The Democrats in D.C. have been and want to, at a much higher level, abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs by placing far-left Washington bureaucrats in charge of local zoning decisions. They are absolutely determined to eliminate single-family zoning, destroy the value of houses and communities already built, just as they have in Minneapolis and other locations that you read about today. Your home will go down in value and crime rates will rapidly rise.
—Donald Trump, 20201
House shall mean and refer to a building situated upon any Lot designated and intended for use and occupancy as a residence by a single family.
—Homeowners Agreement, Brentwood, TN2
The US suburbs are most easily identified by the unflinching legal definitions of two terms: “single” and “family.” Beyond the formal, material, and typological variations found in the suburbs, these two words form the core continuity of the US landscape through its most popular domestic architecture. Suburban formal tropes, vernacular shapes, and regional styles have been hallmarks of designers’ interest in the topic, often without considering the legal definitions which create the formal and spatial characteristics we most often associate with suburbs. In addition, these legal definitions promote the single-family home as an economic instrument, one which prioritizes home equity over social equity, collective access, or individual desires. A direct, immediate way to produce profound architectural change in the suburbs would be to redefine what—legally and architecturally—constitutes a single family.
In addition to municipal zoning policies that prioritize the real economic value and perceived social value of the single-family house over other housing typologies, single-family zoning has recently been weaponized by politicians who use “suburbs” as a code for a socioeconomic or racial identity.3 These invocations of the suburbs only increase a cultural assumption that suburbs are a space of retreat or fortification, commensurate with othering. In architectural terms, suburban fortification occurs on multiple scales from the video security doorbell to the neighborhood security guard booth. Enclave suburbs heavily screen visitors through the use of gates, fences, checkpoints, or surveillance equipment policing bodies of inhabitants and visitors with private security forces.4 This policing is not limited to physical spaces and behaviors, but also to matters of design. Suburbs encourage design conformity through their coding, restrictions, or at times solely through social pressure. Conformity, as it manifests through social, economic, and legal structures, has become so entangled with the design of space and housing in America that it is often difficult to separate architectural acts from issues of racial and economic segregation.
For many, the suburban question today is less about its spatial definition and more related to the suburbs as an identity, and by extension, those who choose to and are able to access it. Single-family zoning excludes people who prefer to or must live in less expensive housing typologies (apartments, duplexes, or condominiums). It is too broad to suggest that single-family homes are always more expensive than multi-family typologies since real property value is dependent on many factors, but an often-overlooked concern is the lack of typological diversity within individual neighborhoods. Zoning, which promotes a plurality of housing options, and therefore prices, could have the effect of offering people of different income levels access to the same shared resources. Intentionally or casually, suburbs camouflage inhabitants within a particular socioeconomic class. Across the US, there is a broad diversity of economic classes and ethnicities who live in suburbs, but within any particular suburb standardization of home size, styles, and age help maintain consistent home prices, excluding meaningful socioeconomic diversity within those communities. Suburban legal structures have also historically reinforced racial divisions. As noted in Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law:
Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States. The policy was so systematic and forceful that its effects endure to the present time. Without our government’s purposeful imposition of racial segregation, the other causes-private prejudice, white flight, real estate steering, bank redlining, income differences, and self-segregation-still would have existed but with far less opportunity for expression.”5
In the US, the single-family home is considered the pinnacle of the consumption economy, and the US has maintained a relatively steady percent of homeownership over the past fifty years despite fluctuations during the housing bubble in the early 2000s.6 Homeownership as a financial instrument to create generational wealth is a phenomena relatively unique to the US, and has been encouraged by political leaders and financial institutions alike since the 1930s through mortgage and tax policies—policies which often discriminated on the basis of race and gender.7 Since the 1926 landmark Supreme Court case Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., courts have upheld single-family zoning laws on the basis that they are able to “promote a local community’s fiscal interest by excluding or limiting alternative forms of housing.”8 The ruling held that a zoning ordinance is a reasonable use of “police power, asserted for the public welfare.”9 Furthermore, this ruling established the enduring link between maintaining or increasing a home’s monetary value and the right of the government to police its density, form, and definition of family unit. In the US context where home equity is often an individual’s greatest financial asset, there is immense pressure to continually increase home value. Thus, home equity, the most common argument used to promote single-family zoning, is valued over all other domestic desires including a neighborhood’s economic or racial diversity. In this way, single-family zoning is a legal instrument primarily used to promote private financial interests over collective issues of social and economic equity.10 As urban planner Bernadette Hanlon has written, “The exurbs are, at their worst, an urban Ponzi scheme.”11
