NOTE: The following article originally ran in "The Future: 1999????," a special section in the Friday, March 30, 1979 edition of the Albany Democrat-Herald.
It looks like a battle of economics vs. expectations.
What happens to housing in the next two decades will reflect the outcome. Scaled down expectations forced by economic necessity will likely be the most important feature of single-family dwellings in 1999 — if they're still being built for the middle class.
Jimmy Taylor, president of Republic Development Co., says he doesn't foresee the end of single-family dwellings but believes they will be a smaller part of the housing market 20 years from now because only the affluent will be able to afford them.
Albany architect Tim Merrill, who grinned when he admitted to predicting 10 years ago that single family houses were a thing of the past, said he still thinks they're in big trouble — unless people start thinking smaller.
A Republic Development "starter" home now costs about $45,000 [about $156,700 in 2019], Taylor said. About 25 percent of that tag is land cost. A family needs a minimum income of $17,500 to afford one.
"The building industry is being accused of adding to the inflation of houses," Taylor said. "But we build what people demand. The 'amenities package' adds a lot to the current price."
Merrill knows what he means. "I can tell you a list of the same things everybody wants in their house," the architect said. "People come into my office and describe what they want in it. When I tell them it'll cost $125,000 [about $435,200 in 2019], they sort of fade away and you never see them again — or they get upset and look at you like it's your fault."
The point is that at $35-plus a square foot, an extra bedroom and bathroom, a formal living room plus a family room and a two-car garage start to look like luxuries instead of the necessities the post-war generation has considered them.
People used to buy houses without the expensive extras and add them as they could, Taylor said. "We may go back to that concept of the low-cost home. For every $100 added to the cost of home, 2,000 more Oregonians are pushed out of the market. As more and more are pressed out, they will (go back to the no-frills concept)."
Merrill said, "I think there will really be a market for 1,000-square-foot houses — if people can change their expectations." (His family is among those who already have. "We have a 980-square-foot house and we don't know what to do with the dining room," Merrill said.)
Taylor said the current demand is mostly for houses in the 1,300- to 1,700-square-foot range. "That's three bedrooms, two bathrooms — the market demands two bathrooms now even though we only used to need one — and usually a family room," Taylor said.
The architect and builder agree that smaller lots and higher density developments also will be part of the scaled-down expectations.
"How many more five-acre tracts are there?" Merrill asked, rhetorically.
He said a recent study at the University of Oregon resulted in a proposal to cluster small houses around a common "green." "You could share a bunch of things — a windmill, greenhouse, sewage disposal, recreation area," Merrill said. "That may be the way we'll have to go. Or maybe row houses."
Taylor said the pressure to maintain farmland will necessitate smaller units at a higher density. "I believe we'll see a larger percentage of home buyers going to townhouses and condominiums," Taylor said. He, too, wouldn't be surprised to see row houses. With common walls and a 24-foot-wide lot, savings would be substantial.
Taylor and Merrill both believe that tremendous strides toward energy-efficient homes will be made in the next two decades.
"People haven't been willing to pay the price to build a completely energy-efficient house," Taylor said. "But, with energy costs going up like they are, it will soon be cheaper to build them that way than to pay for the energy."
Merrill foresees a sunny future for houses heated with passive solar-heat systems — the kind that require little to no gadgetry. Such houses usually include an expanse of glass on the south side and a lot of masonry inside to help build the heat.
Merrill said passive solar systems can provide 50 to 70 percent of a household's energy requirements — even in often-gray Oregon. "The percentage figure can be misleading because in January it might meet only 20 or 30 percent of your needs ... but with good masonry you can store enough heat for three cloudy days," he said.
Merrill and Taylor both said regulatory agencies aren't keeping up with new technology in areas like solar heat and new building materials.
"That comes up at every solar conference I've been to," Merrill said. He cited such code items as the one requiring equal insulation on the south side of a house even when that works against a passive solar system.
The economics-expectations showdown will require that more than codes and heating systems be changed in the decades ahead. More importantly, it will require that the middle class change its ideas of what a house "must" have.