A Communist Dissident Gets Critical of Western Materialism

“Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.

“I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.
"Construction of the Tower of Babel" by Pieter Bruegel, 1563.
Image courtesy of Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons.

“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance be reduced to the question how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.”

---from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Harvard Commencement Address: “A World Split Apart,” 8 June 1978.

"Mile High Building"
Unbuilt Project by
Frank Lloyd Wright
1956. Via
Wikimedia Commons.

A World with Few Limits

We can build almost anything, literally and figuratively our very own towers of Babel.
And why do we do this?  To advertise our relative wealth, power, immortality, and inadvertently to expose our nouveau riche tastes.  Basically, “keeping up with [and bettering] the Joneses.”
It would be cheaper (and more tasteful) to just get a really good therapist.

What if we built buildings we actually wanted to be in: to work in, to live in, to play in, without worrying about who it would impress.  What would those buildings look like?  Would we sacrifice our neuroses about being good enough or better than someone else so that we could be who we really are?  Would we walk away from the expectation of a three-bedroom home and 30 year mortgage to create a space that makes sense?

Questions about our Disposable Architecture

  1. if your immigrant great-grandparents started with nothing, strove and slaved to pay off a mortgage on their farm, where is that farm today?  
  2. Why don’t families live in the same home for generations?  
  3. Why instead do descendants offload unwanted properties for pennies at estate sales?  
  4. Why does every youthful bride expect a blood diamond and a “starter” home?  
  5. How did we get to a place where buildings were disposable?
  6. Can we voluntarily change these expectations through self-restraint?

These are NOT new Ideas

In The Not So Big House, Sarah Susanka promotes right-sized homes over homes that are too big; she asserts that the same budget can create wonderful places with quality craftsmanship and artistry if the buildings are not oversized.  Though she's not trying for affordability, she attacks the idea that bigger is always better.

In The Total Money Makeover, Dave Ramsey says that the necessity of a thirty-year mortgage is a myth to which we need not ascribe.  He recommends saving up and paying cash for a home or at the very most, a fifteen-year fixed rate mortgage*. “We buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like.”

*Dave recommends a max payment of 25% of your gross income for mortgage...after you've made sure you have no other debt.

In Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus asserts,
"If you go out into the real world, you cannot miss seeing that the poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate but because they cannot retain the returns of their labor. They have no control over capital, and it is the ability to control capital that gives people the power to rise out of poverty.”

You could say the same thing about the middle class in America.  Capital does not work for us, it works against us. And the primary saboteur is called a MORTGAGE.



Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s, where we talked about physically accommodating seniors in choosing to stay in their own or their children’s homes rather than moving to “living facility.”

It’s easy to say that Universal Design is a good architectural goal philosophically…. But what are the PRACTICAL considerations of making spaces accessible to people of all shapes, sizes, and limitations?

Danger, Will Robinson

"What happens to wheelchair people
when they go down steep ramps."
I suppose the sign is supposed to be a warning that
the ramp is too steep to be a wheelchair accessible one.
Image courtesy of operation_janet via Flickr.
As we begin to experience typical aging patterns, (such as reduced flexibility, reduced mobility, declining eyesight or poorer balance) we become more susceptible to the dangers found at home.

The most common dangers include** but are not limited to:
  • Getting in and out of the house
  • Using the kitchen
  • Using the bathroom
  • Using the stairs
**If you want an exhaustive discussion of dangers and remedies, go to this lovely 92 page document.


  Steps and Stairs

"Swirl." Handrails do not have to be ugly.
Image courtesy of Risager via Flickr.
Entry steps should have sturdy handrails (mine surely don't) and entry doors should have a clear opening that is at least 32” wide.  Stairs should not be too steep.
For stairs, standard building code* allows a maximum 7” rise for every 11” minimum tread.  That means to go from a ground level of 0” to a floor level of 35”, you would need five steps, each 11”.  5x11”= 55” (four feet and seven inches).
Don't be too anxious, though, to build steps as steeply as code will allow.  Steps that have a more gradual slope (closer to 30 degrees) are much more comfortable to use.

