Latest Boston Magazine Post – The Real Estate Heretic

Yesterday I sat down with Walter Pierce, a 90-something year-old architect who designed the “Peacock Farm” house and developed one of the first modernist/progressive neighborhoods in the Boston area. I hope to run the interview in this space and at my modernmass.com blog next week.

But chief among the subjects on which I wanted to hear Mr. Pierce’s comments is the idea of economy of scale of residential homes. The prize-winning “Peacock Farm” house that Mr. Pierce designed in the 1950s was a three-bedroom split/multi-level with a mostly open floor plan in the main living area, three bedrooms up a level, and flexible space on a lower level, often with a family room, and a bedroom and/or office space. Since the main support framing was designed as post and beam, there were few if any interior load-bearing walls and spaces were often reconfigured to suit the individual lifestyles of the homeowners. Many original owners stayed in them until they retired decades later. The use of space is almost perfect for most, but was easily expanded upon.

Clearly, everyone has different needs when it comes to a home, from single people renting studios or one-bedroom apartments, to families of six or more needing more living and yard space, as well location preferences or needs — city, suburban, “exurban,” country. But how big is too big? I read aquote in the Times this week from the CEO of Toll Brothers, one of the major residential builders in the nation. He was predicting a rebound of the national housing market (I know, big surprise, eh?) when he offered this simple statement about renting versus owning: “Most people still want the big house with the big lot in the desirable school district in the suburbs. No one ever renovated the kitchen or redid a room for the kids in a rental,” Mr. Yearley said. “I think — I hope — we’ll be O.K.”

This is a little bit out of context, of course, but he makes it sound as if there is no middle ground. It’s as if the only choices are renting a small place in or near the city with a dated kitchen or to own a “big” (that means “giant” to me) house with a huge lot out in the suburbs. I am certain that if Mr. Yearley and I sat down and discussed this there would be more nuance, but this is the image that such national home builders as Toll Brothers have in my mind — big boxy colonial-pastiche houses with Palladian windows on two-acre lots out on old farmland in the distant suburbs. Give the people what they want?

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