Thursday, January 13, 2011

Whether Density

A client has asked for an analysis and examples of various housing types we may propose for a large project that might even become a master planned community someday (see my Are master Planned Communities Dead?). What started out as an exercise of product and density types has now led to a serious discussion and speculation about the future of housing densities in general. What will the buyer in 2016 want? What can they afford? Why would they even buy a house? Will they rent or purchase?

As I have discussed in previous blogs, I am a true believer in demographics and growth. This is consistent with other writers such as Joel Kotkin, Wendell Cox, Aaron Renn, and a new information source Neil Howe and Richard Jackson . These writers continual go back to the base precept: growth in the United States will continue. Unlike Japan and Europe and to some degree China, who all will suffer from aging and non-expanding populations, America will continue to grow through immigration and internal birth rates. Maybe not at the Boomer rates of the 1950s, but at an expanding and sustainable rate. The future of housing is bright but difficult to see through the current economic fog.

So how will the new American home differ from the past? If we look at the historic residence of one hundred years ago, especially after the Civil War, the middle to upper middle class house (other than its technologies) was similar in size and square footage. The urban lot sizes tended to be smaller, but not always. Riverside, Illinois with its large lots set a market tone; but it too ran into a market crash that affected its completion. The row house for the working population went up by the thousands in eastern cities to support the new mills and factories (mostly rental). The detached and semi-attached stacked flat appeared. The homes planned and built during the 1920s (an era not unlike 2003-2007) were typically lots of 4,000-6,000 square feet (sf) and the house 800 to 1,200 sf. Many of these still stand on the west side of San Francisco and the nearer suburbs of Chicago and New York. The basic numbers haven’t changed that much. And remember these were built four and five at a time; there were no KB Homes, Lennar, and DR Hortons out there.

The trends today are all over the place. The housing density depends on where you live, as it always has. Typically the closer to the urban city center the housing is, the smaller the lot and denser the housing types. These will range up to hundreds of units per acre with a high rise building in the urban center itself. But the conversation with the client is about the third and fourth urban rings of growth from the urban center not the immediate core or adjacent lands that are now redevelopments and reuses of older urban land uses. These areas are the marginal new suburbs and, while in-fills, they tend to be denser and more vertical than the suburbs of the 1960s and 70s. Podium housing (residential on a deck over parking) is not profitable or even marketable here. Vertical mixed use is a planners dream and totally unworkable. Lifestyle is one of the keys as well as value, price, and, as always, location.

The buyer or renter comes to the marketplace with a predetermined idea of his ideal residence. A future resident from Manhattan has a very different idea of their personal heaven then someone from Denver or the San Fernando Valley. They all make decisions based on their own personal habits and needs. Kids are fewer than when I grew up in the 1950s. We collect more things (even in these times of austerity), want more entertainment space, beds are bigger (figure that one out for yourself), so some rooms are larger and others smaller or are no longer needed. Storage, cars, and as George Carlin said “Stuff.” My simple projection is that there will be little difference in the overall type and density than what we have built during the last one hundred years. We are not going back to the communal longhouse, public baths, and living in three rooms over the store. In the future of growing populations and urban densities, privacy and attached separateness will be very important to retain some sense of personal sanity and family.

These are some of the trends and product types we discussed:
 Urban infill clusters of lots on private and secured streets. Now called in the builder jargon six-packs, eight packs or courtyard clusters, these will feature detached homes, 1200 to 1500 sf, garages, two stories, with heightened security and monitored access. Outside space is minimal but adequate. Properly done these could also focus on seniors and possible rentals. Density: 10 to 14 units per acre, in sets of ten to twenty integrated complexes.

 Detached row homes on private streets. These will be dense with small lots in neighborhoods with internal and private open space. Lots will be 2500 to 3000 sf. The houses may reach 3 stories for some markets to push up the square footage. Again a garage will be important for the buyer, most will be alley accessed. Density: 8 to 12 units per acre, these tend to be neighborhoods of at least 50 units.

 Urban courtyard cluster: This is a variant of the alley cluster that allows the fronts of the houses (detached and attached) to face an interior private garden space. Lots are 1800 sf to 2400 sf, the green court is about 10,000 sf. Density: 10 to 12 dus per acre, sometimes denser depending on the house width.

 In rental I see a rebirth of the two story walkup garden apartment, lots of common space and amenities. These may be large enough to encourage seniors to replace their house with an apartment.

 I still believe the old standard 4500 to 6000 sf lot has merit, especially in the third and fourth rings of suburban expansion. These range from 55’ x 80’ to 60’ x 100’ and many variants between. Wide shallow, zero lot line, shared easement all fit in this box. House sizes are all over the place from 1200 sf to over 3500 sf depending on the market. While the neo-traditionalists may whine about the product, they still are the primary money maker in the industry and will be important in the rebirth of the industry.

Affordability will be the initial key to a resurgence. How this is achieved will be the critical. Cheaper land, lower fees (in a time of city government needs), smaller footprints, higher density, lower shared costs (such as HOA facilities and services), and more efficient construction methods will be important parts to the future cost of housing formulas.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. though i may not comment, i read and am in wonder of my rock! may the economy change and soon....hugs!

  2. Would like your thoughts as to how the continually tougher regulatory environment will effect delivery of these product types. The growth since the '50's - including development in the 1st decade of this century - relied on the ability to push suburban boundaries into previously undeveloped farmland and I would guess that had a formative impact on the type of product that was delivered (larger lots, larger homes, etc.).