Monday, December 31, 2012

WHAT IS AN "AFFORDABLE" HOME?


It's somewhat ambiguous, but the definition of affordability has to be related to income, right?
Income as well as other debt & obligations.  But then we're getting into personal details...

Affordability is relative

Whose home are we talking about?  The queen of England?  A single parent in Bangladesh? An extended family of twenty-five in Sicily?

Buckingham Palace
Image courtesy of Robert Scarth
"Sewing Machine Lady" in Bangladesh
Image courtesy of Melanie Ko

I guess for the purposes of the post we'll make an assumption of a middle class American family.
Our modern standard of living has risen so high in the last couple of generations that most of us cannot even comprehend the living conditions of our own grandparents!

Should we feel guilty about this?  I don't know much about guilt;  I'm not really a fan of guilt as a motivating emotion. But I do think I can say unequivocally that we should aspire to:
  • free ourselves from competing with the Joneses,
  • find what is actually affordable for our own situations,
  • avoid burying ourselves in a mortgage we will never pay off, and 
  • avoid mortgage payments that will take up so much of our paycheck that other expenses are put on credit.


House Price as a Multiple of Earnings

To judge affordability of the housing market, some metrics compare the average home price and the average salary in a given are.  For example, in 2014, the average London home cost 16x the average Londoner's salary.  Averaged across England that multiple dropped to 10
But just the previous year, the multiple in the UK was 7.0, with counties averaging from 5.92 to 14.35.
Interestingly, the housing federation doesn't assert what affordability ratio they see as acceptable.  Only that in the 1960's the ratio was at about 4.5.

Forbes calls this the price-to-income ratio.  In a report on a 2013 Zillow study, 30 U.S. metro areas were shown to have a ratio ranging from 1.5 (Detroit) to 7.0 (San Jose).


Financial Fitness

I read a book on personal finance last year called The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey.
Dave's first book, Financial Peace: Putting Common Sense Into Your Dollars and Cents, explains WHAT to do with money.  It is a guide to commonsense money management that is currently used as a textbook in some high schools.  The Makeover book is more about HOW to do the things described in the Financial Peace book.
I was totally stunned by the principles referenced and the hows to get there; it woke me up and asked, "What were you thinking?!!"


Mr. Ramsey's Seven Baby Steps

"Baby Steps" image courtesy of
Fire At Will
One of my favorite, and most basic, parts of Dave's collected advice is called the Seven Baby Steps.

0. Stop overspending and get current with all creditors.
(not part of the official steps, but a necessary precursor)
1. Save $1000 to *start* an emergency fund
2. Pay off all debt (except the house) using the “Debt Snowball,” paying off the SMALLEST debt first
3. Save 3 – 6 months of expenses for a full emergency fund
4. Invest 15% of your household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement
5. Save college funding for children
6. Pay off your home early
7. Build your wealth and give

He calls them baby steps, but by the time you're at step 7, you're there, right?  Financial Peace.


What's this got to do with Affordable Homes?

Now to paraphrase some bits of Dave's advice (from a variety of sources) as it relates to affordable homes....

Eliminate Debt First

Before you even think of buying a house, eliminate your other debt.  First, pay off your credit cards, pay off your student loans, pay off your car.

Debt Word Cloud courtesy of www.vectorportal.com

100% Cash Downpayment

Buy your home for cash.  Save up until you can afford to do that.
What?  Who does this?  I find it to be a bit absurd, but only because homes are so stinking expensive.

Or Get an "Affordable" Mortgage

Image courtesy of 401(k) 2012
If you MUST have a mortgage, only get a payment you can really afford.
Be conservative with terms:  Get a 15 year fixed rate mortgage.  Never a 30 or 40 year, never an ARM or a balloon mortgage.
Remember that banks are in business to get money from you.  Do not take their advice on how much debt you can bear.
For the path to Financial Peace, Dave says that what's AFFORDABLE is a mortgage payment that is less than 25% of your NET* monthly income.

  • * Banks often recommend 28% of your GROSS income just for the mortgage (called "front end") or 36% total of your gross income for the mortgage plus any other credit payments (called "back end").
  •   31% back end is the definition of "affordable" from the U.S. "Making Home Affordable" program.
  •   The FHA back end max is 41%.  
  •   Dave's "back end and "front end" are the same thing, since you are not buying a home until you've paid off your other debt.



