Are Cities Organisms or Machines?

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people flocking to King Street in Charleston after an early spring rain that still dampens the brick paving

   Nature has countless good lessons on how to sustain cities and towns… if only we would listen. Chuck Marohn's excellent Strong Towns post this morning flatly states that cities are organisms, not machines. I agree that it's more instructive to think of them that way. And that got me thinking about the fundamentally flawed things we do to (mis)manage them. Chuck traces the core disconnect to the transition from building, maintaining, and operating our towns and cities to paying others to do so.

courtyard of Mouzon residence in Gurley, Alabama

   Depending on the level of development in the area, it was only a century or two ago that the townspeople built and maintained the town. In my family, "house-raisings" were common occurrences, even in recent decades. My own house was built with much help from family and friends. But when we became wealthy enough, it seemed simpler to hire all the work done by someone else and spend all our productive time working on whatever our specialty was.

   What we lost in that exchange is only now becoming clear: when we become experts in one thing and turn all other parts of our lives over to people who are experts in other things, we no longer have the authority to speak up when things get out of balance. And so the specialists get more and more efficient at doing their narrowly-defined tasks in near-ignorance of anything else. So we get arterial thoroughfares that are really efficient at moving cars, but nobody wants to live anywhere near them. We get volume builders that are really efficient at throwing up countless little vinyl boxes that cannot possibly be loved. And the whole mechanism of sprawl was one of the most efficient machines ever invented, but its excesses have literally become "cancer of the city." The good news is that there is a cure.

morning sunshine spilling across cobbled Charleston street lined by townhouses

   The time has come to question the underlying value that helped spawn all of this: efficiency. For decades, efficiency was used as a reason to do so many things that haven't worked out well. We now need to come to terms with the fact that, as someone once said, "an efficient Nazi is not a good thing." Efficiency simply means we're going really fast… but we could be going really fast in the wrong direction.

man walking in the distance down roughly-cobbled Charleston passage

   So if not efficiency, then what should we be looking for? How about looking for things that have been proven to work for a long time? The operating system of true sustainability that kept humans alive for all of human history before the Thermostat Age was something I refer to as a "living tradition." The heartbeat of a living tradition that pumps sustaining place-making principles to all the townspeople is four simple words: "We do this because…" If you put every pattern of place-making in these terms, then the streets, squares, and buildings we build might not be so efficient at moving cars or whatever, but they'll be far better places to live and work because you will have tapped the minds of all of the townspeople, not just the civil engineers, architects, and the like.

   Put another way, if you want to tear down the gates to the specialties that their gatekeepers have guarded so jealously for so long, simply tell the people why. Why plant trees along the street? Why allow parking on the street? Why lift porches above the sidewalk, and by how much? Why set aside land for plazas, squares, greens, and parks, and how often? The answers to these questions aren't difficult… anyone can understand them. And once the townspeople know why, they'll take ownership of their neighborhoods and towns again… and we'll all be better for it.

   I said that nature has countless lessons on how to sustain cities and towns, and re-starting living traditions is one of them. I have several more in mind, but what are the most obvious of nature's place-making lessons to you?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Four Unexpected Green Game-Changers for Earth Day

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freaky sunset sky on Miami Beach just after a storm washed out to sea

   The best green measures are the ones almost nobody's talking about. If you're sick of hearing the same green building talk today on Earth Day, it could be because Gizmo Green is the only thing being discussed in most circles. Better equipment and better materials can never achieve sustainability for us because our consumption is increasing faster than the engineers can increase efficiency. Here are four unmentioned things that can do far more good than good engineering:

Drive Only on Special Occasions

4-story Italianate mixed-use building painted in celebratory fashion in Cincinnati, Ohio’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood

   The carbon footprint of your house isn't really meaningful until you achieve a good carbon footprint on all the things you do outside your house. Put another way, you could have a zero-energy house, but if you have to drive to work, drive to school, drive to shopping, drive to recreation, and drive to pretty much everything else as well, then you're not really achieving anything significant. So live near work to begin with, and then make sure you can walk to the grocery along paths with great walk appeal. If you can do these two things, then you can probably walk or bike to many other daily needs as well. And then what you do inside your home can be meaningfully green. Why would you want to spend a lot of money on green gizmos and then discover it's not meaningful?

