Why Do We Live in Houses, Anyway?

A brief history of the home.

In his new book, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, Witold Rybczynski follows the design, construction, and marketing of a new residential subdivision over the course of several years. In the process, he explains how modern homes and communities are built. In today’s excerpt, the first of three, Rybczynski examines why we live in houses. Tomorrow’s excerpt explains how Americans fell in and out of love with the ranch house. Wednesday’s slide show follows the evolution of New Daleville step-by-step, from cornfield to subdivision.

Four out of five new housing units built in the United States are single-family houses.This statistic has less to do with the nature of the home-building industry, or the suburban location of new housing, than with buyers’ preferences, that is, What People Want.

Many things—government policies, tax structures, financing methods, home-ownership patterns, and availability of land—account for how people choose to live, but the most important factor is culture. To understand why we live in houses, it is necessary to go back several hundred years to Europe. Rural people have always lived in houses, but the typical medieval town dwelling, which combined living space and workplace, was occupied by a mixture of extended families, servants, and employees. This changed in 17th-century Holland. The Netherlands was Europe’s first republic, and the world’s first middle-class nation. Prosperity allowed extensive home ownership, republicanism discouraged the widespread use of servants, a love of children promoted the nuclear family, and Calvinism encouraged thrift and other domestic virtues. These circumstances, coupled with a particular affection for the private family home, brought about a cultural revolution.People began to live and work in separate places; children grew up with their parents (rather than being apprenticed to strangers, as before); and the home, securely under the control of what we would now call the “housewife,” was restricted to the immediate family. This intimate domestic haven was always a house. Seventeenth-century Dutch cities and towns were composed almost entirely of houses built in rows, side by side, wide or narrow depending on the wealth of the owner.

The idea of urban houses spread to the British Isles thanks to England’s strong commercial and cultural links with the Netherlands. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain adopted the row house in many guises, as Georgian crescent, middle-class terrace, and workingmen’s row. It has been estimated that, by the beginning of the 20th century, nine out of 10 dwellings in England and Wales were row houses. The United States (along with Ireland, Canada, and Australia) inherited the Anglo-Dutch house tradition, and three-quarters of Americans now live in houses.Contrary to popular opinion, this is not a reflection of suburbanization, since most city dwellers live in houses, too.

It’s one thing to say that people prefer to live in a house, but what kind of house? Basically, there are three choices: a free-standing house, a house sharing common walls with its neighbors, and a house that is oriented to an inner court. The last is an ancient model. The Roman dwelling was the classic courtyard house. Generally one story high, it covered the entire lot. Depending on its size, it had one or several open-air courtyards. The courtyard house, small or large, was the dwelling of choice; only the poorest Romans lived in insulae, or multistory tenements.

The courtyard house is common throughout the Mediterranean. In Spain, the court is called a patio, a domestic feature that was transported to Latin America. Although the courtyard house is efficient in terms of use of land—a courtyard house has no setbacks, usually not even a front yard—the court provides absolute privacy to the occupants. Courtyard houses are also found in Asia. Until the Communist Revolution, which introduced Soviet-style apartment blocks, Chinese cities consisted almost entirely of courtyard houses, which date back to the Han dynasty, about 200 B.C.

Courtyard houses are limited to one or two stories; otherwise, the courts become too dark. If land is at a premium, as it was in 17th-century Amsterdam, three- or four-story row houses are a higher-density alternative. The occupants of a row house must make concessions, however. The interior layouts will be constrained by the long, narrow shape and the limited number of windows. The backyards can be overlooked by neighboring houses. Privacy—visual and acoustic—is reduced. Semidetached houses, sometimes called twins, which share a wall with only one neighbor, mitigate some of these defects, since they have more windows and wider yards. In Britain, once a nation of row houses, today approximately one-third of all houses are semidetached.

In America, as in Britain, row houses were a common feature of 19th-century industrial cities. Today, about half of all houses in metropolitan Philadelphia are still row houses. However, prosperity has given Americans other options, and the row house, or town home, has fallen out of favor in postindustrial cities. In metropolitan Houston and Los Angeles, for example, only about one house in 10 is a row house.

Ninety percent of single-family houses in the United States are detached (in cities, the proportion is only slightly lower). The advantages of detached houses are many: light and air from all sides; greater acoustic and visual privacy; less danger of fire from neighboring buildings; and being able to pass from the front yard to the backyard without going through the interior. Even if the lot is only slightly wider than the house, the difference in terms of privacy is significant. Typically, buyers will pay a 10 percent to 15 percent premium for a detached house over a row house, even if the floor areas are identical.

Americans are hardly alone in favoring free-standing houses; indeed, they could be said to be typical. The first African town I visited, in 1982, was Makurdi, in south-central Nigeria. This sprawling city on the Benue River had about 100,000 inhabitants. I spent a lot of time walking the unpaved streets, blocked with uncollected garbage, which was the reason I was there—our team of Canadian consultants was advising the government on municipal sanitation. The residential neighborhoods consisted of low, free-standing houses on large lots. Although the houses were surrounded not by lawns and flower gardens but by vegetable plots and chicken coops, the meandering streets were shaded by huge trees.

Cities composed largely of houses are common in sub-Saharan Africa, where, as in America, land is plentiful and population density is low. That is not the case in South Asia. But even there, given a choice, people have opted for houses. In New Delhi and Madras, well-to-do Indians occupy neighborhoods of free-standing villas; the poor live in slums—but in row houses. The same pattern is visible in Manila and Bangkok. In 1986 I visited a recently built housing development in Hong Kong’s New Territories. The developer proudly showed me around Fairview Park, 5,000 small, semidetached “garden houses.” Hong Kong itself is a city of apartments, but Fairview Park had many of the attributes of an Anglo-American garden suburb: landscaped streets lined by individual homes with garages and private gardens.

During the same trip I visited mainland China. In Shanghai, I was taken around extremely bleak apartment blocks belonging to the university. I asked my host, a professor, if he could show me any privately built housing. We drove to a residential neighborhood at the edge of the city. The owners were prosperous farmers who had invested their earnings in their homes—all free-standing houses. The spacious interiors were much larger than the two-room apartment that my host shared with his family. The economic revolution that would sweep the country was only just beginning. I doubt that the homes of university professors have changed much today, but for the growing entrepreneurial class, housing choices have expanded dramatically and now include American-style suburbs with single-family houses.

Even in countries such as France, Germany, and Russia, where many people still live in apartments, the number of single-family houses is growing. “Polls consistently confirm that most Europeans, like most Americans, and indeed most people worldwide, would prefer to live in single-family houses on their own piece of land rather than in apartment buildings,” writes University of Illinois professor Robert Bruegmann.It is the global nature of this desire, as much as the Anglo-Dutch tradition, that explains the popularity of single-family housing in the United States. Fast food, Hollywood movies, and American professional sports are a matter of taste, but most immigrants don’t have to be sold on the idea of the individual house. It’s a universal preference.