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North Hills Monthly

The Spiraling Housing Market

Oct 01, 2016 02:06PM ● By Matthew Schlueb

You may have noticed that the thunderclouds this summer seem bigger than they have been in past years; much taller and robust, stretching across the entire sky. I’m not sure if it is greater concentrations of moisture in the atmosphere or larger currents stirring up the air, but the forecasters are predicting a more active hurricane season than usual.

This is a good thing for us in the home building business because it extends the construction season later in the year. Traditionally, concrete is not poured past Thanksgiving. However, in the years that I have been practicing architecture in this region, heavy hurricane seasons in the Caribbean have translated into clear skies over Pittsburgh.

Hurricanes seem to gather up all of our clouds, pulling them into concentrated spirals down south.

As a result, builders rush to squeeze in housing starts that would normally be left until next spring. A house framed up and enclosed before the first snow falls provides steady indoor work through the winter, to be finished and made ready for an early summer move in. Such is the pattern of the suburban housing market in southwestern Pennsylvania.

In the city however, housing is very different. A friend of mine makes a living off of flipping houses in Lawrenceville, one of the nation's hottest real estate markets in recent years. He renovates townhouses from last century, putting in new heating, plumbing, electric, replacing cabinets, flooring, and adding a fresh coat of paint. With an eye for the hipster marketplace, a contemporary looking interior can turn a good profit.

Recently he considered exploring the possibility of flipping houses in the North Hills. With some of the highest home prices in the region, opportunities seem ripe for the picking. This may be true, yet the dynamic is not the same. The average homebuyer is not an urban professional—rather it is young families looking to raise children in a good school district. The number of bedrooms and baths drive buying decisions far more than the latest countertop material or flashy shower enclosure.

The desire to be within the best school district is so strong, I contend that any house with four bedrooms, heat and running water will sell regardless of style. And most people in the suburbs want to blend in, not stand out. So a house built to look like the neighbor's house is more appealing than one that calls attention to itself. Conformity, becoming one of a community, is at the center of the human condition.

In fact, studies have found that trees have a greater impact on house values than the style of the house itself. A street lined with mature green canopies that shelter sidewalks in shade has the feel of an established community; a safer bet in selecting a home. Realtors are aware of this, despite developers who still haven't figured this out. With their propensity to clear lots for ease of construction, new developments have that new car smell, void of a history and a well-lived home narrative.

I guess that's what keeps my industry in business; a year or two of living in one of these new homes and families soon find these cookie-cutter houses more of a burden than a comfort and question their buying decisions. Fitting in doesn't account for our differences, our personal preferences, our individual habits. During an open house walk through, we are sold on how we could live in a house, forgetting about how we actually live. Often it takes time living in a house to flush out such differences.

My own house is a good example. When we built it a dozen years ago, a studio space was taken out as the cost for construction ran over budget. It seemed like the right decision at the time. But hindsight, as it always does, has made clear it was something that has been missing from day one—a space that was needed for our household, more than some of the other rooms we kept in.

So I’ve turned it over to our two boys to design an addition that they will help me build and eventually use. As the hurricane season is upon us, I find myself in a scramble to frame it up and close it in, providing my wife (who has a talent for mosaic tiles) with an indoor winter project covering the floor. At the moment, the only construction going on is with the paper model designs our sons are building.

As kids, the ideas that they have come up with are not what one would typically find in a suburban community. Conforming is a rite of passage, something best left to adults. Like most parents, we moved to our neighborhood to have our children attend a good school. On the other hand, our house does not exactly fit in, because in creating our house, I tried to preserve some of that hurricane energy found swirling around in children. If that comes through in the new studio addition, what better place for them to exercise their creative minds?

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.