Big Ugly Houses
Living on the Earth, May 2, 1997: Big Ugly Houses
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
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
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C) 1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06591
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.