To “dwell,” in affordable housing parlance, is an expensive proposition.

A few months after it was finished, I returned to the renovated Single-Room-Occupancy, 50-unit complex I worked on. Originally designated as a “motel” of 60 rooms each with a vanity area and a bathroom, the rambling, renovated buildings now housed public rooms with 50 “efficiency dwelling units.”

Had the word “dwelling” not been part of the request for a zoning change, the project would have been far simpler, cheaper and faster to build. It also would have been unsatisfactory. If defined as a “motel unit,” a tenant may only occupy it a short time. They are transients in a temporary waystation. In contrast, in a dwelling unit, residents can abide. Tarry. Linger. Dwell. [1]

It was a sunny day. People were unloading from cars, moving boxes, settling in. Doors were open. The small windows we put in at the back of the formerly dark, airless units were illuminating the new kitchen areas and creating a breeze, just as intended. I was curious as to the demographic profiles of the inhabitants, the “users” so I searched for the housing director. I learned that most tenants were single white men of varying ages. Why, I asked her. “Because we” – white Americans – “don’t have the same loyalty to extended family,” was the tentative reply from someone clearly loathe to stereotype. “In other cultures they do. And women across the board seem to be sturdier, more resourceful, in maintaining networks,” the director said. Perhaps the phenomenon is predictable. It certainly seemed accurate to me. This is the shadow gestalt of rugged John Wayne individualism. Imperfection, broken threads, unpretty lives wind up in a “facility”. Here were few single mothers and Latinos/Hispanics, not many African Americans, and no one of Asian descent.

The director mentioned something else surprising: At their request, she drove the tenants to thrift stores within a 30-mile radius, stores now, thanks to her, completely denuded of pots and pans.

What, not boom box stereos, beds, lamps? Saucepans and soup pots are the badges of domesticity, the memories, real or created, of home. In his 1951 essay “Building Dwelling Thinking”, Martin Heidegger defines “dwelling” as a verb. In his arms, it is an intentional act and an individual imperative. We must build our home to inhabit it. Pots and pans, it would seem, is part of that making, in itself is a kind of optimism. As defined in the Uniform Building Code (UBC), however, “dwelling” becomes reified into a set of requirements sometimes so costly as to prohibit housing that is affordable.

Having two-burner cooktops along with microwaves was an important element in the project. It meant that people could eat more healthy foods, or at least foods of their own devising. Residents could save money by not being always liable to prepackaged microwave dinners. Microwaves are provided in a motel unit. Whether defacto affordable housing or an upscale hotel, no one seems to have a problem with one sink. But once a cooktop – an expensive item in itself – enters the design, two other requirements kick in: first, a separate bathroom with a door; second, a separate vanity (bathroom sink) in addition to a kitchen sink. To no avail, we argued that the effect of all the upgrades created a much more humane environment. We couldn’t put the vanity in the obvious place, in the bathroom, because to run new plumbing lines would been even more wildly expensive than the $70,000 it cost to locate the vanities; at an industry standard of 30 inches it was a significant drop in height from the rest of the countertop. The vanities were as small as we could find within our budget. Alas, no hip, petite airplane-sized stainless steel basins. Ours were just small enough and just big enough, in fact, to require wedging one’s body awkwardly in front of it to use it. As I talked to the tenants, it was obvious that they hated the result as much in practice as we did during design. Why, they asked me, looking at me as though I were quite stupid, (rightly so, I thought, since they didn’t know the background) had we done that? They didn’t use the vanity, it was literally too mean – that is, impoverished.

