Housing America — What influences home design?

Dale Wyngarden
Designs for human shelter have long been driven by climate, local geological conditions, and available building materials.

Nothing says Northern Michigan so much as driving past a simple but elegant fieldstone house. Unlike quarried and shaped stonework, rounded fieldstones were remnants of the grinding retreat of mile-thick glaciers some 12,000 years ago. They were a curse to immigrant farmers dragging simple plows through rocky fields but a blessing when the accumulated stone pile became material for a new farmhouse.

In Zeeland, one entrepreneurial family brought brick making skills from the old country, but in general, local home builders adapted quickly to the abundance of lumber produced by Michigan’s logging industry.
History also produced a number of Old World trends that were brought to the new world by European immigrants. As power tools and woodworking skills improved, many styles could be readily replicated almost anywhere. The first Europeans to settle San Francisco were Spanish, but the iconic architecture of the city ultimately became its Victorian “Painted Ladies.” 

Not-so-Dutch designs

So despite the fact that first waves of immigrants to the Holland-Zeeland area were overwhelmingly Dutch, they brought no particular penchant for the architecture of their homeland. Holland’s first church, pastored by the founding “dominie” (schoolmaster) Albertus van Raalte was the historic Pillar Church, built in the Colonial style. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1800s (and into the 1920a) that a few scattered attempts at Dutch architecture appeared. One of the more successful was the Bell Telephone building near the northwest corner of 10th and Central, facing Centennial Park. Nearby, Hope Church as well as a few early buildings on the Hope College campus also incorporated Dutch design. In general, however, Dutch architecture is but a small smattering of the local building inventory of Holland. 

A drive through the older neighborhoods of Holland reveals instead a delightful palate of Colonial, Victorian, Georgian, Italianate, French mansard, Gothic, Spanish mission, American Foursquare, Tudor half-timbered, and countless variations of carpenter-style homes. Wood is a far easier material to mill and shape than quarried stone, and many of the unique and more ornate house styles owe their proliferation to an era of abundant local lumber coupled with craftsmanship of skilled woodworkers. 

The dawn of the automobile

For the better part of the past century, one other easily overlooked factor has emerged as a major component in residential design: the automobile. For the first four decades or so, rebuilding the Holland neighborhoods that were reduced to ashes in the great fire of 1871, a day after the Chicago fire, had no need to accommodate cars. But Ford’s introduction of the affordable Model T in 1908 was a game changer in many respects. 

A family car was an appreciable investment. It needed protection … from the elements and from mischief. This was often provided in our older neighborhoods by a single stall garage, located in a rear corner of the back yard. A few subdivisions were developed with alleys, providing rear access to the garage, but alleys were often regarded as dark and foreboding places, so homeowners erected fences. But blocking visual scrutiny merely made them more attractive for delinquent or criminal activity. Alleys soon fell out of fashion in favor of driveway access from the front street. But the increased sense of security came with a cost. Not only was a portion of the yard lost to pavement, but cars now drove in and backed out of yards across the public sidewalk. Increased security for cars meant decreased security for pedestrians. 

Garages, front and center

For homes in a snow belt, a garage in the rear yard meant shoveling 125 feet, or so, of driveway. Moving the garage closer to the house meant less concrete, less cost, less shoveling, and more green space in the backyard. For a short time in the middle of the previous century, garages were repositioned directly next to houses and connected with enclosed passages called “breezeways.” But if a garage could be next to a house, why not attach it directly? Enter the era of ranch houses. Single story shoebox houses with attached garages. And this also was a time of increasing two-car families, so ranch houses with single stall garages soon gave way to the double stall garage, sharing equal prominence with the home’s front entry. 

But if homeowners were comfortable with the garage door next to the front entrance, might they accept shoving the garage even closer to the street than the entry? Apparently so, because any number of newer homes are being built with a protruding garage that all but obscures a recessed and comparatively insignificant entry door. Many condominium developments throughout the area are known for presenting a two stall garage door and an absence of curb appeal to the community. When garage doors protrude in front of entry doors, planners have cooked up the snarky term “snout houses” to describe their appearance.

To me, perhaps the saddest impact of cars on design has been the recent tendency to add a third garage stall to the front of a home. No amount of good design on the rest of the house can overcome the fact that the predominant public presentation is a house with three garage stalls defining the front. 

These are clearly trends with countless exceptions. Many new homes minimize or obscure garages in designs that emphasize family livability, not vehicular storability. Several new subdivisions have been designed with throwback features that restore front porches, eliminate driveways across sidewalks, provide vehicle storage at the rear of the house, and restore a sense of community life outside the front door. Still, it’s an interesting exercise to look at homes and measure the degree to which accommodating cars has influenced design. There’s certainly no denying the impact of the auto on the homes we live in.

Dale Wyngarden worked for the city of Holland for three decades, much of that time overseeing the Planning and Development Department during the revitalization of the downtown. Now happily retired, he spends his time writing and gardening.
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