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Monday, March 24, 2008

Buckminster Fuller and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

As the effects of the banking and mortgage crisis become more apparent, it offers all of us an opportunity to look at some of the less visible reasons behind it.

The primary reasons for it are obvious at this point. We have the adjustable rate mortgage, which may very well be the greediest lending avenue ever devised by humankind, automobile leasing being a close second. Some of the percentage increases now former homeowners were faced with when ARM’s reset at higher interest rates were staggering, so much so that many homeowners have chosen to send house keys to the bank rather than pay an inflated mortgage on a home that’s losing its sales value. Add to this fact that there are many mortgage brokers rewarded not so much for minimizing risk to their lender employers, but for getting a signature on the dotted line, and the ingredients for disaster begin to congeal.

This is where we come to the less obvious reasons. We clearly have a certain percentage of borrowers living beyond their means. While it may be fashionable for someone with a good job to desire a house worth $750,000 or more, very few members of our society can reasonably afford a dwelling at this price. With each new McMansion style development that swallows open land space and existing resources, people begin to measure wealth by the square feet inside a dwelling, rather than the value and efficiency of that living space to themselves and their immediate environment.

Modern housing developers cater not to needs, but desires. Denizens of cities and their immediate suburbs dream of the great big house in the country. If we take the example of greater Atlanta, the future effects of this desire have arrived in an ugly fashion, as Lake Lanier, the water source for Atlanta and suburbs as far as 40 miles away is running dry. While lack of sustained rainfall can share some of the blame, the bigger culprit is the sprawling, overpriced cul de sacs that ring Atlanta in the far suburbs. I have a friend who lives in Marietta, GA, which is roughly 30 miles north of Atlanta. When I visited him recently, he drove around his immediate area and pointed out what used to be farms two decades ago, now gone. In their place are gated communities, with prices on individual homes behind the gates going up to 7 figures and beyond.

There are now over seven billion people on the planet. While human potential is infinite, the amount of ground available to human beings is not, and the open spaces are disappearing. With each farm that disappears under the weight of obscenely overpriced and oversized housing comes the realization that one small source of food evaporates along with it. This fact alarmed Thomas Malthus. R Buckminster Fuller saw it as an opportunity to rethink and redesign man’s immediate needs and environment with attention to design and reuse of existing resources.

With this in mind, Fuller brought forth the Dymaxion House, a four-dimensional house built around one pole with sufficient space for a family of four and all modern conveniences. The unique design would allow for a constant suitable temperature in all seasons, thereby conserving dwindling resources such as natural gas. Unfortunately, it was derided as a "tin can" and under the weight of the failure of his business, Fuller was only able to erect one temporary Dymaxion House in Kansas.

Sixty years later, Fuller’s grand designs warrant a second look. While not perfect, the though process that brought them forward had the best of intentions. This cannot be said of the modern land developer, who puts profit motive ahead of reasonable use of space. Municipalities, eager to expand the existing tax base in an American economy no longer invested in domestic manufacturing, happily sign over the land for unneeded and unnecessary new development.

With an increasing percentage of this type of housing now sitting empty and seeing stark devaluation, we have now reached a watershed moment to reassess what it means to live "comfortably". Does comfort means that each member of a family of four deserves 1,000 square feet of space under one roof? Given the direct environmental impact of an affirmative answer to that question, does a 4,000-square foot family have an obligation to break it to fellow citizens within their immediate geography that they must go without space and resources for the sake of the comfort of 4 people out of seven billion?

Comfort and affordability need not be mutually exclusive. The operative principles exist to utilize space and resources for all to live comfortably. With the number of McMansion foreclosures slowly rising, it is time to change our perception of these homes from one of overvalued vacancy to one of suburban blight. With a combination of reason and political will, we can insure that now is the time to send these developments back to the drawing board to be replaced by the kind of shelter that benefits a higher percentage of the population and the resources at all of our disposal.

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