The above percentages give vastly different answers as to what is supposedly affordable.  Remember that the banks are allowing you to borrow as much as they dare.
What happens if you apply for and are "awarded" (!!) a payment that is twice what you can actually afford?  Exactly.


If you have a mortgage, pay it off early (Baby Step 6). 

Image courtesy of 401(k) 2012

Don't pay out interest you don't have to pay out simply because that interest is a tax write-off.  Do not get a 2nd mortgage or a home equity loan... that's going in the wrong direction (towards more debt).
Mr. Ramsey has a mortgage payoff calculator on his website to help you figure out how to pay your mortgage off early and reduce the financial hemorrhage.


Now go out and find an Affordable Home

"Pies" in upstate NY
courtesy of basykes

Seems simple, right?  All you have to do now is find a home that meets the financial criteria and is a great home in a neighborhood with great schools or nightlife or farmers' markets or whatever you're into.

Easy as pie; but who thinks pie is easy?

ally


Update 7/16/2015: Tenants in England Spend Half Their Pay on Rent
Also, section above on the Affordability Ratio added.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

PREPARATION AT HOME: TOP 5

Simple sustainable preparedness for the end of days (is it still coming?) or just the next storm.

Port Hadlock Cabin by Eggleston Farkas Architects

1. Water

Catch rainwater from your roof into a cistern for reuse in your landscaping.  In longer-term emergencies, this may be your best source of drinking & washing water.

Vegetable Garden by The Brickman Group, Ltd.

2. Food

Grow a vegetable garden.  Start small with two or three items if you're a black thumb like me.  Learn about your soil, what grows best locally, and whether any plants might even volunteer next year.

PV cells integrated into canopy by Jensen Architects.

3. Power

Install a photo voltaic solar system.  Even if it's just enough to run a fridge and a couple of lights, you will have more than anyone else in a power outage.  Besides, emergencies aside, you are getting everyday value for your investment.*
*Of course, a working PV system (like any supplemental system) will operate invisibly (you won't be able to tell if it's working or not, because you are also using power from the grid).  It will be equally invisible if it is not working.  Get those things monitored.

Outdoor fireplace & patio
by Garrison Hullinger Interior Design

4. Cooking

Create a place for outdoor cooking.  This doesn't have to be an elaborate kitchen, but a protected spot for grilling or an outdoor fireplace/oven will be perfect enough when even the gas stove won't light without electricity.  Last time we lost power, we didn't even have a way to thaw food from our freezer. Microwave? Nope.  Electric stovetop?  Nope. Electric oven?  Nope.

Okay, kids, who's up for summer sausage, cheese & crackers, and applesauce from the 72 hour kit?

5. Stay warm in winter.  

How do you do this, when modern gas furnaces won't operate without the electric-powered blower?  Seems absurd to me that there isn't a battery backup to provide the minimal thermostat/switching needs of a furnace.

When we moved into our current home, it had a 1920's furnace that looked like an enormous stove burner encased in Goliath's helmet.  No fan, just gravity-fed ducts (hot air rises all by itself).  Now that we have the most efficient furnace on the market, it's completely useless in a power outage.  I feel duped!

Anyway, until I find the answer to this question, I'm considering this advice and pinned it to my EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS Pinterest board.  It seems like it would work as long as gas hot water heaters don't need electricity (how long before those are electrically powered, too?)
And no, I'm not interested in a generator that needs fuel from a gas station with an electric pump.

But please DO share your thoughts.  I'll try to keep additional "snippety" responses under control.

ally




Sunday, December 16, 2012

THE 10 COMMANDMENTS* OF ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

*It's not my intention to offend anyone's tender feelings for religious maxims.  I was just pondering on the way design concepts are shared/stolen, and deceits are perpetrated in the name of design.  Tell me what you think!

1. There is only one style and his name is Modernism.


Federation style mansion in Domain Street.
South Yarra, Victoria
Image courtesy of Biatch via Wikimedia
Traditionalists and preservationists love the old stuff.  The craftsmanship is better, the materials are better, the details have evolved over millennia to keep out the weather and the traditional forms are part of our collective consciousness.  Great, right?
But in the late 1800's, the adoration of historical styles got a bit out of hand.  Designers were chopping and mishmashing styles together until they resulted in a somewhat delightful but entirely overwhelming eclecticism that birthed a new rebellious movement.  This movement came to be called Modernism.


Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House.
Image courtesy of 20 Letters.



