Place is home. Your Second Place is work. Your Third Place is where you go to hang out, “where everybody knows your name,” as the old Cheers tagline went. Third Places can be pubs, coffee shops, or any other place where you can buy something and hang out for as long as you like (maybe with your laptop because they have wifi). Third Places can be like chameleons, morphing from coffee shop in the morning to rum bar at night, like the Rum & Bean. Third Places have been hotspots of thinking throughout history, from the forum in ancient cities to the coffee shops largely responsible for the European Enlightenment. A city or town should not actually build any Third Places; just encourage them, and make it easy for them to open for business.

Infrastructure ROI

   For over a century, Americans have built infrastructure with no thought for the Return on Investment, or ROI. If a traffic study says we need it, we’ve gotta build it. Today, most American cities are loaded with infrastructure they cannot maintain, and it threatens to bankrupt thousands of cities and towns.  Joe Minicozzi and Chuck Marohn have been sounding the alarm for years; it’s high time we listen, because if we keep building infrastructure that doesn’t make a profit for the city, we won’t be able to afford the other things on this list, much less the One Big Thing.

   ~Steve Mouzon

   One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is starting a design. I’ve altered it a bit for this post to include things beyond a single design… this one is more like laying a good foundation for an entire city. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Slow Down. Hold Still.

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
where do we start?

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
How to Start a Design

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Starting a Design: #Architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
On Your Mark, Get Set -- Start a Design!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
Starting Design

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #35: Starting a Design

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Where do we begin?

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Where do you start when designing a new home?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
do-re-mi- Design

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
First Thing's First

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
How it all begins...

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The Twelve Steps of Sprawl Recovery

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   The storm clouds of sprawl addiction had been gathering for years, but it took the Meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession to make it clear just how damaging that addiction had been to the health of cities across the US and abroad. Sprawl has two really big things going for it, but three even bigger things now going against it which are poised to turn the tide against the pattern of sprawl.

Sprawl's Two Enablers


   Sprawl development is, at its foundation, an industrial system, developed in the 1940s on the shiny and new mentality of the assembly line. The first enablers of sprawl are the core manufacturing systems that produces the subdivisions, strip malls, office parks, mega-stores, mega-churches, and mega-schools, and the mega-highways necessary to serve them all. The second enabler is the collection of support industries built around the core of sprawl: market surveys, zoning, infrastructure engineering, design, and their sprawl based standards, codes, and regulations, development lending and sprawl-based development practices, appraisals and home mortgages and mortgage bundling, “site-adapt” cookie-cutter building design, square-feet-bells-and-whistles real estate sales, plus all of the financial, design, development, and sales industry organizations, and the shelter publications and shows to support this behemoth. Because the parts were industrially designed to interact seamlessly with each other, and preclude any other way of building, it looked like an immovable rock for decades. Until the cracks in the infrastructure began to show.

The Three Interventions


   Three immense waves are now crashing against the monolith of sprawl, and promise to intervene in our current path to national, state, and local bankruptcy. The first is the relations between workplace and workers. The generation of workers who would follow a job across the country or even abroad is now retiring. Millennials turn the job hunt on its head, seeking first a cool city or town, then the coolest neighborhood in that town, then a job they like in that neighborhood. Cool Factor, on display in this image, is now what drives employment. And there is no place in America more devoid of Cool Factor than an office park, and a subdivision is close behind. Today’s slide is just the beginning of a precipitous drop in demand for boring places to work and live.


   The second great wave is also generationally-based, but more mathematical than the preferences for places with Cool Factor. For all of our lifetimes until just a few years ago, there have been net purchasers in the US housing market. Now, for the rest of most of our lives, there will be more sellers than purchasers. For a half-century, we’ve been assured that home prices will rise. Now, for houses located in ordinary subdivisions, the prognosis is very poor: falling real estate values as far as the eye can see. There is a solution: sprawling places that elect for an extreme makeover into vibrant and sustainable places can actually run against the tide and increase their values. But those which stay the current course cannot resist the value decline with any amount of wishful or “magical" thinking.


   The third wave is eqally inexorable: the failure of sprawl infrastructure. But this one is pure math and has nothing to do with Boomers, Millennials, or any other generation. Get to know two names really well: Joe Minicozzi and Chuck Marohn. They’re very different in so many ways: from different parts of the country, from different sides of the political spectrum, one a lone wolf and the other the founder of a movement with a small army and annual gatherings, but they are highly aligned as the two prophets of the end of sprawl. They show (in two very different ways, as you may have guessed by now) how that sprawl is a huge Ponzi scheme, and how it will collapse on the weight of its own infrastructure maintenance. “Do the math,” as Joe says… it shows a terrifying calculation no city wants to see: there is a date at which every city in the US with a lot of sprawl will go bankrupt because of the cost of maintaining the infrastructure. It’s not a question of if, but of when. And that date can be calculated.

