Recalling “The Small Home of Tomorrow”

Seventy years ago, a remarkable book called “The Small Home of Tomorrow,” written by prominent architect Paul R. Williams, set forth a prescient consideration of the challenges that faced the housing market of post-World War II America. The situation of that distant time was not unlike the problems being faced in our current environment: a wave of young potential home buyers facing a considerable lack of new and affordable inventory, which was complicated by having too many older properties on the market that were inadequate to meet the needs of the day.

Sadly, Williams is mostly forgotten today, and if he is recalled it is primarily because of his race: he was the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects. But at the peak of his career, he was nationally recognized for his innovative designs of luxury homes, commercial property, government buildings, hotels and churches. His clients ranged from the Los Angeles municipal government to Saks Fifth Avenue (for their Beverly Hills retail outlet) to celebrities including Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball.

“The Small Home of Tomorrow” took Williams’ focus away from the stellar attractions of the Hollywood set to a more pressing situation that few people in 1945 were willing to openly address. This fascinating book offered a bold challenge to home builders and property developers: create a new landscape of residential housing that was both aesthetically pleasing and efficient while keeping costs at a level that returning veterans and their families could properly afford.

“It is a foregone conclusion that there will be thousands of modern small homes built in the postwar world,” Williams wrote. “An eager generation of young people coming out of the war is filled with the desire to have homes of their own – and homes of their own planning and building.”

Williams’ book offered 40 sketches and floor plans for designs that could accommodate the postwar generation’s desire for their own residential properties. Williams priced the construction costs between $3,000 and $10,000 – very fair prices for that era – and he stressed the importance of housing materials and designs to meet the specific requirements of different geographical needs.

“Each section of the country should develop a type of house that would suit its particular climatic and economic needs,” he wrote. “In Pennsylvania, for example, field stone might be used in building a modern house as well as for the farmhouse. In California, redwood will be used successfully.”

By contemporary standards, “The Small Home of Tomorrow” is fascinating because it stressed the pride of homeownership while maintaining a sense of practical consideration. Compare the wisdom of Williams’ book with the state of home building in the years leading up to the Housing Bubble: the foolish notion that bigger is always better, thus resulting in a rash of look-alike McMansions that too many people were unable to maintain when the economy turned sour.

Yet the micro-sized residences of the so-called “tiny house” movement are not what Williams had in mind. Those properties take the concept of homeownership to the other extreme, and those offerings seem doomed (at least for the time being) to be an entertaining but distracting fringe consideration.

Ultimately, Williams stressed the need to properly plan out housing strategies. In one of his most famous quotes, he stated, “Planning is thinking beforehand how something is to be made or done, and mixing imagination with the product – which in a broad sense makes all of us planners. The only difference is that some people get a license to get paid for thinking and the rest of us just contribute our good thoughts to our fellow man.”

Perhaps Williams was being a bit too generous. At a time when housing planning at every level – not just home building, but lending, policy making and servicing – seems more reactive than proactive, the concept of taking the time to think things out becomes a very attractive commodity. Good thoughts are one thing, but smart thoughts are even better. We can learn a lot from Williams’ work and the philosophy of “The Small Home of Tomorrow” – only if we take the time and are willing to listen to what he was trying to tell us.

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