Modernism is part of our whole world today. "Less is More." Clean is better than decorated.  Detail is eschewed.  Reference to forms that the collective consciousness would recognize is absolutely forbidden.
Lovers of white-washed modernism claim that there is no way to love both what is modern and what came before it!


2. If you can afford it, have lots of graven images.  

Example: Corinthian capitals (first known example in 2 A.D. in Rome) represent leaves of the acanthus plant atop thousands of columns worldwide.

The Corinthian column capitals were predated (2600 years) by the plant style columns & capitals in Egypt, the oldest being at the Step Pyramid complex of Zoser. (see #8 below)

Corinthian capital,
Chiswick House, London.
Image courtesy of orangeaurochs.
Flower of the Acanthus Plant.
Image courtesy of floresyplantas.net

3. Namedrop and placedrop with nonchalance. 


Pietà by Michelangelo in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
Image courtesy of Sebastian Bergmann


Be sure to pronounce names with their original phonetics, especially if it is not an English name. Say it with me: "Mee kell ANJ e lo."
As in, "I was strolling by Sahn Pee EH tro the other day to post some mail and stopped to see that exquisite Pee EH ta by Mee kell ANJ e lo."

4. Disrespect the Sabbath.

Make the most elaborate buildings ones that work harder on the Sabbath than any other day.  Call them churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, shrines.

St. Petersburg's Church on Spilt Blood
Image courtesy of Kyle Taylor
Antonio Gaudi's Basílica de la
Sagrada Família
 in Barcelona.
Image courtesy of Łukasz Dzierżanowski

5. Disrespect your predecessors 

(See #1).

6. Kill trees and debauch mountains.

Find the most beautiful materials that God made and remove them from their natural setting. Distort, assemble, polish & paint them into manmade structures.

Old stone quarry, Idlewild, Wisconsin.
Image courtesy of edenpictures
The mountains have a harder time recovering their pure state.


Entry at Casa Batlló, Barcelona.
Image courtesy of David Flores
At least the trees are renewable

7. Cheat

If you can't afford a beautiful home, great art for your wall, or exquisite appointments, put in a window and frame something that Nature made. Well, occasionally a great view is affordable.  Less so these days.

Cole Residence by Frederick & Frederick Architects

8. Steal

It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Copyright infringers would certainly agree, and so would designers.
Famous example: Jefferson imitated Palladio's Villa Rotunda at Monticello.




Monticello, Virginia (1772) by Thomas Jefferson.
 Image courtesy of clarkcj2
Villa Rotunda, Vicenza, Italy (1567) by Andrea Palladio
Image courtesy of Theodore Ferringer

Typical example: Ubiquitous across America, middle class bungalows copy Green & Green's lavish California cottages (early 1900s) which in turn were inspired by the bungalows of India.

Gamble House, Pasadena. 1908 Greene & Greene.
Image courtesy of ercwttmn.
Advert for Sears Modern Home (Bungalow)
No. 172.  Image in the Public Domain (US).
Sears sold over 100,000 homes btw 1908 & 1940.

9. Lie.  Pretend you have more than you have.

Famous example: Trompe l'oeil (literally "to deceive the eye") at Palladio's Teatro Olympico (1584) uses the painting rules of perspective combined with the foreshortening of relief sculpture in his theater's stage to imply much more depth and space than is actually there.
He even magnified the stature of the audience members by interspersing sculptures in congregation with the real people.

Permanent stage backtrop at Teatro Olympico, Vicenza.
Image courtesy of GOC53

Audience seating at Teatro Olympico.
Image courtesy of GOC53


Joseph Smith Memorial Building  (formerly
the Hotel Utah, 1909-1911), Salt Lake City.
Lobby columns are painted to look like marble.
Image courtesy of  Edgar Zuniga, Jr.



Typical example: Faux bois (literally "false wood"). If you can't afford stone, build it out of wood and painting marble-like veining on it.  If you live where there is only pine, paint it to look like oak.  From Ireland to America, faux bois has been the finish of choice for those aspiring to the upper classes.


Isn't pretending just so chic when it's in French?


10. Covet. Don't be happy with what you have.

Famous example: The gardens at Vaux le Vicomte set a new standard.  They were so magical that mere hours after being a guest, King Louis XIV threw the owner Fouquet in prison for the rest of his life and confiscated plants, sculptures and artwork for himself. (1661)  He then used the same design team to create Versailles.

