2021 Workshop

The Suburban Garage: Model for a Flexible Framework

American garages. [All images Library of Congress]

Would you believe me if I said that the best-designed room in a single-family house is the garage? “The garage?” you might reply, “That uninspired box which represents the auto-dependent suburban sprawl that’s destroying the environment and segregating our society?” Yes, that garage. But rather than talk about the environmental and social impacts of suburbia, I’d like to talk about the spatial qualities of a room perfectly suited to adaptation. Garages are effectively redesigned by every user, making them a unique form of contemporary American vernacular.1My thinking on domestic flexibility and garages was informed by course lectures delivered by Monica Rivera in the International Housing Studio (Fall 2020) and the Reprogramming Suburbia Studio (Spring 2021) at Washington University in St. Louis; John Brinkerhoff Jackson’s “The Domestication of the Garage” (1976), reprinted in Places Journal, February 2019; and Katherine Erica McFadden’s “Garagecraft: Tinkering in the American Garage,” PhD diss., (University of South Carolina, 2018). McFadden in particular shows how the garage’s flexibility allowed it to become a masculinized site of craft, repair, and technological production. What might the garage teach us about designing other domestic spaces?

I am not arguing that every household needs a garage, but that the garage can teach designers what makes a dwelling space adaptable.

Garages are firmly fixed in the American residential landscape. According to the 2017 American Housing Survey, two-thirds of housing units in the United States have a garage or carport.2Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “FOTW #1058, December 3, 2018: Two-Thirds of All Housing Units Had a Garage or Carport in 2017,” U.S. Department of Energy, December 3, 2018. Out of single-family houses built in 2019, 92 percent included a garage.3Danushka Nanayakkara-Skillington, “Garages in New Homes: 2019 Data,” Eye on Housing, National Association of Home Builders, November 20, 2020. Garages have historically been limited to a privileged demographic: people with higher incomes, Whites, and homeowners.4McFadden, “Garagecraft,” 32–33. That said, the garage’s flexibility is instructive far beyond the context of White suburbia. I am not arguing that every household needs a garage, but that the garage can teach designers what makes a dwelling space adaptable. As household types become more varied, as the American population grows older and more diverse, and as a global pandemic brings new activities into the home, dwellings need rooms with the kind of flexibility that already exists in the garage.5On demographic trends and corollary changes in housing needs, see Laurie Goodman and Jun Zhu, “The Future of Headship and Homeownership,” (Urban Institute, January 22, 2021); Tracy Hadden Loh and Evan Farrar, “The Great Real Estate Reset: Modernizing Family: America’s Demographics Are Transforming, but Our Housing Supply Is Not,” Brookings Institution, December 16, 2020; Len Bogorad et al., “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb,” (Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute, 2016); and Kim Parker et al., “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities,” (Pew Research Center, May 22, 2018). As landscape historian J. B. Jackson points out, users have always adapted the garage. Jackson emphasizes the crucial role of the internal door between house and garage, introduced in the mid-20th century. The garage was previously a distinct structure, but the addition of that internal door transformed it into what Jackson calls “the family garage” — a space that is part of the daily domestic routine. In Jackson’s analysis, occupants initiated these changes. Realtors began advertising the virtues of a multipurpose space only after observing the diverse ways in which residents used their garages. Jackson concludes that the “domesticated” garage exemplifies vernacular architecture because it was designed by occupants rather than builders.6J. B. Jackson, “The Domestication of the Garage” (1976), reprinted in Places Journal, February 2019. The flexibility of the garage grants users agency.

Plan drawing of 5 garage iterations by the author, with some objects sourced from Dimensions.com. [Emily Haller]

Picture a two-car garage in a single-family home. A wide overhead door faces the street. A paved driveway connects the garage to the street, and an interior door links it to the house. A second door leads to the backyard. There are electric lights and a utility sink. Now imagine the various uses of this garage. A family stores vehicles, shoes, and miscellaneous toys, while a parent claims a corner for Zoom meetings. The next owner sets up a workbench for repair projects. Maybe this garage will host band practices or become the offices of a startup business, fulfilling popular narratives of the garage as space for creativity and entrepreneurship. If the area faces housing shortages, local authorities might permit the transformation of this garage into a residence. Some of these uses require more intense renovations, but all are possible.7Examples here are synthesized from a variety of sources: Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela, Garage (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018); McFadden, “Garagecraft”; Suzan Tobin, “Garages Aren’t Just for Cars Anymore,” Planning vol. 74, no. 11 (December 2008), 38–39; Ed Hudson, “To Park or Not To Park: The Real Value of Garages (Part 1 and Part 2),” Home Innovation Research Labs, April 18, 2013 and April 25, 2013; “35 Surprising Home Garage Stats You Might Not Know,” Garage Living Blog, May 10, 2018; Jeanne E. Arnold and Ursula A. Lang, “Changing American Home Life: Trends in Domestic Leisure and Storage among Middle-Class Families,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues vol. 28, no. 1 (March 1, 2007), 23–48, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-006-9052-5; Nikil Saval, “How the Garage Became America’s Favorite Room,” The New Yorker, January 14, 2019; Sarah Laskow, “Why There’s No Place Quite Like the American Garage,” Atlas Obscura, November 13, 2018; and Liam Dillon, “How Lawmakers Are Upending the California Lifestyle to Fight a Housing Shortage,” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2019.

