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Why Modern?

by Nic Darling on January 6, 2009 · 32 comments

in architecture,Design,Philosophy

When writing posts here I often try to address those questions that arise regularly. I do this in hopes that it will lessen the frequency of a question or give me a complete, pre-composed answer to which I can direct a questioner. Unfortunately, it never seems to work out quite that way. Those asking the questions seem uninformed by content on the blog, and I am seldom content with an answer for long enough to use it as an ongoing resource. However, the process of writing about these questions helps me solidify what may have begun as unsubstantiated opinions or disjointed thoughts. Add the value of the insightful comments we get here and each post becomes a useful means of creating actual, solid ideas.

So, with the above in mind I will talk a little bit about one of the most common questions we get on the 100k House . . . “Why modern?” This might also be heard as “Why is the floor plan so open?” “Why does it look so different from my house?” or “Where’s the brick?” These questions, and others like them, come up fairly often. So, I will try to provide some brief answers and a jumping off point for your comments.

1. Aesthetics

Some people simply don’t like modern architecture. The same goes for modern art, poetry, music and theater. There will always be a section of society that prefers the old to the new, that believes the best art has already been achieved. But, there will also always be a contingent that revels in innovation, that is excited by change. This is a difference of opinion. It is a question of taste.

Personally, I admire older architecture. I find inspiration and pleasure in pieces that represent the period of their creation. I am interested in the way situation, culture and ideas shaped the buildings of various times. However, I am less interested in modern copies of that older work. I find the mimicry of older forms, no matter how successful, to be somewhat boring. For example, I like the poetry of Wordsworth, but I would be completely turned off by a modern poet who writes in that style.

I also think it would be a shame to quiet the creative impulse in favor of the status quo (however brilliant that status quo may be). I mean, I enjoy Mozart, but it would be a sad world in which the music of Miles Davis didn’t exist.

2. Function

Form often follows function, or is at least effected by it. As the required function of a given object evolves, so does its form. For instance, the sleeker form of modern cars is both an aesthetic and practical transformation from its boxier ancestor. If we wanted cars to move faster while demanding less energy, we had to make them more aerodynamic. Thus form adjusts, in part, to accommodate function.

We may find that houses demand a similar adjustment of form. Demands for the functionality of passive solar strategies and tighter envelopes may be better met through new unexplored forms. More modern designs may better allow for easier automation, day lighting, work-from-home applications and other functionality demands. The experimentation that takes place in modern architecture could make our houses more useful and efficient even as it adjusts the appearance of our homes.

If we view our homes as an area ripe for technological advancement and increased functionality, we must be open to a shift in appearance. Form, if clung to, can be a hindrance to practical advancement.

3. Sustainability

The necessity to move toward greener homes may have a significant effect on the shape those homes take. This is not to say that a traditional Philly row home (for example) can’t be green, but a more modern interpretation might be able to get there with less cost and complexity (as we have found). New, more sustainable materials may replace the traditional brick facade. More efficient window configurations might bring into question the standard exterior appearance. Even simple ideas of size and shape may adjust to the realities of insulation requirements, solar panel application or interior air circulation.

The need to build smaller and more densely will also likely change the form of our homes. Space and materials might need to be used more efficiently. Excess may need to be trimmed closer to necessity.

4. Place

Some of our homes seem to have lost their sense of place, a sense that was originally based on practical concerns of climate and weather patterns. Homes in the south have started to look much like homes in the north despite the difference in requirements. And, even those homes that actually arose from a given climate condition arrived in their current form based on old understandings.

Designers, free from traditionalist constraints, can possibly create new ideas for the specific conditions of a given region. Climate and available local materials could play a role in redefining regional aesthetic possibilities. Given the space to do so, we can use our growing understanding of climate to create homes that belong in the place they are built regardless of what they may look like.

5. Lifestyle

Modern architecture also seems to understand and accept a larger variety of lifestyles. The average American home houses less than three people, but you would never guess that from the size and configuration of most of our new houses. Not everyone is planning on getting married and having three kids. Some people have already done that and are ready to kick their kids out. Others plan to do all that in 5 years and don’t want to feel like they are there already. Variety in home design accepts this variety in lifestyle choices and provides people with places more suited to their style.

Fine, I’ll sum up and let you talk.

I went on a bit and I’m sorry if some of it is a bit sloppy or irrelevant. As I said, I see this space as a place for hashing out ideas. Believe it or not, I could have gone on much longer. Basically, I am defending the validity of our choice to build modern homes based on some of the points above. This does not mean I am condemning traditional architecture or those who would choose it, so go easy on me.

So, lets hear what you think of modern architectural design in general, ours in particular or any of the points I made above. Is there a market for modern? Are there ways in which an adherence to traditional appearance might hinder us? Are there specific traditional elements we should hang on to even if we are building modern? Would you like me to write shorter posts?

Questions of taste can be touchy ones, so be nice and respect difference. Now, to the comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

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1 lavardera January 6, 2009 at 7:56 pm

I’ll go ahead and condemn traditionally styled new houses then, and take the heat.

