Homes of Today-Slums of Tomorrow
Dr. E. G. FALUDI
Town Planning Consultant
As told to Robert Thomas Allen
WHILE flying over one of Toronto’s sprawling suburban settlements of boxlike houses recently I was reminded of a remark once made to me by Eric Arthur, Professor of Architecture at University of Toronto:
“What’s the use of designing communities with up-to-date facilities when the houses we put in them are like strawberry boxes, unrelated to decent living?”
I think of those words every time I look at these new houses that are springing up around our cities like brick toadstools. Some of them are built with no more interest in, or knowledge of, house design and community planning than a row of baseball bleachers.
A living room here—plunk! A kitchen there— plunk! A dinette here—plop! A cement block for a porch, a wrought-iron railing, a fence around the whole affair—and another brick cell is ready for the happy home owner.
Acre by acre we are transforming beautiful ravines, fields, parklands, and wooded estates into dismal rows of unsightly identical brick strawberry boxes that will be with us for a generation at least. These will be the future slums, growing more and
more forlorn as dust from the treeless streets settles on them and the occupants abandon all hope of making attractive anything so basically drab.
I overheard a girl who works in a bank say, “When I get married I want to be either very rich or very poor. The poor at least have some individuality; the rich — well, who wouldn’t want to be rich? It’s being in between that has me worried. I’d have to live in one of those dull little wood or brick bungalows with thousands of other people living in identical little bungalows. To me, that would be the end of everything.”
That girl expressed the feelings of anyone with taste or sensibility. Many of today’s dreary new low-priced bungalow settlements represent the end of everything—the end of individuality, beauty, and privacy.
How are these strawberry box settlements created?
The first step is to obtain a tract of land, make a draft plan showing its division into lots, and proceed immediately to “improve” it by cutting down all
Recently I visited the office of a “successful” promoter who told me of the wonderful things being
accomplished in a housing project his firm was developing. He showed me a photograph of a charming country lane, lined with poplars, winding between two old apple orchards.
“See that?” he beamed. “That’s how this district looked before we came in.” Hardly able to restrain his pride he showed me a companion photograph. “Here’s what we’ve done—in just 10 months!”
It was a picture of two long straight rows of cubelike houses almost to the horizon. There wasn’t a tree in sight. There wasn’t an interesting feature in the whole project of about 200 houses. There wasn’t a turn to make you wonder what was around the corner. You saw the whole thing at a glance, and wished you hadn’t.
At first I thought he was joking. I soon found that he wasn’t. By his standards it was something to be proud of. His sales talk gave me only one desire: to get away from him and his housing project as fast as I could. But before I could get away he told me that the same treatment was planned for three other subdivisions.
Why cut down all the trees? Nothing can compare with them for breaking up the monotony of a row of dwellings, providing a sense of privacy
Thousands of young home owners are being condemned to life in a strawberry box because many housing promoters still believe that a soldierly row of identical bungalows makes a suburb
and giving the environment a natural grace and charm. Why not plan homes around the trees, incorporate them into the development. They are free, prefabricated, prebuilt and guaranteed to last a lifetime.
Now, having denuded the countryside, the strawberry-box builder’s next step is to lay out streets in straight lines. He thinks a subdivision is something to be pinned down on a drafting board, something with no landscape, hills, creeks, or contours. He slashes streets across natural drainage lines with the result that in the spring we frequently find raging torrents cutting across our lawns and sidewalks.
The subdivision is laid out as if it were an Eskimo village, not connected to the rest of the world. The streets, instead of being planned in such a way that they lead to the main arteries of adjacent localities yet discourage through traffic, either run from nowhere to nowhere, discouraging not only traffic but the human eye, or they provide short cuts for delivery trucks.
No provision is made for green parkettes and playlots, no space is left for two or three conveniently located stores, no thought is given to orientating the houses in the best direction.
He carves the countryside into lots the way you slice meat. The lots all run in the same direction, and the houses all face dead ahead, like rows of grim unblinking soldiers. The idea is to get out as
many lots as local bylaws or loan companies permit.
The lots are often much too small. No lot should be narrower than 40 feet. Allowing 22 feet for the width of the house and 10 feet for a garage this leaves four feet on either side of the lot line. This, added to the four feet beside the neighboring house, gives eight feet between buildings which, in onestory houses, is the minimum necessary to let sunlight into the windows.