From an economic point of view, it is clear why homeownership prioritizes the single-family home as a method of wealth accumulation. How, then, does that definition affect what constitutes a family? Although suburbs are still associated with midcentury ideals of the nuclear family in the cultural imagination, a recent US census shows that only one in five households comprise married couples with children.12 Due in part to the decades of feminist and LGBTQ+ activism and scholarship, definitions of family today are much more expansive then they were when US’s postwar suburbs were constructed.13 Common conceptions of family might include individuals who are related by biology, cohabitation, adoption, or marriage in a variety of combinations: intergenerational or extended biological households, divorced couples sharing childcare responsibilities, same-sex couples with biological or adopted children, cohabitating partners, etc. In addition to these commonly discussed formations, anthropologist Kath Weston describes the concept of a chosen family, a nonbiological kinship bond chosen for mutual love and support, as a kinship structure equally fundamental to, and not in competition with, biological kinship.14
At the same time, extended definitions of family are not applied equitably. As Dorothy E. Roberts powerfully states: “White childbearing is generally thought to be a beneficial activity: it brings personal joy and allows the nation to flourish. Black reproduction, on the other hand, is treated as a form of degeneracy.”15 Reproduction and caregiving are important to discuss not only in a consideration of the social conception of family, but also in terms of real economic incentives for homeowners and educational opportunities for children who live in single-family suburbs. In the US, public schools are funded in large part by property taxes. This encourages wealthy suburbs to create or maintain high-performing schools (and provides the resources to do it) as a tool to maintain high property values.16 Once again, the financial incentives to create neighborhoods, and by extension schools, with a homogenous socioeconomic and racial constituency, are paramount. According to research by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, “Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, but white and Asian students are typically in middle-class schools.”17 In a family unit which includes children, housing takes on additional pressures as a proxy for a child’s educational access and success, either as a perceived or real outcome.18
As the 2020 coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) exacerbated and made more visible the challenges and holes in our political and social systems, it also hastened new conceptions of family units.19 Existing kinship groups expanded into “quaranteams,” informally known as “the group of people you choose to live with during a coronavirus quarantine.”20 Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, quaranteams were formed by a variety of commonalities including shared childcare needs, shared geographical location, shared health risks, or shared leisure activities. Very likely, familial relation was not the primary qualification when seeking one’s extended “team” of individuals. Negotiating and discussing individual and collective spatial relationships became the norm. Once-awkward conversations over a shared exterior space or bathroom became necessary, and surprisingly commonplace. Much like the impact of previous pandemics, architecture will forever be changed by the social and health impacts of COVID-19. In this time of ongoing societal transformation, designers should seize this moment to architecturally and legally redefine the dwelling unit and increase spatial sharing in the US suburb.
Given these conditions, it is clear that terminology like “a single family” no longer reflects many Americans’ lived experience of the domestic landscape. Efforts by architects to redefine the assumptions around family and housing in the US have been consistently hindered by legal definitions of family, local zoning codes, financial pressures of increasing home equity, and a system which tethers property taxes to public school funding.21 While each municipality may define family in different terms, a common understanding of the term for zoning purposes is as follows:
Family: An individual or any number of individuals related by blood or marriage; a group of not more than five individuals not so related; a group of not more than ten members of a religious order who live together in a single dwelling unit; or a group of not more than ten adults, the majority of whom are 60 years of age or older, who live together in a single dwelling unit, are all capable of self-preservation without assistance in the event of an emergency, and do not need to live in a supervised environment.22
There have been recent attempts to change single-family zoning in some cities, but there is still great resistance to redefining zoning ordinances to increase density in single-family neighborhoods. For example, California lawmakers nearly passed a bill in 2020 which would legalize duplex housing in all neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family houses as a way to tackle the lack of affordable housing and climate change.23 Although this law ultimately did not pass as lawmakers cited pushback from some residents of single-family neighborhoods, it is clear that such changes to zoning ordinances would allow density to increase in some of the most economically segregated neighborhoods. Separating the concept of US suburban housing from the core organizational idea of the “single family” is the first step in creating more equitable housing options in America, options which not only represent the varied cultural practices and diversity of family units, but also offer possible futures for how kinship structures might remake architectural typologies.