The $70,000 which went to the ‘second sink’, we believed, would have been much better spent in addressing landscaping, in creating outdoor, arbored reading rooms and other ways in which to explore the act and art of dwelling. In any case, each individual will be as “hygienic” as personal habits dictate, code or no code. These seemingly benevolent rules articulate the physical parameters for encouraging behavior our society deems “civilized”. Some of the requirements ostensibly refer to hygiene, historically the child of the Industrial Revolution but more emphatically the Modern Movement following centuries of uncontrollable plagues and disease and the opportunities of new building techniques. Operable openings and the rate of air exchanges where such openings aren’t possible, for example, are legislated, as they ought to be. Historically, however, building codes focus on safety and structural failure. They have done so since the time of Hammurabi, 2000 b.c.e. His code, Section 229, reads, “If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain.” Section 230 is even more fearsome. “If the child of the householder be killed, the child of that builder shall be slain.” (It’s probably no accident that such codes began not in Egypt, with its stable society and predictable annual swelling of the Nile, but in Mesopotamia, where violent weather, floods, earthquakes and continual savage conflict were the norm. An eye for an eye, indeed.)

Other architects, developers and builders have found way around the rules: delete the cooktop, a strategy which then eliminates the required second sink and other requirements such as building a solid wall and door between bathroom and living area. Though savvy architectural responses, driven by exasperated necessity, are often clever, the resulting thin screen or heavy curtain between toilet and living area is hardly a pleasant solution and far less civilized.

Like building codes, lending policies also help to determine the way we live and how we achieve housing. In the late 1940s, an element within the Housing Act permitted the Federal Housing Administration to underwrite loans for small cooperative ventures in homebuilding. It was this element, Title 608, which permitted 10 middle-class families, many teachers with spouses and children, to pool $12,000 each. They bought land in Silverlake. In 1948 they moved into Avenel Homes, designed by Gregory Ain. A year later, that element was emended, suddenly excluding such small ventures in favor of large apartment buildings and single-family, free-standing houses. Small progressive ventures were, most likely, the work of the devil, progressive left-wingers, and Communists; certainly they were underlobbied. However, even during this brief innovative time of new new opportunities, the FHA still harbored some stale assumptions of what constituted proper housing. These assumptions were manifested in its loan requirements. Their inspectors denied an open condition between the kitchen and the living areas, as well as built-in furniture and a second bathroom. (Never mind that Ain intended that parents busy in the kitchen might want to keep an eye on their children as well as availing themselves of the view of the hills beyond.) Were the feds concerned about hygiene? Ventilation? That is unclear. Nonetheless, the project provided crisp, light-filled Modernist dwellings of 908 square feet each, with gardens, reconfigurable interiors and broad paths where children could play safely in the heart of the city. Some of the walls between kitchen and bathroom have been removed to restore Ain’s original intentions. At least two of the original families are still there, as they have been for 54 years. “It was as though you could blow a whistle and throw a party anytime,” said owner Dorothy Brant.

Excuse me, I smell something burning on the stove. Catch you later. To sum up: Clearly there are ways to improve building codes and lending approaches to create dwellings and communities with individuality. Both the models and mistakes are all around us.


[1] An “efficiency” dwelling unit varies, typically 300 square feet; in Beverly Hills it is 450. In Europe such units are often referred to as existenzminimum, a widely used term made famous by the second CIAM conference, the CongrËs Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, held in Frankfurt in 1929. Its theme was “Die Wohnung f¸r das Existenzminimum”, the minimum subsistence dwelling. As Eric Mumford points out in his book, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism 1928-1960 (MIT Press, 2000), “It was hoped that the deliberations at CIAM 2 would be based on a thirty-eight-page questionnaire entitled ‘Hygienic and Economic Foundations of the Minimal Dwelling’ ” which would be scientifically informed. Reading on, “this turned out to be impossible for CIAM, given its limited organizational apparatus, so in the end agreement that the minimum dwelling was in fact the correct solution to the housing problems of industrial societies was assumed by the Congress.” In other words, like so many big ideas, it was far too big to take on. Thus the Modernist ideal of architecture founded on quantifiable data obtained by rigorous methods rests on fuzzy assumptions.

@copyright Barbara Lamprecht
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