Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: The Homes We Borrow From Our Children

By Jeff DuBro

In neighborhoods across the country and clearly in our neighborhoods here in the metro D.C. area, we have witnessed with every new day, new houses “popping-up” left and right. The thing is, these new houses are routinely gigantic and often lack character and commonly do not respect their respective sites or neighborhoods. While so many lament the ubiquity of huge, seemingly soulless, houses they still enjoy using the derogatory epithet and fast food allusion of the “McMansion.”

In many ways, this phenomenon is wholly understandable; the land is where the value is. As a result, lenders reinforce the notion that the market value of the land value along with the so-called improvements (aka: our “homes”) must be gigantic in order to actually add value to the property. It is a bottom line game – and the name of the game is “Money.” Consequently, the preponderance of the “McMansion” is undeniable and, alas, feels unavoidable. See www.McMansionHell.com for a cry and a laugh.

As a Falls Church citizen for the past 16 years and a residential design/build firm owner in Falls Church for the past 15, I have developed a very personal relationship to what happens in our neighborhoods. While my company has built a sustainable business based upon thoughtful additions and renovations, back in mid 2000 we “flipped” houses where we tore down “old” houses and built big new houses in their place. In the midst of exploring the possibilities of “developing” new houses, we very soon discovered that not only were banks giddy to lend us money in this seemingly recession-proof market but we also learned that there was a higher Return on Investment (ROI) and a perceived lower risk if we built build bigger houses. So big houses, we did build. As we dabbled in this endeavor, we struggled with what this development should produce; what was best for our neighborhoods? What was the value of quality design? And, fundamentally, what was the relationship between Quality v. Quantity?

After our last “flip” 10 years ago, we learned that the market can easily get over-inflated and that lenders have become much more selective with their own risk and their willingness to lend money for residential development. Therefore, if lending is stringent and the development of huge speculative houses continues, what gives?

The answer can be found in the growing loss of quality of material and workmanship; loss of respect for the site and the streetscape; neglect of the value of thoughtful design addressing such issues as scale and proportion; texture and light; and functionality and utility. The unfortunate result is a plethora of characterless, overbuilt houses that merely try to dress-up like a Home. The undeniable interconnection of this unfortunate phenomenon and our opportunistic and aesthetic-averse economy is easy to witness. And, herein is a figurative call-to-arms to embrace the idea of Home that is driven by Love over ROI.

Just as the Greeks identified “love” with several permutations, I believe the love of Home and Earth is a true love and one with gravitas. This “Love” is akin to the Native American philosophy about the land that permeated their many cultures as can be witnessed in this ancient Native American Proverb: “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” We can rally behind this idea of Love of Home in the following five ways:

• Enliven existing dead spaces in our homes – live in your entire home

• Focus on how we move through spaces – efficiently and gracefully

• Focus on the integration – between home and garden

• Invest in our ecology – relations of people to one another and to their physical surroundings

• Promote the real value of thoughtful and engaged design – Living Architecture

Investing in Home with a capital ‘H’ need not be a renunciation of market equity or using your real property as an investment in one’s financial portfolio; however, our Homes are much much more than a categorized investment. Just as there has been a movement, albeit a small one, to raise awareness of the need to protect our environment and to make choices based upon a genuine interest in a sustainable planet, we can collectively build a movement that is about enriching both Earth and Home – a movement that recognizes that beauty and comfort and value can be found in restraint, humility and the power of thoughtful design. We can shed the encumbrances of the oversized and unnecessarily huge houses; and, we can enliven and activate and transform the spaces of our everyday lives in our timeless Homes. We can love our Homes that we borrow from our children.