Affordable architecture is not an oxymoron [May 2010 / CCT]

One of the warrant articles at Wellfleet’s recent town meeting asked citizens to spend to restore a mid-20th century cottage with architectural creds, one of a number with which the town is blessed. The money would come from the Community Preservation Fund and it seems an appropriate use to preserve our architectural past.

Those present seemed from the comments strongly disposed to support this. What little debate there was took the form of defense of affordable housing against architecture. Isn’t the community better served by spending that money on affordable housing? All very well to preserve a cool old house, but what about preserving current residents by p utting a roof over their heads?

There is a tendency to see affordable housing and architecture as mutually exclusive if not antagonistic concepts. Column A, affordable housing: obligatory, decent but perfunctory, efficient and cheap; definitely not architecture. Column B, architecture: elite, non-essential, servant of the wealthy.

But, as one of our greyhairs said in town meeting, weren’t a lot of the architectural gems of our town originally—less than a half century ago for some of them– conceived of as modest, affordable shelter? The gem for which we are looking for the $100,000, for instance, is called The Hatch Cottage.

In fact it was one of the challenges many of our most honored 20th century architects, those who built here and those who never did, were most interested in, as architects : how to design distinguished but inexpensive housing. They thought it was more interesting than figuring out how to spend a rich client’s money.

With this background in mind, especially as embodied in numerous local examples dotting our woods and pondsides, how about breaking down that false dichotomy between the architected and the affordable? How about invigorating the affordable housing efforts around here by conceiving of each of them as an architectural opportunity?

The objection will be: But won’t that add to the price? Architecture usually means expensive fees, design without regard for economy. Not necessarily so. Architecture can be creatively employed to save money in construction and maintenance costs.

Ben Zehnder, a local whose father designed and built the modest house the Cape Cod Modern House Trust just got through renovating, with money voted at last year’s town meeting, says that his father had several plans for affordable housing which were never used. We did the right thing certainly in spending the money to remodel his 1970 house. But what if his unused designs were to find life finally by becoming contemporary affordable housing, as intended?

But we don’t want all the focus on 50-70 year old houses to suggest that architecture died in this town a half century ago. One way of honoring the architects of that era, besides restoring their work, is to imitate them by coming up with affordable architecture in our own era.

Sponsor design contests for affordable housing p rojects. Plenty of architects still in school or at the beginning of a career or who have gotten stuck doing boring commercial work might be happy for the opportunity of showcasing their talents and vision, pro bono or for a nominal fee.

Architecture doesn’t come only from architects. (Some of the designers of modernist houses on the Modern House Trust list of restorable houses, including Zehnder’s father, were not credentialled architects, but that interesting hybrid, designer/ builders.) There are a number of creative local designer / builders operating in town right now who could be actively challenged by the whole notion of designing for economy, employing money-saving passive solar and other cutting edge technologies.

In this town in which we care about the architectural past, can we do less than keep architecture alive in the present?

Affordable housing doesn’t have to be cliched, perfunctory, undistinguished.

Nor does architecture produce only 8000 square foot trophy houses.

Affordable architecture is not an oxymoron.

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