*The residential code allows a slightly steeper stair (7.75"max rise & 10" min tread), but this is not recommended when you're talking about accessibility.  In our example, you'd save five whole inches.
Please note: check with your municipality to see which building codes govern you.
While a pitch/slope of 77% (7.75/10) is allowed,
30 degrees is considered ideal.
Image courtesy of Jaksmata via Wikimedia Commons

If you have a wheelchair to accommodate…. whew.  Ramps are a necessity for most homes to be wheelchair accessible, but they can be so unsightly!


A very nice ramp at the front of a restaurant & bar.
Looks like ~12" rise & 15' run with a flat landing at the top.
Image courtesy of urbandesigner via Flickr.
For comparison, code requires a maximum of 1:12 slope for a ramp; if there is not room 1:8 is allowed (but not recommended).  For every inch of height gained, a ramp needs a whole foot of horizontal space.  To return to our example of a floor 35” above the ground, you would need 35 linear feet of ramp.  You could install seven sets of stairs in the room it takes for the ramp in our example!

Ramps are often so long that they alter the appearance of a building significantly. Almost no one constructs them unless they absolutely have to.

  Ramp options

One way to help limit the area required for a ramp is to adjust landscaping paths from the vehicle parking area to the entry area.  Slopes of up to 5% are allowed (and cross-slopes of 2%) on paths without any handrail requirement, and are fairly easy to navigate.  If your path is longer than 30 feet, consider including flat rest areas (at least 5 feet long) as part of the path or off to the side.
Note: if your ramp edge is 6" or more above the adjacent ground, you'll need a handrail to keep folk on the path.  SO make sure your ground level changes with your path.

To make the best use of space, most successful ramps are installed in place of hallways or along one wall, and have short runs with rest areas in between.

Check out this fully accessible, barrier-free Ramp House in Portobello, Edinburgh. Very nice!  You can even visit for $206/night.


The bathroom is one of the MOST DANGEROUS ROOMS,
even if it's not on a submarine.
"USS Bowfin - Bathroom" Image courtesy of jdnx via Flickr.
For seniors to remain at home, safely and comfortably, there are several changes to bathrooms that might be considered:

  1. Non-slip floor surfaces with ample space to turn around a wheelchair (60” diameter)
  2. Grab bars which are anchored into the wall (requires reinforced walls) near plumbing fixtures
  3. Hand-held shower extensions and shower seats
  4. Barrier-free thresholds at entries and showers (<2” height change at the floor)
  5. Wide doorways (32” minimum clear width) and lever-handled door hardware
  6. Higher electrical outlets & lower light switches
  7. Generous and higher (17” off the floor) bathtub edges that provide a seat for the user to transfer easily from chair to tub.
  8. Easy access soaking tub for aches/pains and arthritis (hydrotherapy)
Be sure to click on the MOST DANGEROUS link in the caption above.  An eye-opening article.


Imagine reaching up to an eye-level stovetop to remove some boiling water with pasta in it.  Place it on an eye-level countertop and slide it over to the eye-level sink, where a colander is placed 10" below the sink edge on the bottom of the sink.  Be sure not to spill: it's hot!

Some departures from standard design to consider:
"Kitchen sink with inset to allow wheelchair access"
Image courtesy of homesower via Flickr.

  1. table height countertops at certain locations (30" from the floor instead of 36")
  2. eliminating cabinets under some countertops, cooktops, and sinks (so that a wheelchair can be used and legs slide under): always insulate or cover exposed pipes
  3. fully extending drawers and shelves on bottom cabinets so the user doesn't have to get on hands and knees to reach the back of the cabinet
  4. refrigerator drawers, ice drawers, dishwasher drawers, warming drawers
  5. shallow sink (perhaps as a secondary sink), less than 6" deep
  6. side-by-side refrigerator and freezer rather than top & bottom design
  7. task lighting, lower switches, and accessible outlets
  8. stovetop controls at the front; oven controls and readout not higher than 48"

Not a perfect Universe

Not all in the Universal Design universe is hunky dory, though.  My three biggest issues with it:

  #1 “If you have the space...” and the dough  

diswasher drawers $2400
This is the biggie: it is hardly AFFORDABLE design, nor does it have a small footprint.  Increase your square footage by ½, then install specialty appliances that are very well designed but many times the cost of standard appliances.  Manufacturers seem to think that if they marry something simple like a dishwasher to something else simple like a drawer, they now have a luxury item.  Marketing ingenuity.