Instead of this we often find houses with as little as three feet between them and sometimes less. If the occupant looks out of his dining room window, with a perfectly natural desire to see the sky or a tree or some sign of nature, he finds himself looking into his neighbor’s window; or worse, looking at his neighbor who is also looking out of his window wishing he could see a tree or a blade of grass.
Now that the land has been “cleverly” divided into lots nothing remains but for the builder to plunk a house on each lot. And what houses!
I call this new “architectural style” “streamlined modern.” The builder of the “streamlined modern” house is realistic—he knows that his house should be functionally simple. And what could be simpler than a brick or wooden box? With this logic he proceeds to make them look like brick or wooden boxes.
Instead of designing houses around our everyday needs and placing them on sites which utilize natural features he often builds a brick shoe box
with the narrow end to the street and stuffs it with rooms the way we pack a trunk. Yet if the long side sometimes ran parallel to the street it would permit an entirely new range of possibilities for design.
The front is often so narrow that absolutely nothing can be done about it except to put a door and a window in it, finish it off with one of those inverted cement biscuit boxes we use for porches, and try to forget the whole thing.
Large “picture” windows are placed where nothing can be seen but endless rows of houses. Yet a beautiful ravine at the rear of the lot can be seen only by peering out from modern “portholes.”
Sometimes the bungalows are built of brick, the color of a county prison. More often they’re covered with identical grey asbestos shingles or wooden clapboard, painted grey, as if to match the grey skies of our long Canadian winters. Instead of providing relief from the monotony we add to it.
Every day new practical and economical building materials are being invented and put on the market by reliable firms with the endorsement of scientists, architects and structural designers; yet because they require new techniques many promoters ignore them completely. A few of these: aluminum sheet panels, and aluminum-covered clapboard, both of which require more skilled carpentry; prefabricated concrete slabs, which require a small portable crane and crew for installation; Continued on page 25
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plywood, requiring careful carpentry
and a special technique of assembly and
It takes very little variety in materials, if used with skill and knowledge, to banish monotony from a community. In one attractive little subdivision on the outskirts of Toronto only two materials have been used for well over 100 houses—brick and reinforced caststone panel, with a bit of clapboard here and there on the gables. Yet I’ve heard visitors to that district argue that they saw at least 15 designs.
Do You Need A Moat?
In many of the grey settlements the interior of the house follows the same unimaginative, inflexible pattern as the exterior. The living room is placed at the front of the house. Often it is the northern, cold side, in which case the bedrooms and kitchen, which should be cool, are at the warm sunny side.
The rooms are small and inadequately laid out so that much of the space is used only as a passageway from one room to another. The occupants swivel-hip around open drawers, cupboard doors, radios and other furniture. When they entertain, everyone sits around with knees touching. Having dinner in a dinette means getting in and out from the table in a certain order or climbing over one another’s heads.
And to top it all off, with everything and everyone in the house fighting for space, we add a fireplace, with a bulking chimney and mantelpiece, which most office-going owners of today’s moderately priced homes use about as much as they’d use a moat.
Most of us are aware of these shortcomings and would be only too glad to do something about them, yet when we begin looking for a home to buy we end up in the same box, figuratively and literally, as everyone else. And we can’t understand exactly why.
Usually it’s because we have no experience ourselves in discriminating between good and bad planning and construction and we don’t safeguard ourselves by finding a reputable builder. If we want a suit we go to a tailor, if we want legal advice we go to a lawyer, if we want medical attention we go to a doctor. But if we want a house we often go to an ex-grocer who has found that there is more money in slicing up property than in slicing ham; or to an ex-stockbroker who went broke except for enough money to get into speculative building; or an ex-cement worker; or a bricklayer; or anyone who has saved enough money to parlay one or two houses into a business.
Very often these men, without knowledge of home design, construction methods, or community planning, who look at a house simply as a structure with four walls and a roof, are today’s “city builders.” They are the designers of the houses in which we are going to spend our lives and in which our children are going to grow up.
