During the Great Depression, slums were often described as "tin cities."
They were seedy little neighborhoods where the otherwise homeless and downtrodden lived, by one account, in rusty huts of baled-together pieces of scrap metal, bits of cast-off shed roof, salvage from auto junk yards, "even discarded signs advertising soft drinks or headache tablets."
But in Houston, tin cities of another sort have taken root. Though the metal-clad units are actually three-level townhouses, architect-developer Larry Davis calls them Urban Lofts. And he says they are the perfect tool to keep prices down in transitional neighborhoods between urban cores and their suburbs.
Now, with 500 sales under his belt -- 400 in Houston and 100 more in Dallas -- Davis is taking his trendy metal-skinned show on the road. He has two Urban Loft communities under construction in Atlanta, 160 units planned for Las Vegas and property under contract in Phoenix. And he has his eye on other markets as well.
Priced in Houston from $179,500 to $239,000, the two-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot units are not affordable housing by anyone's definition.
But in cities and towns where there are no old buildings in close-in neighborhoods to convert into living space, they serve a price point that is affordable by urban professionals who are rejecting the house in the suburbs and the 10 hours per week commute that goes with it, but cannot countenance downtown housing prices.
"We offer a well-designed product at a price people can afford," Davis said at the National Association of Real Estate Editor's annual meeting at Houston's new 1,200-room Hilton Americas late last month. "And we're selling them faster than we can build them."
The Omaha native hit upon the idea for metal-clad housing more than a decade ago when he visited Santa Fe, where he saw artists' studios built with galvanized metal.
At the time, urban-style lofts were growing in popularity, so the architect decided to combine the two on a property he was planning to develop in the West End here, one of the many transitional neighborhoods that surround Houston's high-rise dominated downtown.
He completed his first five metal lofts in 1993, and though they all sold, the process took longer than Davis had hoped. But because he was showing and selling the units himself, he had an opportunity to listen to comments and suggestions and make the changes he deemed appropriate.
Though the fee-simple units originally were planned to appeal to artists, what he found was that lawyers, doctors, computer engineers, stockbrokers and even empty-nesters liked the concept.
They particularly liked the large open spaces, as opposed to separate living and dining rooms and kitchens found in more traditional designs. At the same time, though, they yearned for more privacy so one resident could read or watch television while another slept, or a home office apart from the living area.
With the experience gained with his first foray into development, Davis turned his attention to Houston's Midtown area. Then came the Fourth Ward. And now, 11 years later, the University of Houston graduate is taking the concept on the road.
Besides the fact that the colorful Urban Lofts stand out from their neighbors -- some say they have an out-house sort of look -- Davis believes metal is far better exterior cladding than more traditional brick or stucco. "Brick is too hot," he says, "a stucco stains and cracks."
But, to set the record straight, the metal he uses is not tin. Rather, it is "Galvalume," a shiny steel coated with zinc, aluminum and silicon that is virtually maintenance free. The metal, which comes in a wide variety of colors (even stripes), also comes with a warranty.
Actually, Galvalume has been used for years in industrial buildings because of its durability and rust-resistance. And, to hear Davis tell it, it is particularly good for use in air conditioned structures in humid climates because it does not retain heat.
"Galvalume causes the interior to stay 5 to 8 degrees cooler than the outside temperature," he says. "This reduces the air conditioning bills in hotter climates."
In addition, because of the metal's UL-4 rating, owners can save 25-40 percent on their hazard insurance, with the greater savings coming in areas particularly prone to hail storms.
Ironically, though, at a time when many housing industry experts are extolling the virtues of steel framing, the man who pioneered metal exteriors is staying away from steel studs because they are still too expensive.