‘McMansions’ Cul-De-Sac Syndrome

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In the early 1980’s, I found myself on an airplane flying from Frankford to Detroit. Seated next to me was an auto engineer, someone who designed and specified cars down to the “screws in the wheels rim ” level.

Everything,” he said.

I was fresh from Chicago, were I had seen on the evening news a real hybrid of a vehicle being tested in the city. Sort of a cross between an enclosed laid back (supine) cycle, which you pedaled for motion and recharge and switched on a support battery when you needed a boost in traffic, or wanted to coast. I ask him when these battery driven cars would be available.

He said: “ ‘O they could be produced now, we have the technology, but nobody would buy them.”

What do you mean, ‘nobody’ would buy them. We have just experienced one of the biggest gas crisis in history (late 70’s); everybody would rush to get an alternative energy car.”

“No, they just would not sell, people will not pay $60,000 to get a tiny battery powered vehicle.”

‘$60,000,’ no way, the one I saw on the news in Chicago, I figured maybe one thousand, possible two. All it appeared to be was a laid back tricycle frame, with a plastic shell to protect you from the weather, and a backup battery,” I said (big gas guzzlers cars were just entering the high teens, low twenties at that time).

$60,000, yes, that how much it would cost to produce and bring one to market. Just won’t sell.” I agreed, not at $60,000.

That’s John Wasik’s problem. Getting people to invest $30,000 to go solar and green today, with a future promise of energy saving of $50,000 over the next 30 years. It doesn’t take a newly minted MBA and a amortization table to figure this one out. A friend on whom I tried this scenario answered:

“You want $30,000 now, and I might get 50 over the next 30 years in energy savings? What if I die, move, sell the house, place burns down, ripped up in a hurricane, how about maintenance? I hear people have to replace the panes in those solars every years or so, they get clogged with algae and have to be cleaned each month, and the companies which sold them went out of business if you have a problem.”

The “debacle” described in Cul-De-Sac is evident, and unfortunately, so are the solutions. Major capital and painful social investments by both individuals and government; and time … long time … are required. The current housing stock, according to Wasik, must be transformed.

There is no question, as Waski succinctly explains that America and the world is on a “Cul-De-Sac” coaster in everything (e.g., money, transportation, health), especially housing in relations to energy. No matter how fast we go, we always seem to end up in the same place, the Cul-De-Sac Syndrome. Pointed in a different direction maybe, but the scenery looks strikingly similar.

The book has two parts. First it exams “A Dream Gone Bad,” basically detailing how we find ourselves in the post-bubble housing crisis, placing the blame squarely on the aggressive pursuit of the false dream (i.e., the “McMansion”) and the resulting housing sprawl. In the second part, Reinventing Home and Community, he claims that suburbanville is basically doomed and we will all want to move back to a “city” type setting were we can walk or bike for shopping and pleasure. Transportation is a primary villain, and has not only effected energy costs but our health in time driving and fumes inhaled.

“The bulging of American waistlines paralleled the expansion of suburbia. One study found a direct relationship between body mass index (the amount of fat on your frame) and a measure of sprawl.”

As you can see from this list of Wasik approaches for revitalizing the American dream; we are talking a long term (>50 years) type of commitment which will ultimately only establish a direction, rather than immediate relief.

  • Unlink property taxes from school funding and local development

  • Prioritize transportation funding
  • Create model zoning codes
  • Update building codes for the twenty-first century
  • Create green jobs, particularly in blighted areas
  • Trim real estate tax breaks
  • Fund a smart grid
  • Create private incentives for more affordable housing
  • Provide personalized, national health care.
  • Providing a general tone of the book (cause – solution) Wasik does offer hope, but with a Catch 22: “The bright spot is that Americans are still relatively mobile-if they’re able to sell their homes.”

    The CUL-DE-SAC Syndrome; John Wasik, 2009