The 1,000 year house

Decatur, Ga., builder Clay Chapman boldly claims that he’s building what he calls a “Thousand Year House” in a project he has dubbed Hope for Architecture. I first reported on Chapman’s project in a December 2013 post, Day Zero: Brown is the New Green.

@1000yearhouse tweet.

@1000yearhouse tweet, May 14, 2014.

Chapman’s construction project is part publicity stunt, part marketing campaign for architect Steve Mouzon’s “original green” concept. Since breaking ground last year Chapman has published regular blog posts and tweets illustrating progress at the site. And, he has hosted high profile visitors, including noted new urbanist architect Andres Duany and local leaders.

Chapman describes the new 5,300 square foot house built where he demolished a 1,541 square-foot home as “sustainable” and affordable. To date, the new house has required more than 124,000 pounds of concrete and has taken delivery of more than 100,000 bricks.

I rode by the “1,000 Year House” earlier today and here’s what I saw:

241 Maxwell St., Decatur, Ga. May 11, 2014.

241 Maxwell St., Decatur, Ga. May 11, 2014.

241 Maxwell St., Decatur, Ga. May 11, 2014.

241 Maxwell St., Decatur, Ga. May 11, 2014.

Immediately adjacent house, contemporaneous to the home demolished at 241 Maxwell St. this home is 1,730 square feet.

Immediately adjacent house, contemporaneous to the home demolished at 241 Maxwell St. This home is 1,730 square feet and was built in c. 1948.

Chapman displays an astonishing hubris in his claim that demolishing the earlier house was a “necessary sacrifice” to make way for a more permanent, better looking, and more sustainable abode. There is nothing sustainable about Chapman’s demolition of the existing house and the removal of 30+ tons of debris to a local landfill and the trucking-in of more than 100,000 bricks to construct the new, substantially larger home that likely will require more energy to heat and cool than the earlier one had it been competently rehabbed.

Mouzon’s unrestrained support for the project and his proclamations for what benefits the immediate neighborhood will derive from it without ever having visited there (he indicated this to me in a Dec. 2013 email) also are troubling. Though he calls his approach to creating more lovable and durable buildings “original green” — as opposed to what he calls “gizmo green” — I think it’s more akin to what the late geographer Neil Smith described as “Dollar Green.” Smith wrote in the 2008 edition of his influential book, Uneven Development: Nature Capital and the Production of Space:

Global warming and humanly induced climate change are no longer scarehead slogans of the environmental left but the bread, butter, and martini lunches of Wall Street boardrooms. Granola green is supplanted by dollar green. Indeed, the production of nature has become in some respects the capitalist orthodoxy; climate change has been converted from a threat on profits to a new sector of capitalist profitability. (p. 243)

The neighborhood is undergoing rapid gentrification — super-genrtificaiton as geographer Loretta Lees calls it — and each teardown like the one at Chapman’s site is contagious. Within three months of Chapman’s teardown, three homes (one adjacent and one two houses over) were demolished for mansionization projects by builders with less design and construction skill than Chapman. Despite Chapman’s cavalier use of the word “traditional” to describe his undertaking, there is nothing “traditional” about the project beyond the wellspring of architectural knowledge from which the builder draws inspiration.

Considering the local economics, the new brick manse will be a placeholder for a dream neighborhood and construction industry that will never materialize. I applaud his outlook but criticize how he has chosen to proceed without regard to context and continuity. As for the millennial lifespan, Chapman’s “1,000 Year House” will stand only as long as tastes and economics allow — barring unforeseen acts of God, etc.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

5 thoughts on “The 1,000 year house

  1. We need to rejoin this conversation someday soon. There are just so many wrong framings here. Can’t do it now, but someday soon. I still have your gentrification post saved as well.

    • Thank you for writing. I have an article in press drawn from this and I’ll be happy to send you an offprint once the journal appears.

    • Another quick reply. Do you know how many teardowns followed Chapman’s project on Maxwell Street in Decatur? Maxwell Street is a single block. At last count it was six. The McMansions Chapman’s teardown helped paved the way for — not additional 1,000 year houses; cheaply built, gaudy postmodern garbage — are now selling for more than $1 million dollars. What do you think that does to gentrification and displacement pressures in that neighborhood and city?

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