Now to be fair, if new homes were designed using Universal Design principles, they would be more sustainable because they would be able to

  • last longer without renovation, 
  • for a wider variety of inhabitants, and 
  • would have quite an edge on the market.
AND, while renovation for these types of changes is not cheap, it can be much cheaper than moving into an assisted living facility.

  #2 Making Life Easier for Us All

The other issue I have with Universal Design is that one of its main goals is to make living “easier” for everyone.  I don’t think that’s a great idea in the modern world.  Some days the only exercise I get is bending over for the dishwasher and going up and down the stairs.  Didn’t anyone see Wally?
Not all of us will benefit from greater physical “ease.”

  #3 Not really Universal

"Lavinia Warren" image courtesy of
Mathew Brady via Wikimedia Commons
Regardless of all the rhetoric to make places accessible for "all," every situation is different.   Some people will always be too short to reach upper kitchen cabinets without a ladder.  Those who walk with the assistance of a cane need shallow treaded steps instead of ramps.  Everyone is not the same, even if they're older, mobility challenged, or have other physical limitations.

Additional reading:

Great resource for Universal Design on hikes and trails by the Federal Highway Administration.

Age happy!


Update 2/21/14 (great article):
An Amazing Village Designed Just For People With Dementia


A Long Life

Today I want to talk about the delightful possibility of having lots and lots of birthdays.
As we age, it’s very possible it will be harder for us to perform heavy labor.  Our minds may even slow down, though not as a rule.  Yet as a culture, we have almost written off our elderly as irrelevant.  They are grumpy old men and cute old ladies, marginalized by their failure to drink from the fountain of youth.
Elderly People - sign on Warwick Road, Olton
Image courtesy of ell brown via Flickr
They are us in a few years.  I doubt I will feel as if my life is over just because my hair is gray or my children are grown.  I doubt I will stop having relevant opinions or fail to care whether the world is a better place.


Some people retire because they have made enough money and are done with the rat race.  Others retire because they have reached a certain age and society or their employer deems it’s time for a younger crowd to take over.  Some people never retire, working up until grand old ages, either through choice or necessity. Some people think retirement is an idea for ages past.

Retirement might sound to you like relaxing on the beach, or it might sound like the place where people go when they're no longer needed.  How do you picture your years on the other side of middle age?

What does it mean for they way you live?

"Assisted" Living with Multiple Generations

Even as the elderly begin to need daily assistance, 9 out of 10 would prefer to stay in their home, rather than moving to an assisted-living or nursing facility.
"Grandma, Mumsy, me, and my bellybutton"
Image courtesy of craigemorsels via Flickr

Some options include moving in with a grown child or having a grown child (perhaps with their family) move in with the older generation.
In these cases, privacy, acoustic privacy and designated zones help to keep the family peace. (I know neither my parents nor my parents-in-law would appreciate being exposed to small child commotion all the time.)

There are other options, like retirement communities, where transportation, community dining, and daily/occasional nursing assistance is readily available.  These foster independence while providing assistance.

I do often wish that hosting boardinghouses was still a viable option for widows and empty-nesters.  Many municipal ordinances disallow this option.  Young adults and other singles would benefit from these types of housing options as well.

For those who want to “age in place,” there are many remodeling options that facilitate this.  (There are even remodeling contractors who are certified specialists).  It’s not just a matter of a ramp at your front door!

The AARP found that multi-gen households desiring modifications to their homes do so for several reasons:

  • 70% want to make their homes safer for themselves  
  • 65% want to make the home easier to use for all family members
  • 60% want to increase their ability to live independently, and
  • 55% want to provide flexibility to adapt to the changing needs of family members.

According to the 2011 census, over 3.7M American households consist of three or more generations living together.

Universal Design

Me in the wheelchair holding my
youngest; the middle child sneaks
a peek from the beyond. 8/2009

Universal Design is a design approach that strives to create an beautiful space that everyone, regardless of age, size, or ability, can live in or visit. A home planned with the principles of Universal Design makes it easier for residents to live in, and for guests to visit now and in the future, even as everybody's needs and abilities change.

