Road Warrior

Karrie Jacobs’ new book taps into two thoroughly American desires: the search for truth on the open road (think Steinbeck or Kerouac) and the quest for the perfect house. The book is entitled, appropriately enough, The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home. Jacobs set out on the road for three months, asking architects and builders a simple but vexing question: Can you design and build me a modest, beautiful, well-conceived modernist home on a tight budget? The answer proves somewhat elusive; ultimately The Perfect $100,000 House, an engaging blend of intimacy and analysis, becomes a kind of treatise on the state of American homebuilding. Recently I spoke to Jacobs, a Metropolis columnist and longtime contributor, about the book, prefab housing, and lessons learned on the road.

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How did the idea for the book develop?
There was a moment very early in the life of Dwell [Jacobs served as founding editor] when I was putting together an online bulletin board, trying to figure out how to get architects and developers involved. I asked a series of questions: Why does an average subdivision house cost $150,000 and a modernist house by an architect half a million? What forces create that price differential? Is it possible to do a less expensive version of the modernist house and apply some of the tricks that subdivision builders use to get low prices?

Were you able to answer those questions?
Not really, but I tucked them away in my head. Then toward the end of my time at Dwell I started researching a story about the design of subdivisions. I went down to KB Home—Kaufman and Broad, one of the largest home builders in the country—and did a bunch of interviews on how they operate. I wanted to do an in-depth piece about subdivisions, but there was diminishing tolerance at Dwell for serious pieces, and that’s part of the reason why I left. The piece never got written, but the work I’d done on it was still fresh in my mind.

What inspired the book’s road trip format?
When I left San Francisco, I drove back to New York and realized that I really like long road trips. I find them very satisfying, very soothing, so I thought: well, how can I get somebody to pay me to do a road trip? And so out of those questions and that desire to drive around the country came the idea of packaging all the ideas about housing in America that I had learned.

How did you plan your itinerary?
The neat thing about a road trip book is that the narrative forms by itself. I picked the architects and builders who I thought had the strongest interest in building inexpensive modern homes, and then made dots on the map. There are about ten people who I thought were crucial. And then I kept asking people if there was anybody I should look up while I was in that corner of the country.

You’re an informed observer of architecture and design. What surprised you on your road trip?
I don’t think I had a clear idea of how much work it is to physically make a building. And not even a particularly sophisticated building, but a dumb shed. The amount of precision and labor required was a kind of revelation.

Did it give you a new appreciation for architects?
It was less an appreciation for what architects do than for what builders do. Because I was talking to design/build types who do both. Traditional architects don’t build things. But there are other kinds of engineers or builders or fabricators who actually figure out the nitty-gritty. From them I gained a renewed appreciation for how hard it is to make things.

In the book you talk about pre-fab housing. What is its future?
If someone came along and wanted to spend a lot of money building a factory so that you could mass-produce houses, there would be the demand. There’s no shortage of demand for well-designed, less expensive houses, but what’s happened is that a number of entrepreneurial architects have set up shops where they’re able to build relatively small quantities of houses. It’s very low-tech, very mom-and-pop, and there’s not a lot of technical innovation going on. In order for prefab to become real, a corporation will have to spend a lot of money on thinking it through and creating a manufacturing process. Most of the people selling prefab houses are replicating the thing that the American homebuilding industry already does efficiently: putting up walls. They’re not tackling systems, plumbing, heating; they’re not tackling permitting and some of the land preparation, and those are the things that drive up prices. What the prefab movement does well is sell the services of an architect at a discount. And as I say in the book, that’s not an insignificant thing. It’s just not this incredible high-tech delivery system that sometimes people think it is when they look at the renderings online.

Given what you know about the American homebuilding industry, how realistic do you think your quest for the $100,000 dollar home was?
I’m not going to change the way the homebuilding industry operates, but if I found a level piece of land that wasn’t on an island, I could come close, using one of the architects I wrote about in the book. The problems right now are the cost of oil, which will invariably drive up the price of making and shipping materials, and the current fixation with immigration laws. I would guess that a high percentage of the people who physically build houses in this country are immigrants, and many of them are probably undocumented. And despite the fact that housing costs are finally softening around the country, if you went after home builders using undocumented labor you would raise prices. Those are just two things that could undermine my mission.

How did the road trip inform your professional view of architecture?
It’s reinforced my view that people who write about architecture don’t spend much time writing about how the world really looks. They write about isolated examples. They write about the exceptions rather than the rule. And the people who write about the rule tend to be sort of bitter about it. So I thought it would be worthwhile to spend time writing about how normal things look, whatever normal is. The trip and book just reinforced my interest in the peculiarity of normalcy.

The American vernacular.
The vernacular as it is now. Because the vernacular we usually talk about is a nostalgic one, but there’s a present-day vernacular, which is a whole other can of worms.

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