Imagine if every home had a space as versatile as a garage: multiple entrances, a utilitarian floor, a large opening letting in the breeze. What would you do with such a room?

What makes this garage so adaptable? Its components are simple but functional. The concrete floor and utility sink accommodate messy projects. Blank walls provide ample storage, and their emptiness suggests creative possibilities. A door to the backyard facilitates the movement of the lawnmower, garden tools, or sports equipment. It may seem obvious, but the garage works because its components make everyday activities easier. Simply by opening or closing a door, residents can transform specific qualities of the garage, such as air flow or privacy. Lifting the retractable door turns the garage into an outdoor room, sheltered yet open to a passing breeze or greeting from a neighbor. Multiple entrances allow the garage to be integrated with the house or mostly independent. Grandpa could live in his own attached (but separate) residence, or Mom could host clients in her garage-turned-office without disturbing children in the house doing homework. It is easy to take these doors for granted, but they allow the user to adjust and customize the room’s conditions.

For domestic spaces to be flexible, residents need the power to change the shape, quality, or function of other rooms as easily as they do the garage. Can designers adapt, recombine, or transpose the components of the garage in new contexts? People given adaptable space will design the room they need. Imagine if every home had a space as versatile as a garage. Maybe it has multiple entrances, a utilitarian floor surface, and a large opening that lets in the breeze. What would you do with such a room?

Notes

  1. My thinking on domestic flexibility and garages was informed by course lectures delivered by Monica Rivera in the International Housing Studio (Fall 2020) and the Reprogramming Suburbia Studio (Spring 2021) at Washington University in St. Louis; J.B. Jackson’s “The Domestication of the Garage” (1976), reprinted in Places Journal, February 2019; and Katherine Erica McFadden’s “Garagecraft: Tinkering in the American Garage,” Ph.D. diss., (University of South Carolina, 2018). McFadden in particular shows how the garage’s flexibility allowed it to become a masculinized site of craft, repair, and technological production.
  2. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “FOTW #1058, December 3, 2018: Two-Thirds of All Housing Units Had a Garage or Carport in 2017,” U.S. Department of Energy, December 3, 2018.
  3. Danushka Nanayakkara-Skillington, “Garages in New Homes: 2019 Data,” Eye on Housing, National Association of Home Builders, November 20, 2020.
  4. McFadden, 32–33.
  5. On demographic trends and corollary changes in housing needs, see Laurie Goodman and Jun Zhu, “The Future of Headship and Homeownership,” (Urban Institute, January 22, 2021); Tracy Hadden Loh and Evan Farrar, “The Great Real Estate Reset: Modernizing Family: America’s Demographics Are Transforming, but Our Housing Supply Is Not,” Brookings Institution, December 16, 2020; Len Bogorad et al., “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb,” (Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute, 2016); and Kim Parker et al., “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities,” (Pew Research Center, May 22, 2018).
  6. J.B. Jackson, “The Domestication of the Garage” (1976), reprinted in Places Journal, February 2019.
  7. Examples here are synthesized from a variety of sources: Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela, Garage (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018); McFadden, “Garagecraft”; Suzan Tobin, “Garages Aren’t Just for Cars Anymore,” Planning vol. 74, no. 11 (December 2008), 38–39; Ed Hudson, “To Park or Not To Park: The Real Value of Garages (Part 1 and Part 2),” Home Innovation Research Labs, April 18, 2013 and April 25, 2013; “35 Surprising Home Garage Stats You Might Not Know,” Garage Living Blog, May 10, 2018; Jeanne E. Arnold and Ursula A. Lang, “Changing American Home Life: Trends in Domestic Leisure and Storage among Middle-Class Families,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues vol. 28, no. 1 (March 1, 2007), 23–48, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-006-9052-5; Nikil Saval, “How the Garage Became America’s Favorite Room,” The New Yorker, January 14, 2019; Sarah Laskow, “Why There’s No Place Quite Like the American Garage,” Atlas Obscura, November 13, 2018; and Liam Dillon, “How Lawmakers Are Upending the California Lifestyle to Fight a Housing Shortage,” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2019.

About the Author

Emily Haller

Emily Haller is currently pursuing a Master of Architecture degree at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College, where she studied in the interdisciplinary Growth and Structure of Cities program.