Gwen and I went for a walk through Mueller today, and because it’s Sunday, there were a lot of open houses. We stopped in six. It was educational.

The first two we stopped in were of a small number of showcase, architect-designed, “parade of homes” houses facing the park. These all have seven-digit pricetags. The others were all builder houses. The contrast between them was interesting. The architect-designed houses were profligate in their use of fancy materials and construction techniques. One of them had a floating staircase where each tread was supported from the ceiling by a serpentine square-section tube, and slatted overhangs above the windows that in total consisted of many hundreds of small tubes, each screwed down in four places. Swingarm mounts for flat-panel TVs abounded. Another had a rooftop porch (accessible by elevator!) with a sink shaped like a martini glass.

The builder homes, in contrast, were all swaddled in carpeting that could charitably be described as “disposable,” and generally had cheap finishes and cheap materials except on certain bullet-point features. We were struck by one home, listed for $608K, that had pine cabinets stained to look like walnut, but a vast expanse of marble countertops in the kitchen practically equal to our house’s floor space. On a house that was listed for more than $500K, the interior doors were plastic. Most the builder houses felt very suburban, with fussy trim, “great rooms,” and upstairs playrooms for kids. There was only one house that had a (sort of) open-plan first floor. While all the homes have some level of LEED certification and meet some kind of green-building standards, this struck me again as a bullet point to be checked off rather than as an actual design goal. Houses had incredibly high ceilings (whose main purpose seems to be making lightbulb-changing difficult), but no ceiling fans. None of the homes made any provision for rainwater collection, and when Gwen quizzed the realtor at one of the architect-designed homes as to why, she answered “there wasn’t room.” Which struck me as unlikely—I doubted it had ever been contemplated.

I was struck by the way quantity is prioritized over quality: maximum floor space seems to be the number one priority. Yard space was very limited—I know that short setbacks were mandated for Mueller, and I can’t really complain about small back yards in a city, but those are some of the very few features of the development that feel urban. All of the houses were at least twice as big as our house, and were clearly not designed with people like us in mind. Something that traded space for quality of construction, without going overboard on showy, labor-intensive features, and that reflected a more urban aesthetic. There is a single row of boxy, modern townhouses, but that’s the only part of Mueller like that, and we didn’t get a chance to look inside them.