The winds of change are buffeting the home-building industry but to the concern of some builders, architects and planners, the prevailing winds blow straight from Detroit.
"Let's learn a lesson from the American automobile industry and let's not bring an obsolete product to the marketplace as they have done," Dallas builder Talmadge Tinsley warned his colleagues earlier this year at the National Association of Home Builders' annual convention.
The way some see it, it's a good thing that Americans don't import their houses.
"If we did, the . . . Europeans would have done to the American building industry what the Japanese did to the auto industry," said Mark Cooper of the Consumer Energy Council of America, a research and lobbying group.
Changing life styles, inflation, land and material scarcities and, especially, the high cost of energy necessitate the most profound changes in U.S. housing in decades, many experts say. Architects and planners envision an ideal new home that is smaller, less isolated and considerably more energy-efficient than the traditional new home.
The dynamics of the home-building industry, however, discourage rapid design changes and stymie innovation and experimentation, it is agreed. Among the impediments are:
The builders' view of consumers as highly conservative and strongly resistant to innovation.
A fear by speculative builders of delivering a product for which there is no market.
The housing industry's current financial difficulties, particularly the record interest rates, which have prompted many builders to emphasize affordable housing at the expense of energy-saving devices and new technologies that could save money in the long run.
Zoning and land use laws in many communities that builders say discourage high-density housing that would squeeze more units onto an acre of land, saving cost and energy.
The clearest manifestation of the theorists' ideal so far is in the size of new houses, which have been dwindling for the first time in years, according to government agencies and the builders trade organization.
There also has been progress in energy efficiency, although many criticize the industry for doing too little too slowly. Much of the criticism is aimed at the industry's continued reliance on conventional housing styles and its reluctance to undertake fundamental design changes.
Since the end of World War II, the pervasive style of American housing has been the single-family, detached home. Now, however, there is growing agreement with California architect Barry Berkus, who said, "The large, single-family house on a large lot is an energy consumer and a dinosaur."
In its place is envisioned a housing style where quality, not quantity, is the paramount concern and where good architecture and thoughtful design makes small houses appear spacious. "We're going to start building Mercedes and Porsche-quality small space," said Berkus. Energy savings will be a form of design consideration, he added.
To many, the mandate is clear and the building industry has not risen to the challenge. The energy efficiency of new homes has improved "but has not kept pace with the compelling economics of the situation," said Cooper, who sees at least a 10-year lag between economic necessity and resulting changes in mass-market housing."Builders are very risk adverse. They don't innovate and change rapidly," he said.
Alexandria architect Randall Vosbeck, president of the American Institute of Architects, believes that new housing "for the most part reflects a late '60s and early '70s mentality of what people should have and want."
Builders say that their industry is slow to change largely because of consumer resistance to innovation. "When you start marketing fundamental design changes, you had best be quite sure that someone wants to buy it," said Art Titus of Ryan Homes Inc., the Washington area's largest builder with about $130 million in local sales last year.
Michael Sumichrast, chief economist for the national builders' group, noted that the average builder constructs fewer than 15 houses a year and said, "Builders don't have the capital to experiment. The typical builder is a small builder . . . . The rule is to 'let some other jerk experiment. If it works out for him, then maybe I'll try it.'"
"When you go into something radical in design, you can't sell it," he added. "Market resistance to a lot of innovation has been just fantastic all around the country. Builders will build units they know will sell."
Builders distinguish between theory and practice. "Architects, let's say, spend a great deal of their effort conceptualizing what the needs of people are," said Roy Krag, regional president of Pulte Home Corp., another major Washington builder, with $90 million in sales last year. "It takes a while for those theories to be experimented with and adapted before introduction into the mass market."
Some refute the market resistance argument. "Builders go a long way to setting trends and standards," said Vosbeck. "it might be unbeknownst to them but they do and they're naturally conservative about trying new things because they worry there won't be acceptance."
"Consumers typically abdicate their preferences to professionals in the field," Cooper agreed. The building industry, he said, changes its designs infrequently and otherwise fails to set trends.
Defenders and critics of the industry agree that current record interest rates for both construction and mortgage financing discourage experimentation and innovation.
"It's a hell of an impediment," said Clarence Kettler, president of Kettler Brothers, a Washington-area builder that expects to sell about $45 million in houses this year.
Mass-market builders say their current priority must be to deliver affordable housing by keeping prices down. In some local subdivisions, Pulte, for example, offers triple-glazed windows as an energy-saving option for about $1,000 extra, said Krag. If triple glazing were a standard feature, some potential buyers would be priced out of the market, he said.
The added costs of energy-saving hardware and technology create a trade-off between selling price and long-term savings, building industry experts agree.
For example, the initial cost of an active solar energy system, which uses mechanical components to capture the sun's warmth for space or water heating, needs to be balanced against long-term fuel savings to determine cost effectiveness. Otherwise, said Kettler, the cost in mortgage payments could exceed fuel savings.
"Initial costs in hardware are definitely a deterrent to implementing a lot of innovative things. But those costs will slowly come down," said Vosbeck. "(Meanwhile), with good design, a lot can be done with little additional cost."
