Thinking Big About Living Small
Zane Fischer's answer to the housing crisis
By Joshua Lee
Judging from my own reaction, I would hazard the guess that most people aren't aware of the fact that we're in the middle of a housing crisis. Despite the availability of resources and the market need, the hurdle of building affordable living spaces close to urban economic centers seems to just keep getting higher.
But designer, art curator and reporter Zane Fischer, CEO of the design and manufacturing company Extraordinary Structures, has some really reasonable ideas about how to fix it, employing digital fabrication to design affordable, space-conscious and eco-friendly tiny houses to alter the urban landscape of major cities.
The only problem: Our own distaste of close-quarter living makes us sneer at the idea.
Fischer will be giving a talk at TEDxABQ this Saturday, Sept. 17, at Kiva Auditorium in the Convention Center (401 Second Street NW). I managed to pull him away from the task of planning the future of society for almost a whole half hour to speak with me.
Alibi: So what's your talk going to be about—without spoilers, please?
Fischer: Well, I want to talk about a few different ways to think about looking at the housing supply crisis that we, like much of the world, are in. And to focus in on some of the new manufacturing methods for housing that are particularly compelling, creating smaller spaces and spaces that have more of an emphasis on user interface than more traditional architecture has.
I was reading a story about you in the Albuquerque Journal, and it sounded like you had some push-back from the city of Santa Fe when you suggested introducing these smaller living spaces into the community. Is that attitude special to New Mexico?
No! It's a nationwide phenomenon [chuckles]. We've turned that one- or two-story, single family, detached home into an icon of American success and aspiration, and that gives us a built-in bias against higher density, clustered development, multi-family development, apartment development. Then we attach all these fears to [higher density living], like criminality, traffic, low property values ... But it's funny, because a lot of us here in Albuquerque and Santa Fe are politically liberal and environmentally conscious—at least that's as far as what we espouse—and if you wanted to live that way, higher density housing is really the only environmentally responsible way to live at this point, because you really maximize all of your efficiencies, like energies, water use and transportation. But we're just not ready to give up on that [one- or two-story] ideal. It might be a little more profoundly difficult in cities like Santa Fe, where we have this whole community identity wrapped up in short brown structures.
We've turned that one- or two-story, single family, detached home into an icon of American success and aspiration, and that gives us a built-in bias against higher density, clustered development, multi-family development, apartment development.
But it's pretty common throughout the United States to resist new development. We're sort of afraid of new neighbors, and we want this kind of fantasy neighborhood that was created by “Leave It to Beaver,” but it's just not the reality of how we're going to house the actual population we have, how we're going to be environmentally responsible—it's not even going to build the quality of life and reasonable economic development inside of our communities.
A mortgage company called HSH released a study that said there isn't one county in the United States that has enough affordable housing units. For every 100 people that can afford housing, there are 28 units available on average around the country.
So, how do you fix this? Well, one easy answer is supply. We think of that as the basic free market capitalist reaction: We shouldn't be having a complaint if we have demand, because the free market will step up and provide the supply. But housing is a little bit different for a variety of reasons. One: In a lot of places, it's somewhat geographically constrained, like in San Francisco. And two: Almost everywhere, it's constrained by how we've chosen to look at zoning regulations. And we're just resistant to embracing new housing coming into our communities.
So, do you see this as some kind of crisis that we're moving toward? Or one we've already hit, and we just don't know it?
Exactly. A global crisis. That's exactly the truth of it, and we haven't woken up and realized it. But how are we going to manage it in the long term? Because it's hard to build, to finance and then to be able to make that profitable. We need to look at some different systems, and one obvious one is the factory model, because you get so many efficiencies in terms of material usage, et cetera. But how do we get the achievements from the factory into an area of housing that's nice, solid, sturdy, environmentally efficient and is something that is affordable, so we can start activating as “supply” within our communities?
That's become more possible because of the advances in the Maker movement. You've got these tools that were previously consigned to factory floors, and they're becoming increasingly affordable. If someone's into 3D printing, well it's kind of consumer level at this point, right? So routing and being able to build a house with a router isn't something the average person can do in their garage, yet. But it is something the average person might be able to start accessing at, like, a Maker space, or going to your local sign shop or cabinet shop and paying for some equipment time.
So do people just need to start thinking about living smaller?
The most important thing is to get people thinking about living smarter. In many cases, that does mean smaller. Not necessarily for everyone, but there aren't a lot of situations where you can justify the need for a 2,800 square foot plus house. Most people probably aren't making use of that.
So, yeah, I would say in relatively short order we're looking at something problematic.
But can we take a smart, proactive approach to how we start looking at populating our communities with housing? Can we start thinking about ways to figure out density differently? If we make a few key decisions now, we can have a real impact on what our community looks like in a few years.
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