Albert Cummings has won more than a few awards for his custom homes in the Berkshires, but he still has the blues. Blame it on his second career. A fourth-generation builder, he’s also an acclaimed guitarist who has toured with the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Double Trouble (who also produced his first album). Today, in addition to the old-fashioned tape rule attached to his hip, Cummings has four CDs under his belt. When he’s not on the jobsite, he’s jet-setting cross country to play weekend festivals, club gigs, and the occasional home builder trade show (watch for him at IBS in Orlando, Fla.). Although his fan base is growing steadily, he’s not ready to quit his day job. “Building has always been in my blood,” Cummings explains. “My time commitments are still about 95% construction and 5% music. The way I think with a guitar is similar to how I think when building a house. You don’t just jump into a guitar solo and bang something out. There’s planning and thought and emotion involved. A song is something you build.”
The Dream is Alive
Eulogies proclaiming the death of the American Dream in the wake of the housing bust may be premature, at least where homeownership is concerned, according to a recent poll of 1,241 Echo Boomers by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Bucking predictions of a rental market takeover, the survey of 18- to 32-year-olds found that most members of Gen Y still want and expect to own their own homes. In fact, 36% of those surveyed already do. And although the larger share of respondents reported that they are currently renting, rooming with their parents, or living in student housing, 67% said they anticipate buying their own homes by 2015. Mind you, we’re not talking condos, duplexes, or townhouses, either. This bunch is thinking big, with 82% of expectant buyers setting their sights on a single-family home. The question, of course, is whether these hopeful ambitions match up with the reality of weak employment prospects and housing finance reform. “The good news is young people have high aspirations—they want to be homeowners, both in cities and in suburbs,” says ULI’s CEO Patrick Phillips. “The bad news is there may be a serious disconnect between their goals and the realities of both the job market and the credit market, particularly in the near- and mid-term.”
Sure, you can build a well-constructed house, but can you build a 20-foot hotdog or caterpillar out of nothing but canned goods? Canstruction, a nonprofit organization that supports local food banks, has been inspiring builders, architects, and engineers to do just this for the past 14 years. More than 140 cities now sponsor annual competitions that challenge teams to create monumental structures made entirely of canned foods. Winning entries serve as public art before they are deconstructed and donated to local food banks. In 2010, competitions nationwide contributed more than two million pounds of food to local charities. Visit www.canstruction.org to find a contest near you.
Golf courses were the “must have” amenity during the boom, but these days many home buyers are happy enough to trade tee times for the perfect ripe tomato. The number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has increased nearly 350% since 1994 and now tops 6,000, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Master plan developers are beginning to see the local food movement as more than a passing fad. “We are now designing town squares that are market squares,” says urban planner Andres Duany. “There is a whole proposition that people gather in public on the basis of consumption. This is a sociable thing that’s all about eating well.”
Dome Sweet Dome
When masonry contractor Joel Emerson built his own residence in Southeastern Virginia, he could have gone with a stately Georgian or colonial, as one might expect from a master bricklayer. Instead he went with a variation on the igloo. Measuring 52 feet in diameter and 22 feet high, the 2,000-square-foot, domed residence is made with concrete footers, 7-inch-thick concrete floors, 12-foot-high brick walls, spray-foam insulation, polyurethane, steel rebar, and shotcrete, a type of mortar that can be sprayed into place with a high-velocity hose. The resulting thermal mass structure, which was recently featured in the Monolithic Institute’s 10th annual nationwide Fall Dome Home Tour, is super energy efficient, low-maintenance, disaster-proof, and exceeds building code thresholds by a wide, um, diameter. Monolithic domes can be as much as 75% less expensive than conventional homes to heat and cool, according to the Institute, and, by nature of their form, can withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Their shells are also pretty much fire-proof since they are built with non-combustible materials. Emerson, whose contracting company is named “Third Pig” (in reference to the three little pigs), has dubbed his residence “Sty Manor.”
Over Two Million Served
Imagine building enough houses to shelter an entire city population. Habitat for Humanity can now make that claim, having built or rehabbed 400,000 homes for more than 2 million people worldwide since its founding in 1976. That’s a number roughly equivalent to the population of Houston. In 2010 alone, the nonprofit served nearly 75,000 individuals with its self-help, hand-up building model. The goal now is to help 100,000 people annually by 2013, says CEO Jonathan Reckford. That’s a target the organization shouldn’t have any trouble hitting if it continues its current momentum. Habitat celebrated the completion of its 200th house in 2005, and then doubled that number just five years later. “It is a significant milestone,” Reckford says, “but we realize there is still much more work to be done.”
Foreclosure as Art
What does the housing bust look like from space? Alan Taylor, creator of the Boston Globe’s “The Big Picture” photo blog, used Google Earth satellite imaging to have a look at some of Southwest Florida’s worst stalled developments. From on high, the cul-de-sacs and half-built parcels take on an eerily beautiful geometric quality. But on the ground, where abstraction becomes reality, the picture isn’t so pretty.