Home for Life
By Andrés Duany
The absence of the sense of community has become commonplace
in American life. There are several reasons for this, but certainly one
of them is the phenomenon of the short housing life cycle. Americans change
their dwelling place an average of once every five years. The cause may
be a change in employment or dissatisfaction with such circumstances as
the dwelling's size or location. But neither of these reasons accounts
for this extraordinary rate of moving about.
The actual explanation is that the house does not accommodate a family's
evolution of growing and then decreasing in size. The standard American
house available today is incapable of adapting to this, so it is traded
for another. Such exchanges for a better fit of house would be wholly
welcome occasions were it not necessary to discard the community along
with the dwelling. This is distressing when a neighborhood has become
familiar and even comfortable, particularly for the elderly who have too
large a house after the kids grow but do not want to leave their familiar
This was not always so. In the past, a house could easily adapt to the
changing family. Think of the farmsteads of New England with their sequential
backbuilding extensions, or the houses in Virginia with their collections
of dependencies in the back; and consider the Hispanic house of the Southwest,
growing gradually around a patio. Because these houses were flexible,
families could stay in place if they wished. The homestead was an heirloom;
it could accommodate the lifespan of a family and be available for the
A lifespan house must be designed to start small, grow in phases, and
then diminish, reflecting the evolution of the typical American family.
It must also be detailed to participate in the methods of the American
building industry. While a lifespan house is not for everyone the option
should be generally available for those who wish to choose it.
Family Phase I - The Starter Cottage
The first phase of construction is a small, complete
cottage. The starter dwelling is like a studio apartment of only 780 square
feet, eminently affordable for the young couple. Rather than renting an
apartment, one has already bought into the neighborhood.
Family Phase II - The Main House
With the addition of children or larger incomes, a two-story addition
can be built. This main house adds three bedrooms, as well as a new living
room, dining room and a big kitchen. This section is 2,170 square feet,
not including a generous porch and a garage that can be built later.
The original starter cottage is now a wing of the main house, becoming
available for a number of uses. It could become a family room, with the
original bedroom as a media alcove. Or, with its separate entrance, the
wing could be a home office for the parent staying at home with small
children. It could remain as a separate apartment for a grandparent or
nanny, or it could be rented to help with the mortgage. The original kitchenette
could remain as it is or become a pantry for the new kitchen in the main
house. All of this is accomplished by simply locking certain doors.
Family Phase III - The Backbuilding
Family incomes usually rise with age and, coincidentally, houses tend
to feel smaller as kids become teenagers. This third phase adds a one-story
backbuilding to the rear of the main house. This additional 780 square
feet provides a substantial family room and a comfortable master bedroom.
Both could have high ceilings, creating the loft-like character sometimes
called a "great room."
Family Phase IV - The Double Dwelling
The fourth phase of the house spans the extended maturity that results
from today's good health. It requires no additional construction as, at
this point in the evolution of the family, the children are gone and the
house seems larger than necessary. A portion of the house can be sealed
off, leaving a luxurious first-floor empty nest that includes a master
bedroom, family room, kitchen, dining room and the living room of the
main house. The remainder includes the living spaces of the original starter
cottage connecting to the three upstairs bedrooms to form an independent
ancillary dwelling. This is done by the simple expedient of locking two
doors and using the independent entrance.
This ancillary dwelling could become the first dwelling of a child returning
with a new family. Thus, the next generation begins to inhabit the lifespan