As Jim Streng pilots his van through suburban Sacramento, it's clear he takes a proprietary interest in the area. It's not surprising.
Streng Bros. Homes, Inc., a partnership with his brother Bill, built 4,000 homes in the Sacramento Valley. Theirs aren't the largest neighborhoods in the region, but thanks to their modern designs, they are the most unique.
Streng also feels invested in the area because he helped guide it, as a leader of the building industry, a planning commissioner, and member of the Board of Supervisors.
He remains proud of the modern houses Streng Bros. built and enjoys the increased attention they are receiving today. But he was embarrassed by a recent newspaper feature that praised their houses while never mentioning their architect, Carter Sparks. "He was really the creator of the architecture we built," Jim says. "It wasn't Bill or me."
Streng also sees a lot that he's proud of as he drives around town. But, especially when he's caught in traffic, he says, "I have mixed feelings."
More than once during his career, Streng was asked whether Sacramento would turn into another Los Angeles. "My answer was, 'I hope not, but I think so.' I think we should have done more to encourage higher-density building, (and allow) less pushing into the undeveloped perimeter of the county."
But Streng is a Republican of the old school, not someone who believes government can control how people spend their money or live their lives. "I think both builders and elected people try to provide what they envision the public wants," he says.
"Bill and I would be in the model homes talking to customers, and we never got the idea that these people wanted high density. They wanted their own quarter acre or half acre. I think the natural desire is to satisfy the consumer, and I think that's what builders try to do and elected people try to do. And as a result, we have sprawl."
The Strengs did build their share of higher-density housing, primarily 'half-plexes,' 1,400-square-foot attached homes built in groups of two in several neighborhoods in Sacramento, Davis, and Woodland. And Sparks designed a neighborhood of Streng townhouses in Davis. But it's hard designing townhouses in a post-and-beam, glass walled idiom, Streng says. "It sold well," he says, "but I think you could drive by it and not see Carter Sparks in it."
The Strengs also made a foray into manufactured housing—"Carter Sparks mobile homes," he calls them—built by a local factory, then trucked onto the sites at Rio Linda and Woodland. Manufacturing problems helped kill the venture. But there was a deeper problem, Streng says. "Our analysis later on was that people who liked manufactured homes did not appreciate modern architecture."
Fortunately for the Strengs, Sacramento and Davis supplied plenty of people who did appreciate modern architecture. The '60s and '70s were a great time to build in Sacramento, Jim recalls. The city was growing, there was little opposition to growth, VA and Federal Home Administration loans were available, and the Strengs' prices were right. "And in Carter," says Streng, "we had the best architect we could have had."
Hiring Sparks, who had worked with Anshen + Allen prior to becoming Sacramento's leading designer of modernist homes, allowed the Strengs to provide buyers with homes that shared with Eichler the Bay Tradition idiom but were appropriate for the hotter climate of the Central Valley.
Unlike the Eichler atrium, which is open to the air and surrounded by glass walls, the Streng atrium has no walls at all and is capped by a skylight. An Eichler-style atrium would have turned into a hot box in Sacramento.
Streng remembers how the design came about. The annual builders' tour of homes was coming up, and the Strengs needed something to show. It was the early '70s, the Strengs were still building conventional homes along with their 'Carter Classic.' Instead of a ranch, the Strengs quickly built and showed their first atrium model, and it became one of their most popular designs
Throughout his home-building career, Streng was active with the regional builders association, and served as its president When a vacancy opened on the county planning commission in the mid-'70s, his builder friends suggested he step forward. Streng was appointed.