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The Slow Home Movement
Sarah Rich, 25 Jun 07
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In the legendary story of the founding of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini planted his feet at the Spanish Steps in Rome and declared that he would not stand for the introduction of McDonald's into the historic area. Fast food would not squelch the rich traditions of Italian culture. And indeed it did not. Petrini not only succeeded in elevating resistance against that McDonalds, but against fast food the world over, by providing appetizing alternatives through the Slow Food Movement.

In the years since, slow has become something of a meme in its own right, applied to numerous other fields and issues as an understood strategy of peaceful but active resistance to harmful trends and changes. Whether it's in food, medicine, or urban planning, slowing down is a decidedly noble form of 21st century activism.

The newest slow kid on the block is the Slow Home Movement, a web-based design community and resource library dedicated to taking residential architecture back from the grip of the "cookie cutter houses and instant neighborhoods" churned out by community-blind development corporations, to revive the presence of good design and empower individuals to create homes that will support and fulfill them for a long time. It's a sustainable approach in that -- like with all products -- a commodity that is longlasting both in terms of material quality and evolving personal taste can prevent waste and produce trusting relationships between people and their environment.

In introducing the new community, founder/editor John Brown, an architect, real estate broker and Professor of Architecture at the University of Calgary, says:

I know that there are pockets of resistance to this industrialized ready made approach to housing. There are architects, landscape architects and designers around the world who are creating beautiful projects that sensitively respond to their location, respect their materiality and seamlessly support the daily life of their inhabitants. There are also product designers, craftspeople and manufacturers who care about the things they make and create functional objects of beauty and grace. Most importantly, there are many people who aren’t design professionals who have rejected the system and discovered new ways to create their own great places to live. Unfortunately, these projects, products and people usually exist in isolation and fail to register as viable alternatives to the conventional residential production industry.
Fast food and fast housing are shaped by one of modernism’s core philosophies - the promise to make life better by making it easier. This powerful promise continues to capture the imagination of the majority of people, despite the mounting evidence of just how much harm it has wrought...Most of the development created by the fast housing industry has resulted in environmentally unsustainable, culturally homogenous neighborhoods of single family detached houses and strip retail malls.

Naturally, Brown makes the increasingly known correlation between suburban living and obesity, indicating that fast food and fast housing not only have comparable results within their respective industries, but literally the same result: a declining state of health across a huge swathe of the North American population.

But the site isn't a platform for raging against the machine; far from it. It's a positive, constructive and informative collection of resources meant to cohere disparate allies and establish a network for those wishing to see a change in the way we build and live in our homes. Registration is free (but required in order to access some areas of the site), and Brown maintains a blog with a videocast/webTV series that includes a number of interesting interviews. You can also view profiles of the projects, products and people currently involved.

Brown boils the movement down to 10 principles, which lay out the approach and set a staging ground for the first steps toward action. With the involvement of the community and the growth of the network, though, it's inevitable that the movement will be shaped and defined further over time, and Brown's first call for slow homes might be canonized like Patrini's -- a nucleus in the center of a massive network of engaged advocates.

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Comments

Now all we need is "Slow cities" (New Urbanism) to really take off, and we might have a chance of surviving peak oil.


Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 26 Jun 07

We started the slow home movement because we believe that there are a lot of dissatisfied people living in production houses that aren't aware of some of the other options available to them. From my travels I also know that there are a great many talented young architects, designers and product manufacturers who are struggling to make a living by working outside of the suburban, big box system. I hope our site can increase design awareness and start to bring these two groups of people together.

To build our site to do this we need to hear from you:

If you are a designer, manufacturer doing interesting work please email me a sample to be considered for Folio.

If you are a homeowner that is dissatisfied, frustrated, disillusioned, etc. about where you live, please email me your story in a couple of sentences or paragraphs. We will be releasing a set of these on the site in the near future. I believe that a lot of people feel this way and we all feel better when we learn that our experiences are shared by others.

Finally, if you have any questions about the home, design, construction, real estate etc. or any of the things you see on the site please email me and I will do my best to answer. We are planning to start an Ask An Architect Forum in the near future and this is a way to kick start the process.


Posted by: John Brown on 26 Jun 07

The only trouble I foresee with the Slow Home concept (which was also the trouble with most Utopian architectural concepts) is that it will simply be another option available to those with big money (or, perhaps, just another example of conspicuous consumption). Let's not forget that at least one part of the cookie-cutter-ticky-tacky-boxes construction revolution was bringing affordable housing to the post-war generation. There are problems with it (some of which are most likely due to repeating past errors--car suburbs and isolation, for example--rather than fixing them), but there are also problems with the Slow Home concept, especially regarding accessibility.

