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Launching the Slow Homes Movement

Submitted by on October 11, 2012 – 9:30 pm2 Comments

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I recently drove through Lakewood, a city 10 miles south of Los Angeles, just to see for myself what it looked like. Lakewood is a quintessential “fast homes” community – the housing equivalent of a fast-food order of “17,500 happy meals to go, please.” In 1950, the Lakewood Park Company began building homes at the rate of 50 per day. They did not stop until 17,500 single family homes blanketed the former sugar beet fields, leaving little sign of nature, lakes, or woods in this place ironically named “Lakewood.” As I recall, Lakewood now looks more or less like this picture:

And Lakewood is hardly unique. The post-WWII era brought us, like never before, individually wrapped lives–not shareable lives. We got mass-produced single-family homes, and a culture built around single-family expectations. The fastness with which those houses were built has infiltrated the way they have been lived in, too. In taking on their single-family dwellings and their single-family mortgages, families took on the heavy responsibility of meeting material needs independently. Thus arose a fixation on convenience – on foods that were ready fast, on household appliances and gadgets that save time, on cars that get us to work with little hassle. Since then, things have only gotten faster. We move so fast these days that we rarely slow down to talk to our neighbors, much less have them over for dinner.

The fastness pervades not only the way we build our homes and live in them, but also the way we buy and sell them. We make an offer on a house, obtain financing, and quickly sign long, jargon-filled contracts and promissory notes without really reading them or fully understanding our promises. So-called “successful” homeowners treat a home as an investment, buying when the market it low, selling when it’s high, moving into a bigger home, maybe flipping that one later, and on and on. Our housing market also incentivizes wastefulness, as the cost of tearing down a perfectly good small house and replacing it with a “McMansion” or “Garage Mahal” is often small compared to the potential increase in property value. The housing market ends up looking, more or less, like this:

My realtor friend Cassandra Ferrera said it well: “Our homes should not be a stock market!” Indeed, especially now that the roof caved in on that stock market. In short, fast homes didn’t work out so well.

What is “slow?”

Now is our opportunity to rebuild our lives around slow homes. Slow is the opposite of “fast,” and the opposite of our industrialized society’s approach to growing and making food, building houses, manufacturing goods, extracting resources from the planet, and so on. This approach has proven to be unsustainable to our planet, economy, health, and sanity—and “slow” movements are the response. Slow Food seeks to revive our “quiet material pleasure” in food, with a commitment to “good, clean, and fair food” and recognition of the “strong connections between plate and planet.” Slow Money is a movement to “bring money back down to earth” by building local economies and connecting investors to the places they live. There’s also Slow Parenting, Slow Medicine, Slow Travel, Slow Schools, Slow Cities, Slow Books, and Slow Living.

Slow Homes

And now Slow Homes. Recently, I had a slow lunch with two realtors from Regenerative Real Estate and one from Green Key Real Estate. These innovative realtors told me that they don’t just market houses, they market lifestyles. They told me how they help residents connect to their surrounding environments, live sustainably, and create communities that foster interaction and sharing. One way to sum up what they are creating is a “slow homes movement.” There are, perhaps, other ways to describe it: sustainable homes, cooperative homes, intentional community, and so on. But to me, the word “slow,” in encompassing all that is “good, clean, and fair,” seems like an even bigger umbrella under which to start rethinking everything about homes.

We are not the first to use the phrase “slow homes.” John Brown, an architect and realtor in Calgary, Canada, has already made significant headway into describing slow homes. His project, “Slow Home: Design School For Real Life,” has created a definition:

 “A Slow Home is SIMPLE, LIGHT, and OPEN. It is simple to use and fits the way you want to live. It is light on the environment and your finances and has open, flexible spaces that have a strong connection with the outdoors.”

 Brown’s ideas are beautiful, his designs are graceful, and they make sense.

The Slow Homes Conversation

Brown’s picture of Slow Homes can help us start an even longer conversation – or a movement, really. Re-envisioning homes – something so intertwined with our economy, our forests, our daily lives, and our basic needs – is no small task. As an attorney, I may add to the conversation with ideas about home ownership structures, finance, and land use. Mortgage brokers, lenders, realtors, planners, accountants, economists, ecologists, biologists, designers, artists, landscapers, engineers, and anyone with or without a home should jump into this conversation. It’s a big job, and we’ve all got to do it.

And we have the added challenge of starting where we are and working with what is there—on a planet that is already covered in houses and residential buildings. We can’t start this slow homes movement in the countryside on the few remaining plots of unspoiled land. And we can’t just tear down the homes we have now and replace them. Unlike the slow food movement, which can sort of get a fresh start with every harvest season, the slow homes movement will take place in apartment towers, concrete jungles, and tract homes. It means we must work and live inside these boxes, but think way outside the box as we recreate, retrofit, renovate, and redesign them.