Considering that about 80% of the 60,000 families looking for homes this year will be earning between $2,500 and $5,000 a year it’s important that they get the kind of homes that will satisfy them. Your house—which should cost no more than twice the purchaser’s yearly income—will be the biggest item on your budget for the next 20-25 years. To be stuck with one of the amazingly ugly and functionally foolish houses now being marketed can be frustrating and uneconomical. Some buyers of lowpriced homes today are being sentenced to life in a strawberry box which will never represent the value of money paid for it
Yet, with a proper knowledge of house design and community planning,
we can obtain for the same money that we spend on ugly little strawberry boxes homes that, without occupying any more ground, provide more usable floor space because useless doors and corridors have been eliminated, windows and passageways arranged to permit a proper arrangement of furniture. These houses will be brighter, have a pleasing appearance—they will be gracious, livable homes instead of mere shelters which look as if they were pressed out by a machine.
By proper planning, and reducing the length of costly roadways, larger lots can be provided at no extra cost to the buyer and no reduction of profit to the builder.
What the Little Man Should Do
Our strawberry-box settlements will continue to be built as long as the home-building industry is a sort of financial frontier where anyone can stake a claim. Side by side with the conscientious, dependable builders who are providing well-built, well-planned attractive, low-cost homes, unscrupulous operators are disfiguring our suburbs and countryside at an alarming rate and are finding it profitable.
Yet this practice of building unsightly settlements of poorly constructed houses on relatively expensive
and narrow lots, with inconveniently located parks, shops and schools, or none at all, is something that any municipality can stop by preparing long-range master plans marking suitable land for residential use in the most desirable locations and providing protective zoning regulations.
As things stand now the little man unable to build a home of his own is exposed to a market in which he has no experience and whose operations he cannot understand.
The prospective home buyer can, however, get advice from the public and private housing authorities, loan companies and reputable home-building companies on how to choose a house and how much to pay for it. He should find out from the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, or from the insurance company under which the loan to the builder was financed, whether the contractor has complied with N.H.A. regulations. Although all builders have to conform to local bylaws, these laws, even when they are enforced, are concerned only with basic structural elements. A lot of atrocious planning, sloppy workmanship and generally dismal living can take place within their broad requirements.
The buyer should find out who planned the house—was it an architect,
an ex-stockbroker, or an ex-grocer?
Another worth-while step that any home buyer should take is to call on a home-planning expert who, for a comparatively small fee, will help him get the best value for his money in construction, design, appearance and location.
There are many ways of building attractive and functional homes and laying out new communities which will provide people of limited means with proper living conditions and sound
Mr. H., a builder in Etobicoke Township, west of Toronto, recently started a housing development with a plan consisting of two north-south and three east-west streets leading nowhere. He then divided the street-bound rectangles into 173 lots. At that time Mr. H. considered all principles of neighborhood and community planning academic and impractical.
But the local planning consultant showed Mr. H. that he could obtain the same number of lots, with fewer streets, and fewer services to be built and maintained, on a more attractive plan, with a park in the centre! Mr. H. began to revise his opinion about community planning. He was finally completely won over when he found that he could save $7,000.
Mr. H. chose two basic designs prepared by the prize-winning architects of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Canadian Small House Competition for houses that would provide the maximum space and the most desirable appearance in the $6,500-$7,000 price range.
Then came the laying out of the houses on the plan and once more he came to the local planning consultant for advice. This expert prepared a design in which groups of three or four houses were staggered and orientated in the most desirable directions, instead of in monotonous straight lines.
The materials used for each house were varied, making use of brick, concrete slab and clapboard; different window and door designs were incorporated; and an imaginative choice of colors allowed for the roofing and painting. None of these were costly or elaborate innovations yet they created a sense of variety and gaiety in the whole project.
He Got Profits and Pride
By complying with the building standards of the corporation Mr. H. obtained the best financing conditions from the largest loan companies, making it possible to establish a sales price of $6,800-$7,500 for bungalows and one-and-a-half-story homes, with lots included.
The results were astonishing. All of the 49 houses built since July were sold and occupied by Christmas. Mr. H.’s waiting list of more than 200 prospective purchasers is gratifying indication that the rest of the houses in the development will be sold before they are built.
Houses in the same neighborhood which were built without consideration of good design and layout have been vacant for many months and have only a few prospective purchasers who expect a bargain price.
Mr. H. admits that he made better profits from this new housing project than from any of the other nine developments which he has built, and, on top of that, the whole project gave him a lot more personal satisfaction.
Good house design and site planning can be not only good slum prevention, but good business. And a lot more satisfying than condemning future home owners to life in a strawberry box. ★