When you buy a new car, you suddenly see all the cars on the road that are just like yours. They never existed before you owned one of them. I think the same is true for many homeowners.
“Classic” suburban homes have stock plans. Like clothing off the rack, the typical homes so many of us live in are both comfortable enough and predictable, but they often do not fit, because they were not designed for us.
This misfit becomes more evident this time of year.
It is midwinter. Despite global warming you are often fully trapped within your home’s four walls. If you live in a “stock plan” home (“Cape,” “center hall,” “ranch” or “federal” — among many others) you know that your home’s interior does not have much to do with the great outdoors. Of course there may be a deck, a screen porch, even a “three-season room,” but the plan, the organization of your home is what it is — just like all the others you have seen that are like it. Because a stock plan home’s floor plan is determined without any particular site, you may or may not have a view, or access or even awareness of your property. That ignorance of your site is also true for how your home’s walls accommodate how you use it. Like those pants from the Gap, your needs are covered, but there may be some chafing when you use both those pants and your home.
Why are there so many stock plan homes in Connecticut, specifically in the suburbs? The population of Fairfield County stood at 400,000 people in 1940. After World War 2, the Greatest Generation doubled that population by 1970, and remained within 10 percent of that total for the last 50 years.
That population explosion, more than a generation ago, means that about half of people in Fairfield County live in homes built between 1945 and 1975. As Henry Ford found out, building many things to one design makes those things affordable. Mass production in homes means “developments” and those instant neighborhoods often mean very similar, standard homes. These homes are perfectly useful, and have knowable costs and values. But their designs were from “plan factories” that sold designs to builders that were intended to built on any site, for any occupant. Just like all those Model T Fords.
Just like those Model T’s, building systems (heating, roofing, electrical, plumbing) all have useful lifetimes and need repair or replacement. Those systems typically begin to fail after 30 years. So there are hundreds of thousands of homes in Connecticut, built over 30 years ago, in stock plans intended for families 50 years ago, that simply do not work for those who are living in them, on the sites that they were dropped upon.
What to do? Many think that a coat of paint or a new sofa is the limit of what is possible. Many are terrified over cost. But there are options. If all those old systems in your mid-century house are on life support, replacing them would be in the cards, whether or not you change the layout or exposure of your home. Know that you control what you do beyond maintenance, but you may need a little courage.
Despite their conformity to the “classic” plans of midcentury suburbia, there is nothing sacred about a center hall’s center hall. Or a Cape’s four corners. Or even a ranch’s side-by-side floor plan split between bedrooms and living area. These “rules” were made without you, your land or even this century.
First, realize that walls are visual barriers, and those can be changed. Doors and windows can be added or removed. Sometimes ceilings can be vaulted, skylights put in, lighting can defeat the dark.
Take a shot at suburban subversion. Thinking is not expensive and you cannot even define a cost unless you know what you might want to do. There are designers and builders who can help you in your thinking — but know they all want your money, so more opinions are better than a sales pitch. Find the ones that listen to you.
But first know that these “classic” homes are often just the easy answers for those marketing a product to satisfy a need and make money. Your home is now yours, not theirs. The winter may keep you cooped up, but your home’s design should not.