The NAHB Builders Show: Reflections from Las Vegas
As a Miami resident, I grew up witnessing the proliferation
of suburban builder-house subdivisions. Each subsequent subdivision stretched
farther out beyond the town's fringes. As an apprentice while in architecture
school during the mid-'80s, I learned to produce these houses in assembly-line
fashion. I wondered then how long it would take to exhaust the land with
these places, with names like "Lakes of the Meadow" and "Sunset Harbor."
These mostly consisted of homogeneous houses dominated by double garage
doors on sinewy streets. They seemed to be, even then, mere placeholders
for a more permanent form of settlement.
Builder subdivisions continue to be the American norm, however. The National
Association of Housing Builders (NAHB) held its International Builder
Show this year in Las Vegas, the town on the desert self-proclaimed to
be the "playground of the world." Over 100,000 attended this year's event,
held January 19-22.
Former President George H.W. Bush delivered the keynote speech. In it,
Bush praised the homebuilding industry for its contribution to the economy
and celebrated the recent vote by Congress approving S.811, the "American
Dream Downpayment Act." This program, scheduled to start during spring
2004, is expected to provide $200 million annually to assist low- and
mid-income families towards home downpayment and closing costs. It will
also boost Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured loans for rental
apartments in high cost areas, such as New York and San Francisco.
New urbanism was represented at a session moderated by Todd Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, a market analyst and principal at Zimmerman Volk, observed
that Boomers (numbering 82 million) are moving into a new life stage --
out of the full-nest years into the empty-nest years, which means that
many will move back to the city. Qualitative research on Boomers'attitudes
have suggested that when they move to the next lifestage (retirement)
they will typically not opt for the age-restricted projects, but rather
seek more authentic, all-age neighborhoods. The Millennials (currently
age 7-28 and numbering 78 million) are already voting for urban environments
with their feet. When these two waves (Boomers and Millennials) coincide
in a decade or so there will be a shocking change in national attitude
toward the single-use subdivision.
The panel also included town builder Terry Stamper, planner Victor Dover
and architect Michael Medick. They presented components of new urbanism
to a curious audience contemplating alternatives to conventional sprawl.
This, the speakers said, is achieved by implementing details such as an
interconnected network of streets, public spaces, mix of uses and range
of building types. They also gave advice about getting it built. "Building
is more easily implemented when the town works with you to deliver new
urbanism," said Stamper.
Despite the acknowledgement that new urbanism and traditional neighborhood
design is a desired goal, not much else was in evidence at the convention.
New urbanism is still the exception with builder groups, as with the trade
media. A recent issue of Metropolis magazine posited, "How will
we live in 2010?" The cover illustration was a digital rendering of an
immersive environment consisting of recycled steel shipping crates on
stilts hovering above a forest planted to mitigate a contaminated site.
While this is, admirably, an inspired solution to affordable housing,
this does not create urbanism. Neither does the standard builder product
of today; places made of banal garageland houses -- about 1.8 million
built and sold in 2003 alone, the highest rate in 25 years. I've also
noticed that new urbanism and its associations with traditional architecture
continue to be misinterpreted by the building industry. For example, Bill
Lurz, senior editor of Professional Builder asks, "If precision
and craftsmanship in putting the product together is all it takes, why
isn't everyone building frontier-style boxes with windows the size of
Surveying the booths displaying seemingly every component in a house,
from faucets to heaters to doors, what struck me was the high quantity
of synthetic products to simulate traditional building materials, such
as wood and stone. There were synthetic balusters, moldings, porch decking,
doors, windows, exterior siding, and furniture. As one salesperson noticed
me observing the corrugated forms on the underside of exterior synthetic
wood decking he added, almost apologetically, "You can sand down at the
edges, so you don't see the wavy underside, you know." Unlike some synthetic
materials that have superior qualities and are aesthetically pleasing,
such as Hardiplank fiber-cement siding, most products are ill-designed,
and kitsch traditional. Still, there were exceptions, and there were instances
of building craft thriving in the industry. One company fabricated copper
and titanium zinc metalwork custom to order and from their inventory,
which dated to 1848; their craftspersons trained in the guild apprenticeship
It was also encouraging to see winning entries among the "Best in American
Living" builder awards program, that demonstrate an awareness for both
good design and urbanism. From the pages of Professional Builder
magazine, such projects include the traditional contextual brick rowhouses
at Melrose Commons II, in the Bronx, which won a HUD Secretary's Award
for Excellence, as well as the sleek six-story building and architecture
at Thea's Landing, in Tacoma, Wash., which won a Best Urban Smart Growth
award. These all merit a closer look. With luck, the builder industry
will evolve in both building design and urban design. It will arrive reformed
-- if it hasn't already -- to your town.