Get People Outdoors

quiet dining courtyard swaddled in green in New Orleans’ French Quarter

   If you entice people outdoors into a great public realm or into a great series of garden rooms most days of the year, then the time they spend there helps condition them (whether they realize it or not) to the local environment so that when they return indoors, they may not need to turn the equipment on. If not, then they achieve a state I call "living in season," and it means that they can throw the windows open most days of the year. And when you do that, you discover that there is no piece of equipment so efficient as that which is off. There's nothing greener than being able to cut the equipment off for most of the year.

Go Drywall-Free

drywall-free design of living room wall in Eric Moser’s Coastal Living Idea House design in Habersham, South Carolina

   They call that boring white stuff we put on our walls "drywall" because so long as you keep it dry, you have a wall. But just as soon as it gets wet, it turns to messy mush. And even if it doesn't fall apart, it loves to host mold and mildew and make your family sick. This means that even if you get outdoors and want to live in season, you can't take a chance of leaving the windows open because if a summer thundershower pops up and blows rain in the window, you'll have lots of damage. We need to learn how to build durable and resilient buildings like our great-grandparents did so that the summer shower is no reason to call the insurance adjustor; you simply wipe down the walls that got wet and never give it a second thought.

Bigger isn't Better - Bigger is Worse - Smaller is Better

small cottage bathed in late evening light at the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   There should be no controversy here: if you build bigger, it simply can't be as good, but if you build better, it simply won't be as big. Spread $200,000 over 1,000 square feet and that's a $200/square foot house. Spread that same $200,000 over 2,000 square feet, and you've impoverished yourself to a $100/square foot house. But you can't just put people's lives in a vice… you must entice them by designing the smaller space so smartly that they choose it over the bigger, less intelligent design. And if they do, all sorts of good green things happen easily. To begin with, the space is a lot smaller, so it's easier to heat, cool, and light. But it's even easier because it's likely to be only one room deep in places, making daylighting and cross-ventilation no-brainers. It might even be more lovable as well. Embrace the luxury of small, and you'll be creating luxurious green as well.

   Those are my game-changers… what are yours? What are the greenest things you know that nobody's talking about?

   ~Steve Mouzon


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The End of Architecture as We Knew It

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one lit attic window overlooks a Paris street as the city skyline leans heavily against the glowing Halloween underbelly of a cloudy night sky

   Architecture has changed irreparably in the past decade, but those who know how to adapt just might find themselves in a far better place in a few years. It has now been 8 years since construction peaked in 2005, nearly 6 years since the subprime meltdown, and close to 5 years since the big meltdown that really kicked off the Great Recession.

The End of Experienced Employees

neon-lit Paris flatiron building serves as backdrop for young men walking across glistening cobblestones after a rain

   Today, it appears that construction is finally beginning to pick back up, but it's too late for architecture as we knew it. More than half of the people working in architectural offices in 2005 aren't there anymore. Some are still unemployed, some have gone in business for themselves, but many have left the profession. And when people leave architecture, they rarely come back for three reasons: an architecture degree prepares you to do so many other things, it's such a stressful profession, and the pay is usually significantly lower than other professions like law and medicine. So if you're a firm owner, your former employees are likely either gone for good, or have started their own firms and are competing with you for work. So you can't simply gear back up with the same experienced people you once had.

The End of Trusting Clients

classic art nouveau sign lights entrance to Paris metro, framing a view to stone apartments lining the street beyond

   During the past 8 years that we've essentially been out of business, our clients have changed in several ways. A decade ago, clients were much more likely to accept the expert opinion of an architect. Now, they've all learned to Google. Just ask doctors about their experience with patients who know WebMD for a look at what a web-searching clientele means to another profession.

