This article was originally published on Common Edge.
In case you missed it, our world continues, after two years, to suffer cultural spasms in response to unseen, unrelenting, and deadly infective agents that continue to wash over entire populations, spreading fear, illness, and death.
The U.S. is also suffering a quieter—but equally invasive—architectural plague, metastasizing into every part of the country. This architectural contagion has largely escaped criticism, but not since the raised ranch has an architectural “type” so fully transformed communities. In the 1950s, thousands upon thousands of dumbed-down Prairie Home allusions swept across fallow suburban farm fields like a wildfire. More than style, the half-buried lower level and split floors (one half-stair run apart) were a new way to explore how buildings could house people, especially in rapidly suburbanizing America.
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Today’s plague is different. The “Stick Frame Over Podium” building—a model of cheap, expedient construction—is creating freight trains of mute boxes cropping up throughout America’s urban landscape. These dreary buildings have made so much money for their developers that the typology is changing apartment living for enormous numbers of people. A code evolution has caused a revolution in how buildings can dominate the aesthetics of our communities.
And yet no one is talking about it—at least, not in traditional design media. Are architecture publications too good to soil their glossy pages by dealing with the reasons why a single building type is transforming so much of our country’s landscape? Three years ago, I wrote a piece for Common Edge on “Stick Frame Over Podium” or “5 over 2” construction. What was a trend then has become a flood. It’s usually mixed-use retail on the ground floor and apartments above, all based on the system of construction now made substantially easier: “The 2012 International Building Code (IBC) described a new building type that made mid-rise structures substantially cheaper and quicker to construct, while still maintaining the same structural and life safety standards.”
These types of buildings use a hybrid method, with a cast concrete or fireproofed steel base of one or two stories that then has the cheapest, quickest-to-erect building system available built over it: a light and stick frame, usually limited to five additional stories. Engineered wood is a common material and, when combined with fire-suppression sprinklering and wall/floor separations, huge savings in construction and time are realized. As a result, six or seven stories can explode out of the ground in months.
New Haven, Connecticut, is a city of 130,000 residents, living in 55,000 homes. In the past decade, 5-over-2 construction comprised more than 15% of the entire housing stock, filling empty blocks or removing smaller buildings. The ungainly boxes often have a number of tricked-out exterior elaborations, with applied aesthetics to make the buildings feel comfortable in a small New England city—but in the end they are as dead and deadly simple as any modernist block.
While Eisenhower’s Federal Highway System ripped through cities, only the Industrial Revolution affected the architecture of the American city as pervasively as these boxes have in such a brief time. Lowered building costs, coupled with historically low interest rates, have completely altered parts of many towns and cities. Why has America fallen for these spirit-sucking mediocrities?
We like new. New cars have a value that is instantly reduced once purchased; new homes carry a premium as well. And a zillion “DIY” home shows extol the undeniable allure (and value) of “flipping” that simulates that “new” house smell.
We like cheap. If construction costs are lowered, while rental or sales prices remain unchanged (or even rise), ”5 over 2” boxes will continue to proliferate.
We do not care about what our buildings look like. We live inside on HOUZZ and on any number of “home” publications. Our obsession with interiors, combined with the rise of internet retail, creates a marketing approach for homes that is perfectly served by 5-over-2 buildings. The interiors of these boxes often offer higher ceilings and larger windows, open spaces and white walls, perfect blank canvases to paint our safe interior expressions, while the outside of these homes remain a bland and blank, offering no joy, beyond the (increasingly irrelevant) location.
We do not care about making communities as much as we care about making a profit. The “parade of boxes” formed by 5-over-2 buildings has never been used to create urban space; it merely occupies those spaces to the limits allowed by zoning. Roofscapes, interior gyms, even pools create internal, safe “shared space,” in lieu of facilitating a community outside the boxes’ walls.
Architects attempt to window-dress these building’s artless massing just enough to help make the sale. Arbitrary material contrast, extended eaves, and decks,are limp attempts at aesthetic expression.
The unrelenting box cannot be overcome if profit is, literally, the bottom line. The triumph of profit dehumanizes what we do at every level.
I am not sure that the moral high ground means much when it comes to the American consumer. Ford F-Series trucks have been pre-eminent in their sales for over a decade—far more than electric cars or similarly priced “luxury” vehicles. Most people do not need a truck, but many of us buy them. Most people like spending less money on gas, but these trucks are models of inefficiency and high cost. But we love our new, huge, powerful trucks. Why?
The empty truck bed offers a sense of control to the driver that I think is directly analogous to the open interiors found inside the 5 over 2. If creating a community, featuring craft, detail and visual delight, mattered to the average housing consumer, it would translate into smaller apartments that foster communities and offer aesthetic delight and urban space at the same cost. Instead, consumers want open, blank, affordable interiors in good locations—which today translates into “Stick Frame Over Podium” structures.
The cure? I think we will soon see the inoculation of the recession vaccine. In the coming months, the low interest rates that power development will be jacked up to temper the inflation that post-pandemic expectation has nurtured. When the cost of money rises, the savings of stick-frame-over-podium vanishes. And developers will stop building them.
But, like the chicken pox, there will be a shingles replay for our thoughtless intoxication with expedience and profit. Cheap boxes do not weather well. Skins intended to keep weather out only do so until their seams fail—and they eventually do. Flat roofs inevitably welcome water inside, and flat faces made of veneers decay in the freeze and thaw, expansion and contraction, of wind and water.
Just like all those trucks that will find a home in the crusher of waste, this huge wave of 5-over-2 buildings will fail in just a generation or two. The difference is that while cars can be recycled, we may discover that the rotting sticks of these cheap buildings might be easier to remove than reuse or repair. Will we learn from their failure?