On the 100th Birthday of Our House: The Past and Future of Housing in the U.S.

This year marks our home’s 100th birthday. Throughout the year I plan on writing a few posts on what it’s like to live in an intact and, mostly, unaltered 980 square foot 1920s era bungalow. Let’s start with the differences between a house in 1920 and now.

In 1920 the average house size in the U.S. was just over 1,000 square feet. Square footage peaked a few years ago at around 2,600 square feet and has declined slightly since. The often forgotten part of these statistics is the fact that the number of people in the average house has declined from around four people in the 1920s to 2.5 today. My late mom told the story of sleeping in the breakfast nook when she was a child in the 20s and, at various times, the family took care of older relatives.

In most other parts of the world people do with a lot less space. In Russia today folks have about the same square feet per person as an American in 1920. By contrast folks in the U.S. today have over four times more space per person. In countries like Russia and Hong Kong, or the U.S. a hundred years ago, you’re likely living in close quarters with extended family. This has implications for child and elder care and tends to make these cultures far less individualistic.

While square footage per person has gone up in the U.S., new houses have become a lot more energy efficient between 1920 and now. We know this from experience. Our old L.A. bungalow is drafty in the winter and sweltering in the summer. New houses use half as much energy per person and are more likely to burn cleaner sources of energy. But, as Bonnie Maas Morrison points out in a paper, “Ninety Years of U.S. Household Energy History,” household energy savings have been more than offset by increases in consumption elsewhere in our lives.

Think of the conveniences required for today’s dual-earner, single-parent/multi-job holding households. Think of the eating-out phenomenon, think of the pre-packaged, pre-prepared meals (from freezer, to micro-wave, to table, to garbage can, all in one container). Think of the transportation to and from places of work, shopping and leisure demanded by these households. Think of the energy demanded in these places of work, leisure, and retail. Think of the energy demanded to process the waste products of this “convenience.”

Even though this paper was written in the 1990s, Morrison goes on to make a point that has become even more true in an always connected internet and smart phone age.

Time itself has become a commodity and convenience has become the oil that lubricates the wheel of time, allowing more activities, to take place either at one time in the same place (i.e. using the cellular car phones while driving), or in a particular time period but in a different place (i.e. doing grocery shopping, while dishes or clothes are machine washed).

In the book, The Overworked American, 1991, Juliet Schor suggests that “U.S. employees currently work 320 more hours–the equivalent of over 2 months–than their counter-parts in West Germany or France.” This American lifestyle demands convenience, and that demand is exercised both inside and outside the household.

So the differences between our 1920s bungalow and the average U.S. house today are much more than just an increase in square footage and more consumer electronics. These differences lead to a difficult discussion about what a more energy efficient future might look like. Our future might be less about energy efficient tiny houses and more about sharing an apartment with relatives. Or getting your not-in-my-backyard neighbors to agree to a bus-only lane on an already congested boulevard. Or democratizing the workplace to ask for fewer hours for more pay to allow more time for cooking and child care. Or revisiting the bungalow court, granny flat or, gasp, looking to multi-generational communal living. These are tough ideas to contemplate from the luxury of our quiet and comfortable but also overpriced and drafty L.A. bungalow.

A Spider Web Garden Seat

Looking for a last minute Christmas project for your compound mates? How about a spider’s web themed garden seat. Yes, there’s measurements:

I spotted this 1920s gem on Archive.org in a promotional pamphlet, Beautifying the home grounds by the Southern Pine Association. This is the same source I used to come up with a new design for our entrance arbor and will blog about that when I put the finishing touches on it.

Starbucks Moderne

Capitalism, despite the hollow claims of “efficiency” of its zealous devotees, has a tendency to create a crap ton of useless and/or ugly objects. Unless you’re cursed with some sort of art background you’ll likely spend your days in blissful ignorance of the details of these objects. But if you’re burdened with a few aesthetic bones in your body, you just can’t stop looking at them. Take, for instance, this forgettable paper coffee cup that Kelly noticed.

Our ancestors would have poured their beverages in a reusable ceramic, metal or wood mug. Some of them might have downed their mead in a blinged out drinking horn. Before that they would have just cupped their hands at the stream. For a moment, let’s let go of the obvious problem of the “externalities” caused by sending this single use object to a landfill and take a close look at the aesthetics of this paper coffee cup.