Vaux le Vicomte gardens by architect Le Vau,
painter-decorator Le Brun and landscape gardener Le Nôtre.
Image courtesy of @lain G peu dispo

Typical example: Keeping up with the Joneses.

ally

p.s. two Gaudi (Gow DI) references, two Palladio (Pah LA dee oh) references and two Mies (MEE s) references: check!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

DEFINING ARCHITECTURE

What is Architecture?

Is it building or planning or design?
Is it sculpture that's big enough to inhabit?
Is it applied art or engineering or science?

Is it views, vistas & vignettes?  Is it relationships of scale, balance & symmetry?
Is it wayfinding or space efficiencies or shelter

It is all of these things and more.
And for some crazy reason, it's really hard to explain concisely.  Webster's definition is lame.  Encyclopedia entries talk around the topic.

1521 Cesare Cesariano Italian translation of De Architectura Libri Decem
by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Preserved in the Smithsonian Museum of
American History. Image courtesy of Mark Pellegrini via Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (c.75BC - 15AD) wrote a multi-volume treatise on the practice called De Architectura (Or "The 10 Books of Architecture" in English).  He distilled the essential qualities of architecture down to "firmitas, utilitas, venustas," sometimes translated as firmness, commodity & delight... but also rendered as solid, useful, & beautiful.

Vitruvius's 10 books, when rediscovered in the 15th century,
had lost their 
illustrations.  Many architects, historians
& artists have attempted to 
illustrate the text.
The most well-known today is by Leonardo da Vinci,
and is often referred to as the 
"Vitruvian Man."

Firmness

Of course a building should not only be solid but also feel solid and give the impression of longevity, good craftsmanship & be immune to the Big Bad Wolf and any other winds, weathers or otherwise threatening villains.
We rely on a building code as a standard guide to firmness in typical cases.  Building codes have been around since ancient times, but are considerably more complex these days, just like the tax code.

The building code, as part of the law, is not subject to copyright laws.
It is free to all.  Image courtesy of public.resource.org

Commodity

Usefulness & commodity (meaning convenience & efficiency) are the nuts and bolts of architecture design.  They include functional adjacencies, the elimination of wasted space, hierarchies and a million other things.

Image courtesy of jennypdx

Delight

Delight is the art of architecture.  I've been enamoured lately with the word "delight."  To me, it has always been more than just beauty -- though beauty can obviously bring delight-- among other things it is also
  • surprise,
  • suspense, 
  • contradiction, 
  • discovery,
  • whimsy, 
  • sublimity & 
  • even a mere reference, reminding one of other memorable places.
Amalfi is one my favorite places.  On the southern
coast of Italy, the town sits on a steep incline,
creating crooked paths, amazing views,
and plenty to discover.
Image courtesy of ho visto nina volare.

Architects aspire to design wonderful places.  What are some of your favorite places?  Can you describe what makes them wonderful?


Thursday, November 8, 2012

10 THINGS MY CHILDREN HAVE TAUGHT ME ABOUT ARCHITECTURE & HOUSES

1.  Architecture & public art/fountains/displays are for touching.  


If you can’t touch it, what’s the point?  I abhor going to some lovely public place and finding a place to sit and enjoy the space, only to be reprimanded by a security guard for letting my children splash their hands in the fountain.  Or being told that picnics are not allowed on the grassy lawn.  Or that the enormous bronze animal sculpture that shines from the friction of other kids' bottoms is not meant for climbing on.

great action shot courtesy of Mike Willis

2.  Mama MUST be able to see the enclosed yard from one of the living areas of a home.


Parents of young children cannot and should not spend all day playing with their children.  They've got to let the children develop some independence at some point and the perfect place is an enclosed yard.  But parents of a certain age child must still be spies-- lurking and peeking and checking up on their precious charges.  

When we bought our current home, our eldest was an only child, 18 months old.  I had no idea that this was such an issue.  If only I could see the back yard from the kitchen!

photo courtesy of jemasmith


3.  In a parking lot, it’s not how far away you park from your destination; it’s whether there are sidewalks to get there.  


I have long thought that the most dangerous place for a person to be was the FREEWAY.  People who are on the phone with a headache having a bad day late for an appointment are driving the vehicles on all sides: people who learned to drive by playing racing video games.  People who go too fast & too close.

Now that I have small children, the freeway has dropped to second place;  first place has been awarded to PARKING LOTS.  The same people mentioned above who are now obsessed with finding the closest spot as quickly as possible have no awareness of pedestrians, especially short ones.