They are phoney and inauthentic. They are about signifying values, instead of living them, and foster a delusional state of being. Hey, l live in a charming old (but new) house! Hey, my house is mansion(like) and so I must be a rich guy too! Hey, nothing is what it appears to be so my SUV gets great gas milage, cause I want it to! Keep it up, this eventually leads to imaginary WMDs in other nations..

2 Brandon January 6, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Modernism certainly is not for everyone, as you note, and it never will be. Too many people find the familiar comforting for a modern approach to homebuilding to become the norm. When you combine that longing for the familiar with the prospect of making the largest purchase you’ll ever make, conservatism is hard to resist.

Clearly, there’s a place for modern efficiency with a veneer of traditionalism. It might not be as efficient as it could be, but you take what you can get. Me, though, I’ll take a modern box over a multi-gabled faux-classic simulacrum every time.

On a possibly related note, will the future 100k houses look the same on the outside? Especially in the case of the lot to the rear of the first 100k house, I wonder if too much exterior similarity might make for a too monolithic, apartment block feel.

3 Scoats January 7, 2009 at 8:57 am

Maybe no. 6 could be History/The Present. Modern architecture fits into the story of the city. The architecture here reflects 400 years of technology and progress. Victorian Houses were cutting edge 100 years ago. Now they are quaint. One day these modern buildings will be quaint too.

If I built a new house, I would make it as modern as possible. I would incorporate aspects that reflect the historical nature of the neighborhood, but I would do it in a modern way with a modern look. And if I did it well, it would age gracefully.

On the related note, since you are such a hands on, low scale builder there is no reason why future 100K houses need to look the same on the outside. It shouldn’t be too hard to create variation at little to no added cost.

4 Nic Darling January 7, 2009 at 11:31 am

Greg – Ouch. That is harsh, but I would have trouble formulating a defense against your accusations. Am I right in assuming that the issue is with new homes, not actual period pieces?

Brandon – Simulacrum is a great choice of words.

Scoats – That is an excellent number 6. I said much the same thing when on a panel at an AIA event. A particularly ornery old architect was questioning the purpose of modern architecture, and I mentioned that most of what we see in Philadelphia was once modern, including those buildings he obviously preferred. Someone in the back of the room actually gave me an “Amen”.

All – The 100k House will definitely be experimenting with different looks. In fact, the next three homes may have an entirely different facade. Stay tuned.

5 lavardera January 7, 2009 at 11:52 am

yeah, I’m being harsh on purpose thinking I’d take the brunt of the lash-back, but the comments are supportive.

There is a valid point to my rant though. Simulacrum has its place, for instance it can be entertaining in a Disney world-building kind of way. But when it is presented as the status quo we can become conditioned to accept this kind of artificiality as the only mode of being. The results of that are all around us. Big tough four wheel drive trucks that never go off-road shuttling between school, home, and soccer games. Consumption of processed food stuffs over fresh produce. And of course homes that are all about what image you project and not how you live.

To me its about whether or not you want to live your life by kidding yourself the entire time.

6 Sara Sweeney January 7, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Greg -I read your comment, and also found it harsh. You make some very valid points in your 2nd comment about image and so forth -there is definitely a lack of authenticity rampant in our global human society today. But what I am getting from your second comment is that in your opinion, all new homes in a traditional style do indeed fall into the phoney/inauthentic category. I also think you are in danger of over-generalizing to a certain degree.

On that note, I will be the first one to disagree with you. Architecturally, there are many attributes and elements of traditional and vernacular design that are worthwhile -WHEN understood why they were done and how they added to the house. The porch for example. It was a gathering place (before the TV that is), served as a shading element in the summer, and potentially cought breezes and funneled them into a house for added cross-ventilation. Or take a New England Salt-Box. The sloping roof got the snow off (which flat roofs don’t -although flat roofs lend themselves to vegetated roofs much easier than sloped), as well as protecting a house from harsher winter winds. Oriented towards the south (the front door that is) also allowed the main living spaces to bask in solar gain, warming the house.

I’ll couch these examples with stating that again, you need to understand the elements, and HOW to “use” them, and understand what they would add. If you just build a new development of NE Salt Box style homes in New England on cul-de-sacs, and make them way bigger than they need to be (i.e.: the McMansion Salt Box) but don’t orient the home as it was meant to be oriented, and don’t design it with an updated eye, i.e.: looking to design a traditional/vernacular home with a more updated feel, then that’s definitely phony and inauthentic. As well as stupid. But designing and building an updated NE Salt Box for the 21st century with an understanding of its vernacular, now that’s authentic in my opinion. And Nic, I think you allude to this line of thinking in your post.

Again, I may be completely misunderstanding the context of both your comments Greg, so please let me know if so. And although I find the 100k House a vert smart example of energy-efficiency and design and like the design itself, I would not purchase one myself. It’s just not my style or aesthetic. I would also rather focus my work on existing residential stock and am committed to making it more energy & resource efficient. Doesn’t matter how many 100k houses we have if we still have all the other inefficient homes, and right now, we have way more of those. But we need people on both sides of the field, that is, those like you, Nic and Chad, committed to building a modern and energy-efficient house on a tight urban lot and someone like me, who wants to focus on existing.