To begin the converstion, here are six proposed goals of the slow homes movement:

Create housing that facilitates interaction, community, and sharing

  1. Make our homes part of a sustainable ecosystem and encourage residents to cook, eat, sleep, work, consume, and live more sustainably
  2. Build homes that are efficient, adaptable, and co-created by the people that live in them
  3. Provide comfortable, secure, healthy, and beautiful environments for residents
  4. Redesign our housing market and industry to ensure fairness and access
  5. Rethink city planning, zoning, and legal structures to facilitate our transition into slow homes and slow communities.

 

  1. Housing that facilitates interaction, community, and sharing

After more than a half century of single-family dwellings, single-family expectations, and single-family ways of life, transitioning to a more sharing society will take some thought and design.

Sharing, cooperation, and building relationships are organic phenomena—there is no formula for making them happen, and they can’t be imposed on people. Rather, people will choose to share when it is convenient, when it benefits them, and when they connect with the right people. There is a certain chemistry—a certain je ne sais quoi—that makes it work. The most we can do to make sharing happen is create fertile ground for it, design communities where sharing can happen naturally and conveniently. I’ve heard people say time and again: It’s design. Design. Design. Design.

Communities facilitate interaction when they are built around central common areas, face pedestrian pathways instead of streets, or incorporate shared spaces. The right design creates space for magic to happen: residents sharing meals, gardening together, caring for elders and one another’s children, helping each other around the house, taking part in modern “barnraisings,” and generally being there to support each other. There are thousands of cohousing communities, ecovillages, and intentional communities that have achieved this magic. And there is a movement to take our urban neighborhoods and suburbs and retrofit them to incorporate community-oriented design. This might involve taking down fences, closing off roads to through traffic, and creating shared, co-owned, and community-owned spaces.

It also seems that many people are ready to question our long-held notion that each family needs is own kitchen, its own yard spaces, and its own utility and work spaces. Increasingly, people are renovating their single-family homes to create space for two or more households. The single-family home can be essentially transformed into a duplex with common spaces,  such as a shared  kitchen, laundry room, yard, and so on. The benefits of sharing then add up when those residents discover that many household tasks are better accomplished cooperatively, such as home repair, gardening, and cooking.

While sharing brings countless benefits, a community-oriented design should also create spaces for privacy, solitude, and sanctuary. There will always be an important balance to strike between togetherness and separateness. If we can fully meet our personal needs for space and privacy, then we are likely to be far more open to sharing.

  1. Housing that is part of a sustainable ecosystem and that facilitates sustainable lifestyles

The ultimate goal should be to not just reduce the ecological impact of our housing, not just mitigate our impact, but make our homes part of a regenerative system that allows nature to thrive and restore itself. We already have a wealth of knowledge in the field of ecological building, and we continue to find new ways to use renewable, recycled, and local materials, generate renewable energy, and employ non-toxic and non-destructive building techniques. Increasingly, we are learning the value of removing asphalt, planting gardens on our roofs, clustering housing to preserve open space, and so on.

As residents, we have a role to play in this process every day, and the design of a home can greatly impact our behavior to these ends. For example, if a home is designed to make hanging laundry convenient, we are more likely to hang laundry.  If a home is designed with attractive outdoor spaces, we are more likely to get outdoors. And it’s good for the world when we feel connected to and care for what is around us—outdoor spaces, neighbors, and the surrounding community.

  1. Homes that are co-created, efficient, and adaptable

An important element of the slow food movement is co-production—the idea that we should all be involved in the growing and preparing of our food. I think that a similar concept is crucial to the slow homes movement—to the extent possible, we should take part in designing and building our homes. The design of our homes can greatly impact our lifestyles, but a better scenario is to allow our lifestyles to influence the design of our homes.

When we take part in the creation of our homes, we also understand our homes better. It is really an important life skill to be able to make repairs, tinker with plumbing, and maintain our composting toilets and grey water systems. Taking part in these activities, and teaching them to our children, can deepen our appreciation for our homes as well. Doing these activities in groups – through neighborhood home repair groups, for example – can deepen both our understanding of and the fun we have in interacting with our homes, as well as with our communities.

Our homes should also be efficient. They should make the best use of what the environment has to offer, including natural light, natural heat, and natural cooling.  A good example of how homes today are not efficient is that we maintain so much space as storage for things we rarely use. Communities that have tool lending libraries, networks for borrowing and lending goods, and neighbors who share things can help us avoid our tendencies to accumulate stuff. An efficient home ensures that no space goes to waste.