The style and color pallet is what I call “Starbucks Moderne.” Consider it the committee-driven, focus group vetted, corporate response to the Portlandia “Bad Art Good Walls” routine. You’ll find Starbucks Moderne in the thousands of soulless hotels, “upscale” hospital waiting rooms and bank lobbies that scar our degraded architectural landscape. You’re not supposed to pay attention to Starbucks Moderne but, instead, feel like a mini-Jeff Bezos, subliminally enveloped in a muted pseudo-luxury color palette.

But what’s up with that face? Was the artist not paid enough to bother drawing a face? Is this a stab at corporate cubism? Or is this a mask? Is this a self-portrait of the artist who portrayed themselves wearing a mask as a kind of plea for help or a way of saying, “don’t blame me for this ugly thing?” Kelly actually started drawing a copy of this masked figure in order to understand it but couldn’t figure out what it was about.

The 1990s era curly chair in the background means that this hapless artist is probably of my, largely forgotten and ignored, Generation X. We’re the last generation that can remember a time of lounging in curlycued, overstuffed post-modern furniture, a time before the gig-slave economy. Now we’re hunched over in misery contemplating eking by on Fiverr and Mechanical Turk while the fat-cat masked billionaires enjoy slices of pie and a cup of coffee on the way to their Eyes Wide Shut parties.

Further evidence of the age of the artist or, more likely, that the coffee cup company hasn’t updated its art in 30 years is that there’s a be-crowned figure reading a physical newspaper instead of gigging on Fiverr for pennies an hour on a phone or laptop.

Keep turning the cup and you’ll find more bargain-basement cubism, masked, hegemonic figures and another slice of pie.

Methinks things would change if we prioritized the arts in our schools and people woke up to the sheer horror and ugliness that surround us. That day may yet come. Perhaps the revolution will be led by our blessed ceramics teachers . . .

Learn to Embroider at Trade School Los Angeles

Due to my ostentatious Facebook embargo, now in year two, I rely on comrade Lee of nearby Mixville Heights to pass along important notices via an awkward but mostly reliable chain of semaphore stations and carrier pigeon relay. Brother Lee spotted my post on embroidery and informed me that the barter-based Trade School Los Angeles is offering a free embroidery class on November 17th. In addition to embroidery, they have a zero waste sewing and mending class on the 16th and a class on fermentation on the 23rd. For more information on these classes head to their Eventbrite listing.

Here’s how it works according to their website:

Step 1) Classes at Trade School LA are taught in exchange for barter items provided by students. For example, if you teach a class about building a website, you might ask students to bring 1 of the following barter items: a pack guitar strings; a paperback novel; a bag of local fruit; help with finding an apartment. Every class’s barter will be different, as each instructor sets their own class’s exchange.

Step 2) Students sign up for classes on our website, and, by signing up, they agree to bring 1 of the barter items requested by the instructor.

Step 3)  On the day of class, the teachers & students meet in a space that is made available by Trade School LA. Students give their barter item to the teacher, and the class begins!

Perhaps brother/comrade Lee and I will offer a semaphore class on the hilltop above the Red Lion in the near future in case any of you would like to explore Facebook alternatives.

Embroidering the World

Washstand runner designed by Ernest Gimson and embroidered by Margaret Gimson, 1890.

I suspect that I’m not alone in feeling like I spend way too much time looking at screens to distract from the dystopia that surround us. Neuroscientist Marc Lewis says, breaking an addiction requires a “unique act of reinvention” such as “learning a new art or skill, or religious conversion.” (Richard Seymour, The Twittering Machine, p. 212).

During the daytime I have settled on a successful strategy to hold the Silicon Valley attention thieves at bay. I retreat to my wood shop and either work on house infrastructure, furniture projects or stuff for other people. The phone stays in the house. But I can’t do woodworking at night. I’m just a little too tired and that’s a safety concern. But I think I may have stumbled on a way to stay away from screens at night: embroidery.

Kelly and I took a class with Natalie Richards this past week. She has the qualities of a great teacher. She’s organized, calm, reassuring and inspiring. Her friends apparently call her the “Bob Ross of embroidery” for her soothing patter. If you’d like to learn a few simple stitches, check out Natalie’s YouTube channel. On her channel she shows you the basic stiches, how to make a hoop protector and how to transfer designs. I used her YouTube videos to review some of what we learned in the class. And thanks to her class my past few evenings have been filled by embroidering one of Natalie’s pillow kits.

Both Kelly and I have done some embroidery before but now we have the time to go a little deeper. Beyond being a useful skill, embroidery has something to teach us about life. What if we took back the time that we spend on our devices to make the world a more beautiful place, to “embroiderer” our cities and suburbs? Let’s extend that metaphor beyond a physical sort of embroidery and imagine embroidering this world with a little more love and kindness.