My parents designed their own home and we built it largely on our own (with the help of some very good friends). While my family is not immensely wealthy, I know that this is not an option available to all. Where does one (ie. a single mother, for the sake of argument) find the time to build a home when there are children to feed? Where does one find the money to invest in a future home at minimum wage? Etc. etc.

Slow home is an intriguing idea, but I'm simply a well-founded skeptic.


Posted by: Justin Bathurst on 26 Jun 07

In response to Justin's good comment about cost,he is absolutely correct in observing that too many architectural ideas (Utopian and otherwise) fall down because they are predicated on expensive propositions. However, slow home is not limited to new builds. It is a way of thinking about your home as something more than a product to be purchased. It means taking responsibility for and care of it. It means understanding, and reacting to, its impact on us, our cities and the larger environment. Sometimes this is new construction. Other times it may be a renovation, addition, or adaptive re-use of an existing structure, and still other times it may be something as modest as painting a room or re-tiling a bathroom. In the same way that slow food does not just mean haute cuisine, but also your mom's home made macaroni and cheese caserole, slow home is a big tent that can embrace a variety of approaches to the broader idea of becoming more engaged with the places they call home.


Posted by: John Brown, SlowHome Editor on 26 Jun 07

John,

One thing you don't take apart very thoroughly on your "What is Slow Home" page (that perhaps your references do) is: -why- have fast home organizations been so "successful," as you describe them? At the end of the page, you allude to "sophisticated marketing," deceptive payment structures, deed restrictions, and the like. Were such things there at the beginning, or did they come along gradually?

I bring this up because the implication here is that people would choose different homes if they were not boxed in by deception and actual structure. It would be my hope that this is true, but do we know how true it is?


Posted by: c! on 26 Jun 07

I live in the ultimate fast home- a trailer. It is not what I want. All I can say is this- Yes, the world needs change, however, change that not just the wealthy top 1% can afford. Design a home for me and my family and let me know. Cheers from the hills of North Georgia


Posted by: Suzanne Ward on 26 Jun 07

Those are excellent comments. The answer to why fast home production builders have been so successful is complex. As I understand it, after the end of world war II, there was an enormous need for housing and a surplus of manufacturing capacity. At about that time, a few entrepreneurs on the two coasts invented the idea of mass producing houses in an assembly line fashion (but on site not in a factory) and then selling them as completely furnished "dream homes" complete with easy financing. The best known example of these is Levittown New York ( here are a couple of good links for reference - http://server1.fandm.edu/levittown/one/b.html and http://tigger.uic.edu/~pbhales/Levittown.html).

The popularity was staggering. Like the mass produced car, this kind of easily available home had never existed before. It was quickly replicated around North America. The business model is based on a ready supply of cheap empty land that can be converted into a new suburb.

Large corporations soon emerged that purchased large tracts of land around most major cities in order to keep a 20 year supply of land available (because if they waited to buy it until they really needed it, the price would be much higher to the farmer). This was an enormous, long term investment and political lobbying of local and state/provincial officials made sure that this investment was protected. There is research that shows that this lobbying even went so far as to work with the auto industry to kill the light rail transit lines in Los Angeles.

To sell all of these homes, elaborate marketing schemes were developed that extended the 'dream homee' idea of the original Levittown. If you go to the links you can see some of the ads. I am amazed at how they promise many of the same things that current developments do - security, happiness, family living, close to nature, etc. It is interesting, though, that the promises seem a little more transparent and hollow when couched in the rhetoric of the 1950's.

Because these corporations were founded on the premise of commodified mass production rather than design, the home has become treated more and more like a product to be sold rather than an environment in which to live. Like toothpaste, cars, aftershave, etc. homes became part of our consumer culture over the past 60 years.

The problem, of course, is that the home is too important to be treated like any other commodity. It is too expensive, too significant in the lives of our families, and has too big an environmental footprint to be so casually designed and (often) carelessly built.

In the end, I believe that this model of development is no longer viable. We need to demand more from the people who make our homes. We need to become a land of home makers instead of just home buyers.

The trouble, like with cooking, is that we, as a culture, don't have a lot of experience with this. We all need to learn about design and what makes a good space, a room, a home, a street, a neighborhood, a city. Not that we are all going to go out and build our own house - but like with fast food, it means that we can start demanding more from the people who do build these things.

Think about the changes in the fast food industry that have taken place in the last couple of years as we all learned more about how this stuff is made, and how it affects us? Sales drop and the big four companies start introducing healthier meal choices and even ban trans fats. I really believe that there is the same potential with our homes. The fight will be uphill and long but the payoff will be worth it for ourseves, our families and the environment.

I just realized I have been going on too long... My apologies for getting a bit carried away.