Beyond the legal definitions, what are the architectural frameworks for redefining a single family? Architecture is imbued with the agency to construct relationships among people, materials, and spaces. Architecture is both reflective and projective, a balance between reflecting the desires of inhabitants and designers and projecting broader ideologies. Architecture’s agency can take many forms; it might manifest in the organization of a building, program or space adjacencies, infrastructural or material constructions, manipulations of scale, or constructed views. The single-family home is a well-known typology, a set of spatial conventions, formal structures, and repeatable attributes. In real estate terms, it is often referred to by style or size—Cape Cod, Arts and Crafts, ranch, A-Frame, shotgun, neocolonial, bungalow, 4-bedroom, 2-bedroom, split-level—but these designations generally begin with the assumption that a house is a detached structure designed to be shared among a family unit of 2-6 people with a single kitchen, distinct individual rooms for sleeping and bathing, private entrances, on-property enclosed parking, closely mown lawns, and private exterior spaces. These typological assumptions of the contemporary single-family home are promoted by real-estate marketing, popular culture, and societal assumptions regarding family structure. However, it is useful to remember that many of these conventions are relatively recent in their development, and often specific to postwar development in the United States. Just as the existing practices quickly became commonplace, designers can employ similar techniques to challenge the future of US housing typologies. We now have the opportunity to imagine new conventions, introduce new structures, and insert new assumptions that reflect evolving domestic relationships, both spatial and societal.
The following projects present alternatives for both notions of “single” and “family,” offering radical reconceptualizations and new architectural typologies for US housing. 138 Model Homes, a project by Brittany Utting and Daniel Jacobs of HOME-OFFICE, presents an alternative catalog for the suburbs inspired by the history of the “model home” as a fascination of both architects and developers. It organizes inhabitants’ relationships to each other solely through social and spatial characteristics including work, leisure, levels of intimacy, and cooking habits. These new socio-spatial organizations are based on non-biological kinship structures or groupings of subjects whose sole relationship is spatial. In this project, familial relationships are not a primary driver or base condition for spatial relationships. 138 Model Homes is a “combinatorial game” adding and subtracting generic square rooms void of programmatic designations beyond interchangeable furniture pieces. The proposal flattens programmatic importance of individual rooms; all rooms are equal in size and shape (even the bathrooms), eschewing consumer designations like “master bath” or “guest bedroom” which promote hierarchy of occupants and spaces.
Another typology for domestic sharing, A Long House by Outpost Office, a design practice codirected by myself and Erik Herrmann, physically bends and folds back on itself, creating awkward niches, communal landscapes and strange domestic overlaps designed to absorb social nuances. Each dwelling unit consists of alternating open spaces and closed infrastructural elements which can be combined to create units of different size or units which can grow or contract with its inhabitants. The exterior form of the building does not exclusively register the interior configurations or the boundary of individual units. Instead, units can be shared horizontally and vertically in a multitude of sectional configurations. An upper level offers large open spaces which can be used for shared resources such as home offices, spaces for childcare, or as connections between unconnected ground-floor units. Additionally, the shared roof line ties units to each other at moments where there is no physical connection on the ground floor. The variety of unit sizes accommodates inhabitant groups which could span from a single person to large groups with various social or familial connections. The design suggests how architecture can provide spatial affordances and constructive ambiguity, in addition to concrete form.
Concord House by Studio Sean Canty conceals density with a design which includes a single-family residence and two additional living units within a single building envelope. The building’s massing does not specifically articulate a distinction between units and disguises its density within a singular form. The formal continuity and subtle bend of the Concord House beautifully masks the additional dwelling units and creates the appearance of a single-family home, camouflaging a multi-unit typology within a single shell.
With a more direct approach to formal camouflage, Safety Not Guaranteed by Outpost Office highlights the ongoing fortification of the US suburb and simultaneously suggests that those same formal tropes found in typical suburbs—aggregated gable roofs, pink and brown brick patterns, inward facing organizational strategies—are used to increase density rather than define separate family units. In this project, the suburban house takes on sectional transformations akin to military fortifications in an attempt to blur the boundaries between individual family units. The result is a continuous, incessant form which never acknowledges the beginning or ending of a single home. Despite the structural challenges faced by proponents of increasing density in US’s suburbs, these projects highlight only a few of the many architects who are already preparing for housing beyond a single family.
Legal definitions of a single family and the financial pressures of home equity have limited our understanding of kinship structures and domestic spatial organizations. But architecture provides affordances and opportunities; design can reflect the delicate messiness and wonderful fluidity of our social interdependence. As we disentangle the competing legal and architectural definitions of family, designers will be better equipped to reflect a nuanced, expanding constituency. Architecture can offer typologies of housing which do not assume any typical number of inhabitants or kinship structure. It can challenge assumed relationships between inhabitants of adjacent dwelling units and suggest physical strategies for economic diversity. Architecture might even provide experiential benefits which rival economic incentives. In addition to architects, there are activists, lawyers, planners, and politicians who are already working on the topic of housing equity, but architects are uniquely positioned to support and contribute to those efforts by providing spatial research, radical propositions, and visual representations of new domestic relationships. Architects help people imagine new possibilities and define spatial questions. In architecture, this is activism.