The New Frugality

dark Paris cobbled street glistens under the orange glow of occasional street lamps

   Your one-time clients have become much more frugal over the past 8 years, and because the construction crash has now lasted twice as long as it takes to get a college degree, this new frugality is likely to stick. Just look at how the Great Depression transformed a generation of Americans almost a century ago, forever imprinting them with high frugality. When they do spend money, frugal people are more likely to buy products than services. They buy store-bought clothes rather than patronizing a tailor, for example. Frugal homeowners-to-be are more likely to buy a stock house plan than commission a custom design. Today, if you have only services to sell, you may want to start thinking about packaging useful things you've done into products.

Smaller & Smarter

two people diverge along a narrow Paris cobbled street as a car approaches

   When those homeowners-to-be build, they're facing a banking industry that has changed dramatically. Many banks have sworn off real estate lending entirely, whereas those who are still making mortgage loans are much more conservative. This means that your clients have a much better chance of getting a smaller project financed… so long as you design it to be smart enough that your client prefers it over a larger, less intelligent design.

Younger & Greener

solitary Paris storefront with tables and chairs set just outside, with dinner long over

   Your clients have also gotten younger. A decade ago, most custom design clients were Baby Boomers, but they are now beginning to move out of the home-building market as they age, and are being replaced with GenX and GenY. These generations are much more concerned with building and living sustainably. As a matter of fact, if you're a Boomer architect, you may well be viewed as part of the sustainability problem because Boomers have consumed more than any generation in human history, not only because we were so large, but because we were so hungry as well.

Patience, Generosity, and Connectedness

   Those changes would be enough to rock any profession, but there's more. Business is currently undergoing a change that I believe will prove to be as great as the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. For that quarter-millennium, the prime virtues of business have been better-faster-cheaper, or quality, speed, and economy, if you prefer. I believe that the new age that is now dawning may come to be known as the Age of the Idea, and it appears that the three prime virtues of this time we are now entering may become patience, generosity, and connectedness. So this isn't just about remaking our marketing… it's about remaking ourselves.

The New Tools

restaurants and bars line vibrant Paris street, drying after a rain

   Most marketing methods architects have used for decades don't work so well anymore for two reasons: First, the market is leaner, and the old methods worked best when there were lots of jobs to go around. Second, and less obvious, is the fact that we've all been vaccinated by spam against wanting to hear anything about your business. We turn a deaf ear to sales pitches just as quickly as we hit the delete key on a spammy email. The good news is that new tools are emerging that work much better, and again, for two reasons: First, you can reach far more people with tools like blogging, tweeting, online communities, video, etc. than you can by playing a round of golf. And these tools reach the places that are heavily populated by your younger potential clients.

   I firmly believe that even though the Great Recession has been architecture's bleakest epoch of my lifetime, it also has the potential to be a great transformational event that can change the profession for the better. At least for those who adapt and transform themselves. What do you think?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Why Patient and Sustainable Neighborhood-Building is So Hard Today

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streetscape in Stonington, Connecticut in late evening sunshine

   The impatience of the development industry and its municipal regulators clearly contributed to the Meltdown, and a case could be made that impatience was actually the prime culprit. Developing impatiently means building large swaths of similar product efficiently and quickly. The public and private sectors each need to learn some lessons from the ways most great old places developed because those ways are far more sustainable and require a lot less debt, as we discussed recently. Here are the forces at work today that prevent us from building patient and sustainable places today:


Market Surveys

townhouses ascending a sloping tree-lined street in Alexandria, Virginia

delightful… but there are no "sweet spot

houses" in this picture

   Bankers usually require developers to provide market surveys showing that there is a need for the developments they're proposing. Typical market survey firms do what seems like the logical thing and look both at what has sold in the past and also at economic forecasts for the market in question. But there are two serious flaws in the system: First, this "rear view mirror approach" will almost always predict some combination of the previous best-sellers. It is incapable of predicting what people would prefer if they were given a choice. So they usually call for small variations on the "sweet spot house." The second problem is that if a survey calls for 500 new houses in the market, 5 developers might take that same survey to 5 different banks and get approved to build 5 x 500 = 2,500 houses. So market surveys can be wildly deceptive, and they are a major force for homogenizing new housing offerings.


rural courtyard house designed by Steve & Wanda Mouzon

Does this look like a $25/square foot home? Even in 1984?

