🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now
The Next American Dream

Homes built for a new American Dream

Kai Ryssdal May 13, 2009
The Next American Dream

Homes built for a new American Dream

Kai Ryssdal May 13, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Just as people like Emily and Andrew are rethinking home ownership, architects and developers are re-thinking the home. Smaller. Closer to the neighbors. Ideally, close to a train station, too.

RYSSDAL: All right, so why don’t you tell us where we are.

ELIZABETH MOULE: Well, we are here at the Mission Station in South Pasadena. We’re heading north to a project that we built that is a mixed-used project, that is to say it’s a retail area, it’s got some housing, and it’s got some parking for park and ride.

Architect Elizabeth Moule lives and works in Pasadena, Calif. A short hop on the freeway, or a slightly longer train ride, from downtown L.A. For her the subprime crisis and all those foreclosures out there is really an opportunity to rethink the home. And how it ought to be built.

ELIZABETH MOULE: What we’re looking at is a brick building in front, and we’ve got a little florist and a bakery here on the ground floor with some outdoor seatings.

Ryssdal: On the second floor you’ve got huge windows and lofts inside I suppose, right?

MOULE: That’s right. And then as we’re going down the street, we’ve created a series of bungalow courts that are relatively high density but fit into the neighborhood.

Ryssdal: And South Pas is a great city for these kinds of things because it’s got lots of parks, it does have the good schools. A lot of big cities, though, that have some other problems might not be as amenable to this kind of living, no?

MOULE: Well, I think, personally, hope springs eternal. I think every city can be accommodated and transformed into a place like this that has a lot of housing and offices around transit. It’s important we talk about housing and offices around transit because what we’ve got to get to is a jobs-housing balance.

Ryssdal: There’s a little bit of marketing problem here, right? Because when you start talking about density of living and getting more people in the same spot, and you know, just in a description it doesn’t maybe sell.

MOULE: Well, I think the reason I took you over here is that this is not the picture that most people have of density, but it’s dense enough. If the single-family house is say about 5 to 7 D.U.’s an acre — dwelling units per acre — now we’re looking at something that might be 20, 25, 30, but it doesn’t really look or feel very different than a single-family house.

Ryssdal: But we are so invested in this country in single-family homes, the yard, the mortgage, and all of that, that it’s sort of an uphill fight for you.

MOULE: Yeah, everybody loves single-family houses, but frankly they’ve been oversupplied dramatically. And what’s been undersupplied are other ways of life allowing you to walk places, jump on a train instead and save a lot of time. Because every single person in this country pinning their hopes on one single-family home is just not reasonable, and we just can’t supply that really across the country.

Ryssdal: As the demand, though, for this kind of living increases, isn’t that going to drive up prices and then make it perhaps not as affordable as it might ideally be?

MOULE: Uh, yes, but it’s important to remember that when you’re building more units on a smaller piece of land, it’s essentially more affordable than putting one home on the same piece of land. I think one could really argue that it’s a way to provide more affordable housing than the other way around.

Ryssdal: So much of this discussion is about sustainability and how we can do that. What does that really mean, though?

MOULE: Well, the main thing about sustainability is we need to be thinking about places we’re going to make that are permanent. Because the greatest use of resources are resources over time. They have to be used by lots of different functions over time. They can’t be single-use buildings. That’s one. They have to be more walkable, and they have to be compact and mixed use because when you look at the energy consumption of a single-family house or any single building, buildings are already the greatest user of energy, but when you add the commuting to that building, you actually increase the energy usage by 50 percent, 50 percent! But the main thing is we just need common sense. We don’t need new technologies to make this. We need to make them simple. We need to make them compact and pedestrian oriented.

Ryssdal: To make all this work, do we have to get used the idea of giving up the car?

MOULE: I think a lot of people are dying to get rid of their cars and to get out of them. You know, the fact is that we’ve made lives where we just drive from one place to another. Back and forth. And our lives are largely led now in our cars. And we don’t have enough time for our children, we don’t have enough time for our marriages. I don’t think, speaking as a working mother, that I had children in order to spend all of my afternoons in a car.

Ryssdal: Elizabeth Moule is the principal architect at the firm Moule & Polyzoides in Pasadena, Calif.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.