10 Questions for . . . Marianne Cusato

Consumer Reports News: September 24, 2008 12:09 AM

In this installment of 10 Questions for . . . , Senior Editor Daniel DiClerico speaks with Marianne Cusato, author, architect, and number four on Builder magazine's "Power on 50" list of the housing industry's most influential people. Cusato talks about the rise of the McMansion, what makes a great neighborhood, and why the green movement still has room to grow, and gives her opinion on "no-maintenance materials.

When did the McMansion era begin?
It all started in the 1980s. McMansions were a natural reaction to other bad architecture: cookie-cutter homes. Someone came in and said, "These houses are ugly. What can we do?" And the answer was, "Let's add this, let's add that, let's make them bigger." Little by little the houses kept growing and growing. There was an "I see your gable and raise you two" attitude. At the same time money and gas were really, really cheap. So it was easy to expand outward.

It's not just the architecture then. It's also the location?
The issue is that the farther out homes get from stores and other amenities, the more we depend on the home to meet all of our daily needs. We used to be able to meet our needs with a 5-minute walk, then a 5-minute drive, now it's a 45-minute drive. That means if you want to watch a movie, you need a media room. A developer in Texas told me recently that he can't sell a home without a room called the "hair salon."

But aren't developers just giving people what they want?
Everybody is responsible. Everybody is held hostage by what they think everybody else wants. I'll have this conversation with a builder, and he'll say, "I agree with you, but I can't sell it." This is why the McMansion movement got so big. It happened a little bit at a time, and nobody stepped in and stopped it. It's taken a major intervention—that being the cost of oil and the mortgage crisis—to shake everything up to a point where we come in and say, "Actually there's another way to build and it's more efficient."

What role can home buyers play?
The key piece of the puzzle is telling home buyers that they can have something other than the default setting. An educated homeowner walking into the builder and saying "I will buy something other than what you are offering" is the key to releasing this endless cycle.

You use the term streetscape in your book The Value of Design. What do you mean by streetscape?
It's the feeling of an outdoor room. When you walk out your front door, you should feel like you're in a place, not just a space. The front door in many American homes is just a giant garage door. A street of garage doors is usually quite wide and is not designed for pedestrians to share. I fully acknowledge that the vehicle is an essential part of our society, but it's not more essential than the people who drive it. What we've done is turned the design of our streets and our homes into 100 percent vehicle-dominated areas.

Is this where the term "snout house" comes in?
Yes, a snout house is a house that looks like a pig. It has a big nose out there—the garage—and nothing else. Who lives in this house: a person or a car? A front-loaded garage is perfectly fine, but make it a secondary element that's attached to one side of the house. Push the garage back a little and you'll even have room for parking. You can avoid a snout house by making the portion of the house that people live in more important than the portion of the house where the car lives.

If people only remember one of your eight components of a valuable home, what should it be?
Common sense. For example, using materials according to their physical properties. Brick and stone are both load-bearing materials, which means historically they supported their own weight. So you wouldn't have vertical strips of either of those materials going up high into a gable surrounded on both sides by siding. Avoid materials that make the house look like a patchwork quilt and design elements that look like they could take flight off the building—enormous gables, three-story entrances, etc. All of this adds unnecessary cost to the home and actually detracts from the value. Real value comes from elements that make sense, like windows on the side of the house that allow cross ventilation, making the home more comfortable and efficient to heat and cool. (Download Cusato's eight_components of a valuable home.pdf)

Has the green movement become overhyped in this country?
It's great that it's developed how it has. But from a technical perspective, there comes a point where green will be meaningless because everything will be green. What's missing is the discussion beyond the specifications of the home. It's starting with the LEED for Neighborhood Development program. But LEED doesn't go far enough. The idea that you can have a technically green home that you're still required to drive 45 minutes to and from to get to work and get your kids to school, there's nothing green about that. Green has to be ingrained in the urbanism, we have to be able to walk to places, or drive the car 2 miles instead of 20 miles.

The other point here is that the absolutely greenest building that anyone could ever build is the building someone loves enough to maintain over time. So often when you open up architecture magazines you see buildings that might be technically green but look like they've landed from outer space. They're so cutting edge that they're out of style so quickly.

Why do you favor low-maintenance over no-maintenance materials?
Let's look at vinyl. It's a no-maintenance material, which means it will last the length of its warranty and when it fails, it must be replaced. There's nothing you can do to actively extend its life. If a piece of vinyl on your house gets damaged, to make it match, you have to replace the whole side of the house. And so there's this great promise of no maintenance, but it's not actually efficient over time. A low-maintenance product requires fairly little attention, but you can participate in its upkeep and therefore have it last longer than the warranty, and often even for the life of the house. So for siding, fiber-cement clapboards that you can repair and repaint are more efficient than vinyl.

How do you answer the argument that smart home design costs too much?
That's not true at all. If you're designing a McMansion, you might have 30 elements on the house. That's expensive. You can have a 2,000-square-foot house that feels larger than a 3,000-square-foot house if it's designed efficiently and it makes sense. When you have something that's not planned well, it requires a lot more space. You can have a house with a 10x20-foot private garden that feels like it's on its own planet. Whereas privatizing the backyard of a McMansion that's built on an enormous open lot is very expensive.

Essential information: Read our energy-saving special in the October 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, including a comparison of the most and least efficient home products.

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