From the Betsy Ross House to Your House

Philadelphia, a city of tiny row houses, might be just the place to build a new version of the American dream: green and affordable.

Early one morning a couple of months ago, I sat alone in a radio studio in Manhattan taping a discussion for the BBC about the housing bust. The other participants were economists, one in a studio in New Haven, the other in Washington, D.C. The moderator was somewhere in London. My role was to inject a note of humanity into a conversation focused largely on the global economic impact of bundling so many dodgy mortgages into formerly solid investment vehicles. Later, out on the street, I pondered the weirdness of that discussion. Eventually, I realized that we were talking about housing and the effect of the housing slump on the economy, but we weren’t talking about houses.

This suddenly struck me as precisely the problem. In the current boom-and-bust climate, houses—the actual places where people live—have become financial abstractions, like shares of stock. It’s as if we live simultaneously in two worlds: one in which housing exists to keep an economy driven by consumption from crumbling, and one in which houses exist to keep people warm, safe, dry, and secure.

But if housing is the problem, then houses are the solution. And it was houses—actual structures with floors, walls, and ceilings—that were the subject of a more recent conventional discussion I had in person, over coffee. This time I was in Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million that has lost 26 percent of its population since the 1960s, where there are some 40,000 abandoned properties. That figure, according to architect Brian Phillips, includes about 25,000 vacant lots.

Phillips’s firm, Interface Studio Architects, is located in a building that originally belonged to a plumbing-fixture manufacturer. The surrounding neighborhood, South Kensington, is just north of the Northern Lib­erties, an area that in recent years has emerged as Philly’s version of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Founded three years ago by Phillips—a 36-year-old Penn graduate who has paid his dues at the large firm Wallace, Roberts & Todd—Interface is typical of many young firms around the country: Modernist in style and idealistic in spirit. “We were really in-terested from the get-go in Philadelphia’s changing status,” Phillips explains, “and optimis­tic about its future.” The firm’s specialty is multifamily residential and urban mixed-use projects, which often employ passive solar heating and other green strategies. Some projects are high-end condos, others are subsidized low-income housing. Interface has no finished buildings yet, but two are under construction.

The project that interests me is still in its in-fancy. The 100K House is a collaboration of Inter­face, a 29-year-old fledgling developer named Chad Ludeman, and a local custom-home builder, Level 5. Ludeman, the prime mover in this venture, is also the most untested player. His com­pany, Postgreen, was only nine months old when I met him in November. Decidedly scruffy, with long hair and a beard, he seemed at first glance like someone who’d be more likely to start a food co-op than lead a development venture. After talking with him for a while, though, it became clear that he’d done his homework. Until recently, he was a marketing manager for a tech company, but he wanted to run his own business. “I need to get out of my job,” Ludeman recalls telling his wife. “I need to do this now, or I’ll go crazy.”

Ludeman embarked on a research project, trying to figure out a way to build affordable, green Mod­ern houses in his own neighborhood. He financed the new business by selling the house he and his wife had rehabbed. Ludeman decided he didn’t want to go the fashionable prefab route but preferred to start a “stock-houses program” that would allow buyers to choose from a small inventory of designs, much like KB Homes or Toll Brothers. He thought his best bet was to use structural insulated panels (SIPs), a common cut-to-order wall, floor, or roof component. And he wanted to build these houses on a budget of $100,000. They would be small—1,000 to 1,200 square feet. (The average Amer­ican house hit 2,300 square feet last year.) Ludeman’s blog—yes, he’s blogging his way through the process—lists some arguments for the small dimensions: “Homeowners will be able to say things like, ‘I can fit five of my houses in your McMansion,’ or ‘My house is smaller than your garage.’”

Assuming they make it through Philly’s permit process, the collaborators are planning to put their first two 100K Houses on a lot in Kensington in early 2008. The houses will be Modern in style and built with recycled materials, state-of-the-art insulation and seals, passive solar heating, and Energy Star appliances, all points eligible for LEED-for-homes certification. “More aggressive greening is offered as an add-on,” Phillips notes. The houses will be oriented so that a photovoltaic array could be added in the future. One of them will be roughly 1,035 square feet with two bedrooms, which Ludeman hopes to price at about $215,000. The other will be a slightly larger two-bedroom that will sell for $245,000. “Hopefully, I’ll make a little bit of money so that my wife doesn’t tell me I have to close down my business,” he says.

These houses won’t be the first examples of Mod­ern architecture in the area. Gentrification has brought Modernism to the Northern Liberties and beyond. Apartments in the American Loft tower, a flashy new 11-story condo designed by Winka Dub­beldam, go from $300,000 to $1.5 million. Never­theless, affordable, Modern, and green would be a breakthrough. Phillips says old row houses in the area can be bought for as little as $149,000, but prices for new Modernist houses with green amenities start at $500,000.

In my own cross-country search for low-cost Modern houses, most of the examples I dug up were in rural areas or in Texas cities where urban is a relative term. I never found anything in my range in the densely settled cities of the Northeast. But this $100K scheme seems perfect for Philly: the tiny row house is still the dominant vernacular form there, and the city is swimming in vacant lots.

Phillips says that much of this open space has been repossessed by the city, which only seems to want to “take down dangerous buildings, clean up lots, and put up fences.” As Interface associate architect May Narisaranukul puts it, “Everyone is used to the vacancy.” In one residential project where the firm specified storefronts to encourage vitality—Jane Jacobs 101—it actually had to draw up a set of cartoons depicting normal urban activities (gallery openings! coffee bars!) to explain the advantages of street life to a suspicious community. “People think storefronts encourage crime,” Narisaranukul says with a shrug. “Lack of density breeds a rural mentality,” Phillips says. “They forget they’re in a city.”

At this point I can’t say whether Ludeman’s inexperience as a developer will turn out to be an asset or a liability, but his lack of cynicism is certainly refreshing. And Phillips has what seems to be a realistic perspective of the scheme: “It’s not about profitability but about getting the darn thing done.” I like the fact that they’re going to build the first two houses and “do forensics” on them, and only then will they expand and put up a Web site that would allow future buyers to pick a model from the stock program. I also like that this is about houses, not housing. After all, maybe the way to tackle those 25,000 vacant lots is to fill them the same way they were created, one house at a time.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: January 2008

Recent Programs