Adaptability of our homes is a key element of efficiency, and of sustainability and liveability.  When it comes to thinking about adaptability, one interesting resource I’ve found is Lifecycle Building, a program that encourages design of buildings that can be disassembled and reconstructed, reusing materials to the greatest extent possible. In challenging the notion that buildings are static entities, these ideas open up a whole world of possibility for rethinking homes.

We should also explore ways of using simple mobile structures, temporary structures, short term housing, and longer term hostels and campgrounds. Such accommodations allow us to move around as necessary, live in comfortable homes during transitions, and lessen our impact on places we live.

  1. Homes that provide comfortable, healthy, and beautiful environments for residents

Lighting, indoor air quality, ventilation, heating, cooling, and soundproofing are just some of the considerations in building a healthy home. I recently learned of the Institute for Bau-Biologie and Ecology, which seeks to understand and improve the biological health of homes.  We all know the value of healthy eating. How about healthy housing?

And in the same way that we might taste wines, cheeses, and chocolates—with a discerning and appreciative tongue—we should taste our homes, savor them, breathe them, feel them, experience them, take them in, and love them. If we are going to be there to cook, eat, sleep, socialize, bathe, rest, relax, and daydream, our homes should facilitate enjoyable experiences. If we pay attention to light, air, space, design, craftsmanship, and to the blending and complimenting of surrounding environments—the feng shui—our homes can nurture us, even inspire us.  And a bonus is that when we invest in the careful crafting of our homes and in creating inspired designs, we create jobs for designers, builders and artisans that really care about the craft of building.

  1. A fair housing industry and market

We should also rethink our notions of “fair” housing. Traditionally, “fair housing” refers to the idea that one should not be denied housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status. Unfortunately, there is a lot more that is unfair about housing than simple discrimination. It is unfair that improvements in a neighborhood drive up the rental market rates and price out low income residents, resulting in gentrification and displacement of communities. It is unfair that there is an enormous gap in wealth between renters and owners; homeownership is generally seen as the gateway to financial stability, but it is reserved only for those who can make large down payments. It is also unfair that banks reap enormous profits from predatory lending, and that millions of consumers have been tricked into living far beyond their means. And it is unfair that the health of our entire economy has been so intricately tied to this financing machine.

In a slow homes movement, and a just world, there should be ways to simultaneously improve communities and keep longstanding residents in place. There should be ways to provide homeownership opportunities for people of low or fixed incomes. There should be ways to pay for homes using local and humane sources of finance. There should be ways to stabilize the market so that we aren’t victims of its sharp rises and falls.

Cooperative housing, shared housing, and subsidized housing are all partial solutions. But a more systemic change could involve removing significant portions of housing from the speculative market so that our cost of living isn’t so driven by market forces.

Community land trusts have been successful in this endeavor on small scales. Limited equity housing, for example, is a model that land trusts have used to sell residents “ownership” interests in housing (often in the form of 99-year-leases) that the residents may later resell. To keep the housing affordable, residents may not resell the units for more than the purchase price plus a fixed rate of return (often a set percentage no more than 10%, or a rate that is correlated to prevailing interest rates). It means that owners won’t “make a killing” on their investment, but they will at least recoup the money they have paid for their housing and, if they wish, pay for new housing on a similar scale.

  1. Rethinking city planning, zoning, and legal structures

Finally, we need to figure out how our laws and community planning mechanisms can adapt to slow homes. A city planner recently told me that changes in city bureaucracy and to zoning ordinances happen very SLOWLY. In this case, slow is not a good thing. Many cities have adopted goals of reducing carbon emissions by the year 2050. Yet, our zoning ordinances still make it hard to share housing or to cluster housing to preserve open space. They also tend to require that households pave a certain number of parking spots, even if the residents have no cars. This is definitely not the time to be tearing out gardens and encouraging car ownership. All of this leaves us with lots of room to rethink how we plan our communities, to make them more walkable, shareable, and sustainable, and to grow our local economies.

We must also develop clear and easy-to-use legal mechanisms for sharing housing and creating community space.  My clients are people who buy land together and build ecovillages, retrofit neighborhoods to create cohousing, or share ownership of houses. With each unique client, I find unique legal hurdles. It’s definitely not easy working in a legal framework that privileges single-family households.

But in this economic climate, sharing is a crucial solution. Many people have decided that sharing homeownership is preferable to losing homeownership in foreclosure. And they are increasingly realizing that sharing costs, responsibilities, and enjoyment of homeownership is far more preferable to and more fun than the single-family homes, single-family mortgages, and single-family everything.

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