   So make no mistake: Sprawl is an American addiction, and we must break it or it will break us. Cities cannot afford to maintain the sprawl developers have built, and the infrastructure bills are beginning to come due in greater quantities than ever. For sprawl, it's recover or die. Do the math. Look it up.

The Twelve Steps

   There is a 12-step sprawl recovery program that can transform the subdivisions, strip malls, and office parks of post-WWII sprawl into sustainable neighborhoods... IF the people living there want that extreme makeover. But they have to want it & be committed to the transformation. Without the commitment, they won’t be able to break the addiction. The 12-step sprawl recovery program can never be forced upon anyone. People have to be committed to transforming the sprawl around them into sustainable places. The benefits are many, including the fact that those places will live much longer. The alternative is bleak; there are ghost towns around the world for a reason.

Step 1: Civic Space


   The first step of sprawl recovery is to create at least one neighborhood civic space, which can be a plaza (for the most urban places), a square (as shown here), a green, or a park. What's important is to do it at the beginning. If you wait, it'll be too expensive later on because property values will likely rise as the neighborhood recovers. A centrally located vacant lot can work as the neighborhood square & it adds enough value to nearby lots to pay for it. An abandoned lot works best, although one with a foreclosed building can work as well.


   Squares are often the size of an entire city block, like Jackson Square in New Orleans, but a neighborhood center civic space doesn’t have to be anywhere near that large. This plaza in chicago is only 75 feet wide; I stepped it off to be sure. Incidentally, that’s about the width of some neighboring buildings, so it’s possible that this plaza was once a vacant lot before being converted into the civic space we see today.

Step 2: Thoroughfare Recovery


   The second step of sprawl recovery is beginning to recover the thoroughfares so that they have enough Walk Appeal that people feel just as comfortable walking and biking there as they do driving there, like they do in this picture. Part of the job involves slowing the cars down by putting the streets on a "street diet" and adding on-street parking. Another part is redesigning the sidewalks, planting beds, and street furnishing zones to entice people to come out and walk on their neighborhood streets. A third part is inserting rear lanes and service alleys to get the messy stuff off the front streets, and the means of getting property owners to give up the back 10’ to 15’ of their lots and be happy about it will be the subject of an entire future blog post.


   Multi-modal transport is very important at this step, especially the self-propelled modes of walking and biking. Get these right and Walk Appeal flourishes and many good things happen. Get them wrong, and you're stuck with the auto-dominated place you have now, where people spend more quality time with their steering wheels than with their families. There's an added benefit to the self-propelled means of getting around: neighbors will get more exercise, stay healthier, and actually be happier, which is a proven benefit of getting out and getting around on your own power.

Step 3: Accessory Dwelling Units


   This step adds accessory dwelling units like the apartment over this garage in order to add neighbors to the neighborhood because subdivisions in sprawl rarely have anywhere near enough neighbors to support neighborhood businesses. Some people worry that "those people won't be just like us," but a variety of people make a place more interesting, and you have control over who you rent your accessory unit to; it's not like anyone is putting up high-rise apartment blocks next door. And your tenant might even be your own kid, who has just graduated from college. Also, some cities and states are now passing laws legalizing accessory dwelling units (also called ADUs or “granny flats”) because while they’ve been used all over American and around the world for all of human history until recently, they’ve been illegal in the US since roughly the end of World War II. So if you’re living in a place that is now making them legal again, you’re one step ahead.

Step 4: Gifts to the Street


Encouraging neighbors to give "gifts to the street" is the next step. Gifts can delight people (like a beautiful frontage garden), entertain them (like a great storefront), refresh them (like a street fountain or even a sidewalk café), shelter them (like an awning or gallery), direct them (like a goal in the middle distance), inform them (like a clock or sundial), help them remember (like a memorial), or simply give them a place to rest. Whatever each gift may give to the street, there's no doubt that the collection of gifts will make the street a much more interesting place to walk.

Step 5: Lovable Edible Gardens


The next step of sprawl recovery is encouraging lovable edible gardens throughout the neighborhood, and also establishing a farmers market for those who don't want to raise a garden themselves. Fresh local food does much good for a neighborhood… so much so that these benefits will occupy an entire future post. It’s also really important that the edible gardens be treated with every bit as much care as ornamental gardens. Today, most vegetable gardens are treated with similar aesthetic respect to a utility room. For most people, that means “not much." As a result, many cities ban vegetable gardens in front yards because they can be eyesores. Recovering neighborhoods need to learn how to do edible gardens beautifully again, as our ancestors once did.