I often wonder why so many public restrooms don’t have handwashing faucets that children can reach.  Or why required entrance ramps are on the opposite side of a building from the main entrance.  Or why some doors are so impossibly heavy for younger and older people.  There’s just no reason for any of that other than that the designer didn’t think about anyone except some abstract-average user during the design.

When I broke my femur a few years ago, I was pretty surprised how easy it was to get around my 100 year old house in a compact wheelchair, except for two things: getting in & out of the house and using the shower/bath.

Universal design acknowledges that regardless of age, our physical limitations change throughout our lives.  And our homes are not only for us; they're for whomever we invite over.

In new construction, shouldn't we demand spaces that will accommodate us and our loved ones at every stage of life?



Related articles:

at CNN: Renovations for the Elderly on the Rise
at MSN Real Estate: Elegant Remodels allow Aging in Place


The author, Drew Philp's home.
photograph by Mike Williams
Today’s post is adapted from a conversation I had with a brilliant friend (code name “Moriarty”). He sent this great rebuilding article about a young man who bought an abandoned house in Detroit for $500 and then proceeded to fix it up.

Moriarty talked about doing this four or five years ago when everyone was agape at Detroit's deterioration. He wonders now if he missed out on a great opportunity. “I could've had the pick of any one of many beautiful, neglected homes, most of them under $10,000. Now, I'd just be another carpetbagger.”

When we discussed the Detroit option years ago, it was obvious the prices would go up after some unidentified period of time.  But that few people would want to live there then (or even now).
If you purchased property and did not live there, you are still exposed to property taxes and liabilities if left unused.  Even a sure thing is a gamble in some ways.

The fixer-upper I almost bought for a song.
It's at the edge of a neighborhood that's improved a LOT
in the last 11 years: I just didn't want to wait that long.

Why Not?

The pillaged colosseum in Rome.
Image courtesy of KatiePanda via Flickr.
What's different about the kid in the article is that he had the courage to live there.  My first home was almost a lovely Victorian townhouse fixer upper just Northwest of downtown Salt Lake City.  But as a single woman, I was too nervous to live there alone: the sidewalks didn’t look safe.  Someone else has taken it and done what I had hoped and has quite a beautiful property on their hands.  Sometimes I wonder if it would have been okay and I wouldn’t have the crazy mortgage I have now.  But what makes me love my home is the neighborhood.  My kids walk to school, we have parks and neighborhood groceries and great neighbors that have been here for generations.

I loved the part in the article about Paul Weertz. The communities building up now are idyllic in many ways.
The salvage opportunities sounds wonderful and incredibly sad at the same time.  Makes me think of the ruins in Rome that were pillaged for materials in the early middle ages.

The Decline and Revival of Detroit

Moriarty continues, “this story and the decline (and revival) of Detroit raise so many issues and questions:

  1. Detroit is a case study of the decline of manufacturing in the U.S.
  2. Detroit is a case study of the deleterious effects of state-enforced labor unionization.
  3. Detroit is a case study of young, upper-SES whites gentrifying a minority-owned urban area and the complications and tensions that that can cause.
  4. Detroit has a new mayor, and he seems likely to really improve things, at least things in City Hall. The index of residential prices in the city has not only stabilized in the past 12-18 months, it is on the rise.
  5. Detroit now offers young people the opportunity at home ownership and participating in a community of involved citizens. Is there anywhere else in the US where a recent college graduate can own a home (or many homes) and a small piece of land outright?
  6. Detroit is anarchic, but many of the citizens seem intent on filling in the gaps that the city cannot.

“I'm very hopeful for a revival of the city. Of course, much of it will have to be razed, and the few citizens who refuse to live there peacefully will have to leave before families and businesses will re-invest in the city.

“I think there are serious business possibilities for salvaging and recycling, if someone has the heart to tear down a building for its brick, wood, stone, and metal. If it's just going to burn, rot, or be destroyed otherwise, I think salvaging and recycling are the best things that can be done.”

What do you think?  

Is super cheap real estate an opportunity or a building plague for residents that you wouldn't risk?

Consider: most Americans who own a home spend the majority of their prime earning years paying off a mortgage so that they can have a place to retire in peace.  If you could pay off your home/land in one pay period, what then?



It's somewhat ambiguous, but the definition of affordability has to be related to income, right? Income as well as other debt & ob...