Monday, March 3, 2014

Perception and reality of affordable housing

Introducing a new construction system or method to the public is a complex and complicated process.  Beyond the engineering, economic and design factors, there are social and cultural issues which need to be addressed.  Creating beautiful, high-performance, affordable structures may be doomed to failure if social context is ignored.  The most well intended efforts may fail precisely because of those good intentions.

Several years ago I was in discussion with members of a well known non-profit organization which provides houses for people.  This organization does wonderful work and is well known in the US and internationally.  Its work is championed by a former US president.   We were talking about the possibility of them using my masonry system to provide houses for people who could not otherwise afford decent housing.

The members of this group understood all the benefits of this innovative masonry system: that it is very high-strength, provides extensive design flexibility, is environmentally appropriate, fireproof, tornado and hurricane resistant, very affordable, etc.   Still, they were quick to say that it would be a mistake for me to use their organization as a means to introduce this advanced construction method to the public and to the construction marketplace.

The members of this non-profit organization said that “folks will think: ‘that’s what poor people live in’”.  If we use your system for housing, it will create a stigma and nobody will want to live in it, they explained.  It would not matter how great or beautiful or efficient or advanced a building was, if it was seen as ‘charity housing’ then nobody would covet the design, quite the opposite; people would associate a design with welfare recipients and poor people.

Instead, this group urged me to work with top architects, designers and planners to introduce this system as a high-end architectural feature.  Put a high price tag on it and people will want it, it will be coveted.   This group that builds houses for homeless people was telling me that in order to really help poor homeless people I should introduce this system to exclusive gated communities and their very wealthy occupants.  It was hard to escape the irony of their truth.  Perception matters.

Since these discussions (several years ago) there has been an interesting development in housing, the “tiny home” movement.  This movement promotes the use and acceptance of people living in much smaller homes than usual for the US.  The tiny home movement is seen as a response to the increasingly large homes that were being built up until the financial crisis of 2008, which was created largely by the sub-prime mortgages that fueled this type of construction, commonly called “McMansions.” 

Does the tiny home movement allow the possibility of a new construction method to create affordable housing without being doomed by the stigma of association?  Frankly, I don’t know.  The vast majority of US citizens do not live in tiny homes.  The tiny home movement remains far from mainstream and is viewed as something of an oddity by most (“How can someone live in something so small?”).   What Americans consider a tiny home is the average size of a house in much of the rest of the world (as the recent economic recovery strengthens here in the US, the size of our houses is increasing again also).

By making this system available on the open marketplace, it will provide the option for the homeowner to create a better house for less money, without any government or non-profit subsidy or associated stigma.  The economics of concrete block production mean that once these block are being made, they will be available to provide inexpensive housing, as soon as they are made.  We do not need to ‘ramp up’ to an economy of scale in order to make this high-performance masonry system affordable; it will be affordable as soon as it is produced by a block manufacturer.  This is the nature and the essential advantage of the concrete block industry.

We are a country that shops at Wal-Mart.  We love a great deal and we love saving money.  The market will speak, and I plan to listen.  Whether the customer wants 300 square feet or 3,000 square feet for their home, we can provide it better, cheaper with this masonry system.  Perhaps the best way to help the poor is by providing better products at lower prices.  This fact may help with the challenges posed by public perception.

1 comment:

  1. RrrrrreaPete! Good stuff man. As an ardent supporter of the "tiny home movement" I'm sympathetic to this, your dilemma. I can understand this non profit's reasoning of the stigma problem as I can think of military kwansit huts and the "temporary" feeling they give. I tend to think that getting to public via the back door is probably your best bet. And just like the non profit org. we all know these buildings are cool, you, we just have to get everybody else to see that too.