I’m re-reading a fascinating book by Geoffry Miller called Spent: Sex Evolution and Consumer Behavior (Viking, 2009). The main thrust of the book is to apply evolutionary psychology (a sort of What Would a Cave Person Do or WWCPD view of the world) to the consumer choices and their consequences that create the world we live in (which is more pertinent to the profession of architecture than most of us would like to admit.
Of particular interest is the concept of conspicuous waste, precision and reputation. This is the way humans demonstrate fitness through “costly signaling” – the evolutionary advertising technique of showing that you are so evolutionarily fit that you can afford to waste energy on visible but useless attributes like a peacock’s tail or overly elaborate nest of a bower bird. Such signaling is indirect – the peacock’s tail doesn’t actually indicate intelligence or high fertility or fill-in-the-blank item on a peahen’s wish list – it merely shows that the peacock is so competent at finding food for itself, fending off opponents and generally managing his life that he can do all that and still carry around that ridiculous fan all day long.1
Thorstein Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class, coined the term “conspicuous consumption” and proposed that the main human purpose in buying costly items is not to make the purchaser happy but to display to everyone else that they are able to. Miller points out that “animals, including humans, often show off the most expensive signals they can afford, whether those signals are peacock tails or Hummer H1s.” And that such those signals are made costly through “conspicuous waste” of the individual’s available resources.2
The Architecture versions of Costly Signaling
(interpreted by yours truly)
Miller breaks signaling down into three sub categories; conspicuous waste, conspicuous precision and conspicuous reputation.3 “Aristocrats differ from the nouveaux riches not in their freedom from consumerism, but in their preference for conspicuous precision and reputation (‘the finer things in life’) over conspicuous waste (‘the crass and vulgar’).”4 Interestingly, people are always least likely to recognize their own preferred type of display as cost signaling.
Conspicuous waste is easy to recognize and deplore (for my purposes I’ll call it the McMansion school of display). The most square footage with the fanciest facade and very little attention to genuine quality or provenance of material and workmanship. I have always identified this as conspicuous consumption and (therefore) bad.
But conspicuous precision is also a fitness signaling tactic. (We can call this the Not-So-Big-House school of display.) As Sarah Susanka created the idea – not-so-big-ness means reducing overall space, both by making individual spaces more efficient and compact and by eliminating unnecessary traditional spaces from the house altogether, but also increasing the quality of each part of the house, in design, materiality and craftsmanship.
Finally, conspicuous reputation in housing choice is an historic, or better yet, famous house. Each of these three types obviously involves some degree of both of the others but the point of living in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t that you are so rich you can afford to heat it despite the notoriously leaky windows or pay for emergency room treatment every time the low lintel gives you or your guests a concussion but that you are rich enough to afford something quite rare that most people have heard of. So it still falls under the category of conspicuous reputation rather than waste.
Thinking about expensive housing along these lines was enormously helpful for me because it identifies the underlying unrest I’ve always felt about the Not-So-Big-House movement. Although it purports to be a move away from conspicuous consumption, the homes Susanka featured were still enormous in comparison with those of any other country and filled with costly features that still seemed somewhat superfluous. In fact, it is simply a shift from one type of fitness signaling to another … which makes my discomfort much more understandable.
So … where’s the hope? or A helpful suggestion from the author.
“Many families buy mass-designed houses built in alienating new suburbs by huge developers. The structures are designed to the lowest common denominator of taste in the current fashion so their aesthetic value depresses quickly. They are built to poor standards – two-by-four stick lumber and half-inch Sheetrock on concrete slabs – so their physical integrity deteriorates quickly. The houses are not supported by adequate investment in surrounding infrastructure – roads, parks, schools well-planned retail – so their quality of life depreciates quickly. The result is that in many communities, five-year-old houses have lower equity value than new ones.
“A good alternative is to commission a distinctive new family house from and up-and-coming local architect on a vacant plot in and established community. The build cost per square foot may be slightly higher than for a mass-designed developer house, but the display value – and home equity – per dollar spent will be much higher. Instead of moving into a house built by nameless, faceless workers, you can move into a house that you codesigned with an architect who might become a friend, and a house that you saw being built by local workers whose names you’ll learn and whose workmanship you’ll admire. You’ll also learn much more about the house, so its features and functions can be more knowledgeably appreciated by you and discussed with others. Whereas others live in houses they understand only superficially, you’ll be able to understand all the systems – foundation, framing, roofing, flooring, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, storage, security, decorating – as functional wholes. You’ll maintain them better and repair them more easily.
“And as the architect’s reputation grows, your house’s value will increase. This way of living makes a much more effective social display, because it grows social and narrative roots deep into one’s local community, and so demonstrates one’s creativity, openness, agreeableness, and extroversion much more credibly than buying a prebuilt mass-market house, which requires nothing more than a down payment, a decent credit score and gullibility.”5
If this seems like a paid promotional for residential architects … well that’s just a fortunate coincidence. Miller wrote that all on his own. Thanks, though!