Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President

Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President

Credit: WILLIAM STEWART PHOTOGRAPHY

In good times, we tend to grow lax and flabby. Administer a shock and we spring into action.

The recent history of the housing market is a case in point. During the buildup of the housing bubble, homeowners and builders often confused bigger with better. Out of that mindset emerged suburban palaces for two that could sleep a harem. Once the bubble burst, the focus shifted from conspicuous consumption to value. Cutting expenses earned you bragging rights. Prius replaced Hummer.

The rush to value has produced mixed results. Many home builders and owners have opted for add-ons—insulation, energy-efficient windows, efficient heating and cooling systems, and solar panels. Helpful, yes, in getting a handle on the monthly utility bills, but little more than “greenwash,” the equivalent of putting a brick in the toilet tank to stem the flow of water.

What these quick fixes miss is the kind of thorough reassessment that can result in real and lasting value. Since the cost of gas is likely to increase, why continue to chew up the countryside with sprawling developments that require residents to use their cars to pick up a quart of milk? Let’s not even talk about those two-hour commutes—each way. What about density, multifamily housing, residential retrofits of existing commercial and industrial buildings, access to mass transit, protecting open space, and designing with nature to create homes that convey a special sense of place rather than anywhere?

A commitment to integrative connect-the-dots thinking is what sustainable design is about—not pigtail fluorescent bulbs. An increasing number of architects and builders realize this is the market differentiator for buyers and renters looking for value. It’s likely to be the one bright spot before the housing market recovers sometime, according to recent estimates, from 2012 to 2016.

Whether the wait is one year or five, those who work in the residential sector should be using this time to think strategically about the next burst of irrational exuberance. An industry that has the ability to build as many as 2 million new homes annually could be more prosperous while having a lasting impact in shaping more livable and sustainable communities. As Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”