By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Fourteen thousand miles is a long way to go to find the American dream. But that's how far Karrie Jacobs, a New York freelance writer, drove her VW convertible in search of a dwelling she could afford -- and wanted to live in.
A spartan budget of $100 a square foot for 1,000 square feet wasn't the only hitch. Jacobs, the founding editor of Dwell magazine, the glossy bible for the Bauhaus crowd, is a devotee of modern design. To qualify as her dream house, the architecture would have to belong to this time. Not yesteryear in Burgundy or at Monticello, but now.
That insistence assured that the house would have to be custom-designed rather than builder-produced. Whether Jacobs could find an architect to create well and cheaply is the driving dynamic of her quirky, important book, "The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home."
The title comes with caveats. Her price doesn't include the land. Nor does Jacobs pretend that such a dwelling can be had in the supercharged real estate markets of metro America. (Washington architect Mark McInturff, who designs award-winning contemporary houses, puts a "bare bones" budget here at $250 a square foot -- with plywood floors and Ikea cabinets.)
Jacobs does make an intriguing discovery: A good number of mostly young, very inventive architects are working on designs for cheap, cool houses that could be replicated. She calls them the New Pragmatists.
This is especially good news for a generation of young adults now luxuriating in loft-like apartments, which exude the essence of modern design. After a few years in downtown Nirvana, these urban dwellers can be expected to move to the suburbs, where schools and conveniences cater to families. There's no evidence that subdivision housing will catch up with their newly liberated psyches.
"At some point," she reasons, "homebuilders will have to get hip. Someone, somewhere will have to reinvent the subdivision."
For now, big homebuilders are hammering away on studs and rafters for 1.7 million neo-traditional houses in the United States this year. They are layering their creations with the aspirational grandeur of faux stone turrets, Mediterranean tiles and entryways framed by soaring plastic columns. Houses are getting bigger -- the median is up to 2,200 square feet -- while families get smaller. Creature features -- home theaters, formal laundry rooms and spa baths -- grow unabated, while little attention is paid by builders or homebuyers to the kind of energy-efficient, environmentally sound design that inspired the National Building Museum's "green" Glidehouse, a prefab model Jacobs doesn't mention, but which is in the aesthetic ballpark.
Homebuilders have their own rationale for the hodgepodge of styles. As Ken Gancarczyk, an executive of KB homes, retorts in the book: Buyers can't tell the difference between "Craftsman or Mediterranean."
Jacobs represents a different demographic. Professionally attuned to her surroundings and single, she wanted something leaner, cheaper and inspirational. Poring over glamorous photos for three years at the magazine, she developed a heightened appreciation for airy, well-proportioned spaces and the functional aesthetic of concrete, glass, bamboo and industrial sheet metal. But she couldn't afford to buy or build the houses shown in the magazine.
The frustration led to her design challenge. The journey began in 2003, with a visit to a "hippie architect" house-building camp in Vermont. A longtime New Yorker, she had little trouble refining her ideal dwelling to 1,000 square feet of sunlight and a two-story wall of books inspired by the Morgan Library in Manhattan.
She set out to find like-minded architects and encountered such radical possibilities as a prefab metal warehouse in Vermont and a glass-and-galvanized-aluminum kit house in Missouri. Architecture professors in Kansas were building likable modern houses for low-income families, but the designs were only affordable because the student labor was free.
A eureka moment arrived in the damp gray splendor around Seattle, where a zebra-striped house had been completed for $65,000. The architects, Peter and Mark Anderson, revealed the secret of wooing a top designer for a rock-bottom job. With no possibility of profit, they explained, the customer would have to let the house serve as a lab for experimentation, unconventional materials and new approaches. Better still, the design should become a prototype for production in multiples. The Andersons weren't envisioning a recipe for mass suburban expansion, but on Fox Island, a single firefighter wound up with an iconic shelter Jacobs would have liked to call home.
In Houston she found a long, narrow update of the shotgun house, a simple style with African American roots, which came in at a total price of $150,000, for a house 16 feet by 80 feet on a quarter-acre lot. The architect, Brett Zamore, is now trying to turn his "Shot-Trot" design into a kit, which Jacobs figures will turn him into "the Starbucks of housing."
Jacobs has yet to build. She did find one development a loft-dweller could love. The planned community of Prospect, Colo., outside Denver, follows the New Urbanist planning prescriptions honed at Montgomery County's Kentlands and elsewhere. The architecture deviates from the quaint norm. On streets named Tenacity Drive and Neon Forest Circle, angular facades explode with a bold palette of olive, blue, orange, ocher, strawberry and even coal black. A metal shed roof is edged with pink gutters.
The adventurous design environment has proved so popular that prices have soared past $500,000 and out of reach of many young buyers. As town designer Mark Sofield told Jacobs, the first 21st-century subdivision has become "a victim of its own success."