Who designs these awful parking lots with no sense of right-of-way and no designated pedestrian walkways?   Yup, you guessed it: architects.

And who raises these children who on occasion run out giggling into the parking lots without holding hands, and not even looking where they're going and giving their mama a heart attack?  Yup, you guessed it: me.

photo courtesy of Elizabeth/Table4Five

4.  It is much more important for something to be INTERESTING than FANCY. 


Kids love colors, textures, terminating vistas with a sense of mystery, spaces that are scaled for being alone (like reading nooks), hide-outs, murals, surprises and just plain cool stuff.

Kids have no use for expensive finishes, excessive symmetry, collections of breakable things, collections of things that don't "do" anything, spaces that are intimidating, artwork that does not have a story or at least some really cool colors, places where you have to sit quietly with your hands on your lap.

Kids are pretty smart cookies.

view of St. Peter's dome through a keyhole at
the Knights of Malta HQ piazza, designed by Piranesi 1765
photo courtesy of tiseb

5.  Park strips* don’t just provide a perceived buffer between street & sidewalk: they also give your kid somewhere to fall on his bike that’s not out in front of a car.  


* "Park strips" are the green space between sidewalks and streets.

These narrow strips of grass, bushes & trees always seemed a great way for people to feel comfortable walking next to a road... but it was more of a psychological thing to me (don't even get me talking about feng shui and chi).

Now I notice cars driving on sidewalks when a right-turn lane is too narrow; I see young kids falling off their bikes into the street. Sidewalks should be safe from vehicular traffic!

even a weedy park strip provides protection.
photo courtesy of mlinksva


6.  Beautiful & delicate is for princesses; the rest of us need beautiful, durable, and easy to clean. 


'Nuff said.

photo courtesy of Freddycat1

7.  With small children in the home, privacy is primarily an acoustic concern.  

Small children need a quiet place to take naps and sleep long before the rest of us retire to bed.  Parents need a quiet place to work, rest or meditate (even just for a few minutes) where they cannot hear the chaos of the little ones.

photo courtesy of bixentro

8.  The definition of a "usable" yard is very different when designing for a family with children.


A "usable" yard usually means that there are areas designated similar to rooms for different functions.  With children, we're talking sandboxes and swings and treehouses and ziplines and a surface for riding a bike on, all within a secure, enclosed yard.

good memories of a sandbox at Granny's when I was a kid
photo courtesy of FourTwentyTwo


9.  Using a stroller gives you a small sense of what it must be like in a wheelchair


People with wheeled pedestrian devices need ramps and assistance with steps, stairs, and heavy doors.
The wheelchair-accessible paths are sometimes very convoluted, forcing you sometimes to go all the way around a block from the main entrance to find a ramp.

Our current accessibility standards are a minimum for what is needed, a more "universal" approach would be a huge improvement.

"Man with a Baby Stroller" courtesy of DoobyBrain

10.  Drive-thrus are not just for lazy people.  


Bear with me here: small children are good for about one errand.  Getting loaded up in the car, getting out for the errand and back in the car takes all their attention and energy.  After that, you're pushing it.  My youngest is now three, and we can do two errands now without a problem.  What that means is that a lot of errands get pushed off to another day, another week, another year.  Some errands can stand to wait, others cannot.

The saving grace is drive-thrus!  Our Walgreens has a pharmacy drive-thru, which has saved us many times when we had a sick kid.  But if you need bandaids, too, you're out of luck.
We did have one great restaurant with a drive-thru (in an old bank building), but it's closed now.  So we're reduced hamburgers now if we need a drive-thru.

And what about grocery stores?  In the small Louisiana town where I lived briefly after college with my folks, there was a lovely little grocery store run by the same family for generations.  When they saw me for the first time, they knew what extended family I belonged to just by the family resemblance & wanted to know if I wanted to put it on the family tab.  (Seriously?)  You could phone in your order and they'd have it ready for pickup.  Here in Salt Lake, we've got a great local chain called Harmon's that has much better customer service than most.  After you do your shopping, if the kids are acting crazy or it's a snowy day, just get in the car and drive to the pick-up area where someone will load your groceries for you.  If only they could take it one step further and take orders over the internet so you didn't have to get out at all.  Or even just put a drive-up window at the deli counter so that you could have one drive-thru option at the end of a day that is NOT hamburgers.

Besides, drive-thrus are-- architecturally speaking-- just AWESOME.

drive thru image courtesy of Matt McGee

ally