Step 6: Places to Eat


   Restaurants tend to be risk-oblivious, so they should be the first business type introduced to your recovering neighborhood (probably around the neighborhood square) as Step 6 of sprawl recovery. Small restaurants fit well in existing houses like the one shown here. But be careful where you put them, especially at the beginning. Quiet restaurants can fit well on most street corners because they close earlier and don't disturb the neighbors, but those with a younger clientele or that serve alcohol should be limited to around the neighborhood square, and should only be added later, once the neighborhood has a strong track record of beloved establishments.

Step 7: Bed & Breakfast


   Add a bed & breakfast at Step 7 so subsequent houses aren't burdened with needing a guest suite and can therefore be smaller if desired. Before the Meltdown in 2008, a guest suite in many suburban houses included a bath and often even a walk-in closet, frequently  tipping the scales at 250 square feet or more. At $200 per square foot, the necessity of having a guest bedroom inflated the mortgage by $50,000 or more. The mortgage savings can more than pay for putting your guests up at the B&B.

Step 8: Cottages


   By this time, your recovering neighborhood is ready for Step 8 of sprawl recovery, which is the construction of small cottages throughout the neighborhood so you can invite more neighbors to live there and help support the growing collection of neighborhood businesses. Because they're small, cottages can slip into many underused parts of a neighborhood, including along rear lanes or in cottage courts carved into the middle of a block. Having smaller homes in the neighborhood expands the affordability range, allowing young adults to live just down the street from their parents for the first time in nearly a century.

Step 9: Live/Work Units


   Step 9 is construction of live/work units so you can open a small business and live above the shop. America was built by people living over the shop; live/work units were only banned after World War II, when planners decided to segregate homes not only from factories, but from everything else as well. Recent decades have seen countless corporate job losses, and many of those people have gone in business for themselves. Now, just as it was when the US was founded, there is no better place to cultivate your own business than in a live/work unit.

Step 10: Neighborhood Market


   Your neighborhood should be mature enough in its recovery by this point that you're ready for Step 10, which is a dedicated neighborhood market. This one has apartments above, but the owner may live elsewhere in the neighborhood. One really important note about neighborhood markets: retail experts may tell you that they need to be at least 40,000 square feet to be successful, and this is true in sprawl, where they're often much larger. But in a walkable neighborhood, they can be much smaller. There are even single-crew groceries of less than 1,000 square feet, and a grocery of 5,000 square feet can stock everything in a convenience store, plus healthy food as well.

Step 11: Dedicated Office & Retail


   This step of sprawl recovery is the construction of dedicated office and retail space. On quiet streets, it might be just a small home office for one person built tight up to the sidewalk; larger establishments fit better around the neighborhood square. Look at old town centers, and you'll see that some of these shops and offices are quite small, and are built in the front yards of homes near the town center. In other cases, homeowners eventually redeveloped their homes as dedicated office and retail, like the shops shown here.

Step 12: Civic Buildings


   The final step is the addition of civic buildings, if you haven't added them already. A meeting hall, wedding chapel, or place of worship are all candidate civic building types; your neighborhood's needs may be different, so build the ones you need. Civic buildings in the US often sit on a square or plaza, but while that's nice, it's not necessary. Most of them do need space for a crowd to spill out in front, so setting them back from the street is one way to do this. Another is to place them in a location where the streets swells out, creating a small civic space that might be as simple as an extra-wide sidewalk.

   We realize that an extreme makeover of your neighborhood sounds like a scary thing. It is because it's a big change. But it's the kind of change that can transforms ordinary subdivisions and strip centers into a vibrant and sustainable neighborhoods that can join the ranks of the Most-Loved Places someday. Good luck, and let’s talk about the challenges and techniques of making this happen!

   ~Steve Mouzon

   Wanda and I are writing a book on Sprawl Recovery and you can subscribe to updates below, which is good, but what’s even better is to join in the discussion so we can all work these things out in the open. Nobody’s under any illusions that this will be easy, but sprawl recovery is likely the most important challenge America has ever faced because sprawl has grown so large.

   One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and the topic is renewal. It’s clear to me that renewal of the health of our cities after the long addiction of sprawl is of paramount importance. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
get out of town renewal

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Goal Renewal

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
renewal: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Renewal - Re-Ranch

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@BuildingsRCool)
No guts, no glory!

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
working towards my site re-launch. next time! cheers

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
5 Tips for Harnessing Renewal to Advance Your Goals

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Renewal (at Each Beginning)

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
Break Routines

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Opting out on this one

Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
Renewal is Valuable for Heart and Hometown


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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018