Posted by: John Brown, SlowHome Editor on 26 Jun 07

Suzanne,
Your comment is very important. I know that a lot of the examples on our site at the moment are expensive homes. I also know that there are architects doing work at more modest levels (our firm for one is trying very hard to do it) but these people and projects can be hard to find because they don't get the same kind of exposure or attention in the design press.

It is certainly not our intention to have an "exclusive" idea for only the wealthy. Slow Home is about bringing dignity back into the places we live. This happens when each of us starts to take more control and responsibility for them. This is an change in attitude and is independent of cost.

As an analogy, let's look at fashion. On the one hand, someone with money can just go out and buy the latest designer dress. On the other hand, with some creativity and effort someone else can go out and find a cheap vintage dress, put it together with some other pieces from their closet, add some off beat accessories and the result will be more genuine, more real, and more interesting than the purchased version - at a price that they can afford.

I believe we can think of our homes in the same way. I believe that we can take a fast home and "slow it down" by making it our own. This may involve a lot of work or it may involve very little. The important point is that it will convert some small part of the world into a real place that is deserving of care and attention.

However, with all of that said I do not for a minute want to excuse the shameful lack of affordable housing options in North America. This is a huge issue and deserves political action to promote a larger scale of change. Countries in other parts of the world are doing it, why not two of the wealthiest???

A very good question.


Posted by: John Brown, SlowHome Editor on 26 Jun 07

John,

Thank you for your responses. I think this is an area where the internet and appropriate software can truly be leveraged to not only show people what is possible, but allow them to rapidly prototype, assemble, and even walk through appropriate homes in software. The fact of the matter is, the convergence of technologies has made the pace of life much faster in the past few decades, but some of these synergies can be put to good ends. I'm looking forward to the convergence of architectural CAD software, ecological impact models, and rapid prototyping tools, and all of these could play a role to allow people to rapidly discover what just kinds of homes they could have.

And... for the sake of the movement, I also hope that designers, engineers, and architects interested in low-cost housing will join in. Aw heck, maybe I should quit hoping and join in myself!


Posted by: c! on 27 Jun 07

c!,
Thanks for the follow up. I agree about the potential of this technology. The flip side, of course, is that it could also be taken up by the marketing department of our local production builders and used to convince us to buy more suburban McMansions. The way to avoid this, I think, is by increasing design awareness and get more architects involved in the main stream home building market.

In terms of the affordability issue, we are featuring a discussion on co-housing in this week's SlowHome Report. There is a really interesting project in Denver that you should see. It isn't exactly low cost but it is certainly more affordable for the mainstream. The Report will be released on our site tomorrow.


Posted by: John Brown, Slow Home Editor on 27 Jun 07

Hi John,

I just watched this week’s slow home report and really appreciate what your site is trying to do. My husband and I are living in a downtown condo and want to find a home before we start a family. I can’t stomach the idea of living in a new suburban home. What other options do I have?


Posted by: Suze on 28 Jun 07

Suze,
That is a question I am often asked in my practice. My suggestion is to look for an existing house in an older, more established neighborhood closer to downtown and renovate it to meet your needs.

Take your overall budget and separate it into two parts - one for the purchase and the second for the upgrades. Work with a design professional right at the beginning to get some idea of what the range of remodelling costs might be to get what you want. That will tell you how much you have to spend on the house.

Look for something that was built after 1950 (in order to have decent struture and technology) but before the mid 1980's (so that the interiors will be ready for a facelift). Think of the property purchase as the first, and most important design decision you are going to make.

Generally as you go closer to downtown the houses will get older, smaller and probably more expensive, although every city has exceptions.

Most important, find a design professional who can help you right from the beginning. They can give you lots of great ideas and assistance even before you have a property. The hourly fee you pay will be well worth it.


Posted by: John Brown, Slow Home Editor on 28 Jun 07

John,
When I drive through new suburban neighborhoods the houses are enormous! Why are so many of these McMansions being built


Posted by: Bruce on 29 Jun 07

Bruce,
There are lots of reasons why there has been such a dramatic rise in house size while, at the same time, family size is going down. Let me discuss two of the most important.

1. It is more profitable for production home builders.

In the same way that supersized fries cost only a fraction more to make but are sold at a hefty premium (the extra cost is almost all profit, the extra rooms and room sizes in a McMansion add only a little to the construction cost but are sold for a big price tag.

2. Building larger is a scapegoat for bad design.

When a house is poorly designed it feels small and cramped. Because most people don't have the words to express their frustrations in terms of design, they fall back on size as the culprit. The construction industry is happy to promote this because they make more money the larger the house becomes (see above). The reality is that a well designed small home will feel bigger and better than a poorly designed large one.


Posted by: John Brown, Slow Home Editor on 1 Jul 07



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