He and others argue that passive solar systems, in which architectural design makes maximum use of natural sunlight, costs little extra and can make a house highly energy efficient.
Typically, a passive solar house is oriented to the south where the sun is strongest. Large expanses of glass on the southern side make maximum use of the sun's warmth for heating. Windows and doors on the cold northern side are minimal. Sometimes, the northern side of the house is partially buried in a technique called earth berming.
Passive solar techniques are gaining gradual acceptance, according to Sumichrast.
The builders group maintains that since oil prices began their precipitious climb in 1973, the energy efficiency of new homes has increased by more than 30 percent, largely accomplished by using extra insulation, double- or triple-glazed windows, insulated steel doors and heat pumps.
Most states have at least minimal energy performance standards in their buildings codes. But the federal building energy performance standard, which would have imposed strong sanctions on states without energy criteria in their building codes, is virtually moribund.
Housing financed under the auspices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development must meet energy guidelines, but Cooper described these as "not nearly as stiff as economically justified."
"The nation's homebuilders are being responsive to higher energy prices, yet there are still major additional efficiencies that should be taken that will pay for themselves," said John Millhone, director of the Office of Buildings and Community Systems at the Department of Energy.
Conventional housing could be made more energy efficient by careful selection of heating and cooling systems, said Millhone, who added that builders tend to install unnecessarily large and therefore inefficient furnace equipment. Research has shown that good carpentry and tight construction can also substantially reduce air infiltration, he added.
In the Washington area a new home could be made 25 percent more energy efficient than the 1978 standard with extra insulation and triple glazing adding between $800 and $900 to the selling price, Cooper said.
Up to 40 percent in energy savings could be accomplished without changing design, he said, and up to 70 percent in savings could result from more radical design changes. But here the trade-off between initial costs and long-term savings become more tenuous, he warned.
To help buyers afford higher up-front costs that could mean long-term savings, Millhone said the energy department is attempting to conquer "a horrendous education problem throughout the country" by making lenders and assessors more conscious of energy costs in their underwriting standards.
An energy-efficient house will give the buyers more spendable income in the future and justifies a higher-than-traditional mortgage loan, he maintained. "Theoretically, bankers should be falling over themselves to lend construction and permanent financing on energy-efficient buildings. It's a better investment," Cooper said.
At the same time, consumer surveys indicate a growing market for energy-efficient housing. A recent national poll by the Gallup organization for the Solar Energy Research Institute reported a strong interest in solar power. A recent builders' survey of new-home buyers showed that nearly 80 percent consider energy features important for their next new homes -- up nearly 30 percent from when they bought their current homes in 1977-78.
Energy savings can run counter to popular tastes, however. For example, Cooper said, buyers want large windows in their living rooms, facing away from the street. If the south side of a house faces the street, the builder is forced to put the window on the wrong side from the consumer's view or fail to capture some passive solar capability.
Nevertheless, experts say strides have been made in designing homes that are aesthetically appealing and energy efficient. "Energy efficient housing doesn't have to look like it's going to be put on the moon," said David Olan Meeker Jr, an architects' institute official.
The builders' survey also showed a continued strong preference -- 93 percent of those polled -- for detached houses. Similarly, nearly 90 percent of those surveyed said they expect their home to be bigger. But, said Kettler of such findings, "what their preferences are and what they can afford are two different things."
Accordingly, the average new home is getting smaller. The builders group reported a steady drop in square footage since the end of 1979. The Commerce Department and HUD have reported that the average, new single-family house sold last year had 1,740 square feet, down 20 square feet from 1979.
Washington builders report growing demand for smaller houses. Ryan said the two-bedroom units it has built since last year are a strong seller. Kettler is marketing 970-square-foot town houses without basements instead of the once typical 1,300-square-foot unit with basement.
Three years ago, Pulte's most popular Washington-area seller was a 2,300-square-foot detached house. Now its 1,800- to 2,000-square-foot model is "making dramatic inroads into the market," Krag said.
Much of the trend to smaller houses is necessitated by high prices but it is also a reflection of a trend to smaller families and the growing number of single buyers.
Builders are making other concessions to changing demographics: Pulte, for example, is starting to build homes with two master suites and entrances to accommodate unrelated adults who want to buy houses together.
High-density housing is also making its way into the market. Clustered housing cuts land costs and requires less energy to build and maintain.
But land use and zoning policies in many areas prevent such development, builders complain. "We need flexibility and the ability to use creativity," said Kettler. "Most zoning is designed to cookie-cutter control the builder."
"Yes, we need high density but first we need some change of attitude on the part of local zoning boards and planners," Sumichrast contends.
In the long run economic necessity may be the mother of invention for many builders who find that their market demands small, energy-efficient and clustered housing -- just as Detroit learned there was a market for fuel-efficient compacts.
For now, however, housing that goes beyond the conventional to meet changing needs is available only to the buyer who can afford a custom-designed home.
For speculative builders, there's a strong impetus to go slow. "Fundamental design changes are quite expensive at a time like now when much equipment and passive solar technique is in the experimental stage," Titus says. "We could end up with potential disaster." Besides, he added, dwelling styles change slowly because housing "is at the root of everything that is traditional in every one of us."