   Appraisers base their work on "comps," which is short for "comparable sales" of properties in the same market in the recent past. If you're building a house type that hasn't been built in recent years (or ever) in your market, appraisers don't have any recent sales to compare it to, so they kick into their "dark side mode" of ultra-conservative appraising. When Wanda and I built our house in the 1980s that didn't need a conventional heating and cooling system because it conditioned itself passively, the appraiser assigned it a ridiculously low value of $25 per square foot, forcing us to finance a large part of the house on credit card debt, which financially burdened us almost to the breaking point for several years thereafter. Most people would have done the sane thing and abandoned their dream of building a sustainable homestead. The appraisal system, then, has a similar effect to market surveys: forcing the development industry to build what it has built before by severely discouraging anything new. And of course, building many of the same types of houses plays right into the industrial homebuilders' impatience because it allows them to carpet the land with subdivisions quickly.

Development Lending

Ocean Bank sits on the Stonington, Connecticut town square near sunset

   Because we distrust new development, our city planning departments require developers to show exactly what the final development will look like. They are then required to build everything out to its climax condition from the beginning, burdening developments with millions in infrastructure costs before any real estate is sold. Many developments, including several well-designed ones I'm aware of (and more that I certainly don't know about,) have failed in recent years because of this huge front-end burden coming during the Great Recession. So it should come as no surprise that once that "interest clock" starts ticking on their loans down at the bank, developers have little choice but to be impatient in everything that they do to develop their property. There's no ill intention here; they simply have no choice.

Home Mortgages

garden view of Monticello in morning light, showing small cottage and main house

President Jefferson wasn't above starting in a little cottage…
why are we?

   Bankers play a role at both the scale of the neighborhood and the scale of the home. If we built houses in small increments that we could afford to pay for at the time, then we wouldn't need home mortgage bankers very often. Thomas Jefferson, for example, built and lived in one of the two small cottages behind Monticello while he built the rest of the house over nearly a decade. But because our whole system is impatient, we are forced to build the complete house from the beginning. And so we're forced to make our biggest lifetime purchase: the home mortgage.


the Pitot House in New-Orleans, Louisiana has weathered many hurricanes because of its storm-worthy architecture

hurricane-resistant architecture has strong

masonry first level that can simply be hosed

out after a storm

   Because those mortgages on the big house we might never fully need are so large, the bankers have no choice but to force us to insure our homes against all sorts of threats. And because we're insured, we don't have the incentive to build durable buildings that would survive most of those threats. Durability is a special kind of patience, because it extends a building's life long into the future.

Mortgage Bundling

   Once, you merely had to persuade your local banker to loan you the money to build your home, but no more. Now, mortgages are bundled and sold to investors, so the bankers are limited not only by their own judgement, but also by the investors' guidelines. Mortgage bundling is the biggest iron fist in the homogenization of housing into just a few house types. Bundling is also one factor broadly blamed for creating the Meltdown for several reasons that have been written about by many experts… just Google it if you're interested.

Real Estate

   Real estate agents foster housing homogenization in a very direct way: Talk to most agents about buying a house and they'll steer you to houses with a whirlpool tub, for example. They'll tell you that you need it "for resale." In other words, even if you never get in a whirlpool tub, you need to buy a house with one anyway because someone else might want one. Never mind the fact that if you polled the public, only a tiny percentage use a whirlpool tub on a regular basis.

   Combine all these factors, and it's crystal clear why we've built the way we've built in recent decades. But as we look at how the system is now so broken, it's also clear that American development needs a strong does of patience… don't you think?

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: Here's how we got in this mess to begin with, and the story of a little town that bucked the trend with famous results.

© The Guild Foundation 2013