Big Ugly Houses

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, May 2, 1997

The other day I took a new road in North Haven. It wound through a recently completed housing development and out to the next street. As I exited I painfully realized that the last time I'd seen this area, there were no houses and the road didn't even exist. It had all been a field of corn.

And so it goes for much of the fertile farmland and forests of this region. While elegant old houses in the cities are abandoned or torn down, the woods are cleared of beautiful trees and fields are stripped of their productive topsoil in order to build big ugly houses. They pop up like mushrooms nearly everywhere. "Trophies to their owners' financial success" is what a friend called them when she encouraged me to write this long-simmering essay. That's why they're right up close to the road. So people can really see them.

These big ugly houses are out of scale with their surroundings. They are very, very large, seemingly blown up like balloons, and usually have just a few tiny trees around them. Each house sits close to the next house, affording no privacy except inside when the curtains have been drawn. If you drive by at night, you can see the TV's eerie glow in each one. Any outside activities are on view to everyone, so the yard is used for just a few culturally-correct rituals such as mowing the grass, washing the car, firing up the bar-b-que or shooting a few hoops. To really experience the outdoors, it is necessary to get in a car and try to find the end of the rapidly expanding suburbs.

Although the ugliness and ostentation of these houses are very obvious, it is the ignorance these big uglies flaunt and the costs they impose on all of us that make them really obscene.

Plunked down one after the other at random on the Earth, facing the audience that drives by on the street, these big ugly houses ignore the sun, the winds and the views. Their placement demonstrates the developers' ignorance of the sun's movement. One house nearby is fairly typical. It is oriented so that on a bright day in January, the sun peeks in just few small windows in the garage-doors and the attic space above them on the narrow south end. However, on a steamy August day, the sun shines in dozens of large windows on the east and west facades much of the day. This deprives the residents of the pleasure of a properly-oriented home's winter solar warmth and summer shade. It also means higher heating and cooling bills for the life of the house and lots more radioactive wastes and greenhouse gases for us all. Instead of planting trees like oaks and maples which will eventually provide significant shade, the first owners planted dinky decorative trees, and then put the house up for sale.

The financial costs of these houses to the rest of us are also enormous. Connecticut statistics reveal that each new house will cost current town residents nearly $2,000 per year, every year, in additional taxes to pay for the services demanded by each new home, but not covered by its taxes. A study in Bethany showed that just one development of 83 houses on about 300 acres of land would raise everyone else's tax bills by $400 annually.

And, that's just local taxes. Because most of the early payments for these monstrosities are for interest, they are tax-deductible. Their owners' Federal taxes are reduced, creating another large burden for everyone else. In fact, in many cases, these expensive new houses are a way for richer people to avoid paying taxes.

Big ugly houses are designed to use the maximum amount of the planet's resources. Their residents seem to have special preferences for those goods and resources that are the most heavily subsidized by taxpayers and which put the greatest burdens on the environment. Electricity, fossil fuels, plastics, processed food, and frequent travel are good examples.

It's clear that the developers make the big bucks, the new residents get many tax breaks and the rest of us suffer the consequences. It's time to increase our efforts to slow down big dumb destructive development and to begin to learn what lifestyle choices put the least burden on the land and on the rest of society.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.