7 lavardera January 7, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Hi Sara, I’d say you are both understanding and misunderstanding.

The elements you mention, a porch, sloped roof, are in no way limited to traditional architecture. But these are architectural elements – not superficial styles.

Here is a modern house with a front porch:

And a sloped roof:

I’m not arguing against these elements. They can be traditional or modern. I’m not even arguing against good designers working in traditional styles, ones that master that architectural language and actually break new ground using these old rules.

I’m arguing against the mindless romantic traditionalism that dresses 99% of the housing built in the USA, much of it badly done. And I’m arguing against the ignorance that does not recognize that.

But you are right, I was harsh. No harm meant. I wanted to stimulate the conversation which it has.

8 Rob January 7, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Greg, I don’t think you were too harsh at all. In fact I think you were spot on.

Old building were built with materials and techniques that worked the best(usually) at that time. Today, if we use brick, it is just a veneer and not a solid wall. This leads us to needing weep holes, expansion joints, wall ties, headers and all sorts of things that didn’t necessarily exist in solid brick walls. And we still try to make moderned veneered brick look like what multi-wythe brick (the structural bearing kind) has always looked like, when in fact it is functioning in a very different manner than before. Take a look at how Kieran Timberlake has used brick on some of their projects.

9 Kevin D January 7, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Dwell magazine gets the credit for catalyzing this neo-modern “movement”.

People were looking for something new and different in housing at the time and they filled this demand

Their Prefab competition then did the same for the homebuilding process.

Then 100k came along and is taking the concepts even further. Infill homebuilding so far doesn’t have the product volume prefab needs for true success.

10 Sara Sweeney January 7, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Hi Greg -Reading your last comment, that’s what I thought you meant to begin with, but wasn’t entirely sure. And I agree with 110%. Has been good discussion in general though -all comments, which you definitely triggered!

By the way, as a followup to my last comment, to you, Nic and Chad, I am very inspired by the 100k house project in general, and how you are all pushing the envelope and the attention you are paying to every aspect. I hope I did not come across as un-appreciative and un-inspired, even though the house is ‘not my personal architectural style.’ I would just rather deconstruct a bungalow and then redesign it with a 21st century language/value set. So in essence, as you said, master that language and break new ground.

11 Jerry Hajek January 7, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Actually Nic, considering the range of the subject matter, I thought your commentary was the soul of brevity. And this is from one that my spouse considers long-winded. *smirk*
Personally, I find the typical generic mass-market homes bland and boring, regardless of how much granite and stainless steel they offer as a ‘come-on’. As for the ‘green’ boasts that are currently vogue, I thought ‘polishing a turd’ was one of the best mild rants I’ve seen on the subject.
However….some of the moderns that blink on my screen simply seem to amplify the a general impression that George Jetson is the resident, and he obviously not only has a larger net worth that your average Joe the Bummer, but he’s quite happy to rub it in.
I’ve been and still am annoyed by the pseudo-styles that flood the new home market. I’m hoping that the burst of the housing bubble will finally wake up the new home buyer and make them want and demand homes that are truly efficient, really green, and not another McMuck with enough sqft to house a 727.
That’s why I admire Greg’s designs.
That’s why I actually read the bulk of the 100K posts.
(Except for the Philly details; I’m not ‘there’, I’m ‘here’, in W.N.C., surrounded by retro-Craftsman style blunders. I could go on; I’ll spare you….)

Y’all keep it up. It’s harder now; it will get worse.
Keep reminding us that it’s still worth striving for.
The 100/120 series is a little boxy and spare for my tastes, but you’re obviously getting some attention for your efforts. You deserve it; the hard work shows.
It has to start somewhere, and it could just as well get started by y’all.
Don’t get rich, get infamous. It’s more fun…

(J kicks his soapbox aside, and heads back to the shadows…)

12 Brian Phillips January 8, 2009 at 4:25 pm

It’s interesting to think about houses from the vantage point of larger cultural trends. Style as a personal statement in housing spread like wildfire through the Rennaissance/Victorian-age invention of catalogs and picture books. It was an early globalization of aesthetics. Prior to this, vernacular architecture ruled and building types and solutions were independently invented throughout the world with unique solutions to local climate, culture and other forces. The 19th and 20th century “traditional” approach to architecture harvested this vernacular back-catalog and as mentioned earlier embraced “simulacra”. It dovetails nicely with bottomless markets and the need to constantly produce exiciting new consumer alternatives.

I predict that the post-oil age will bring with it a new emphasis. Energy performance, integration with the complex forces of urbanism and markets, adaptability, etc. will become new benchmarks by which housing will be measured. We will find new ways of personalizing space (including bits as well as bricks). Once we realize that stylistic choices are a pretty new idea isolated across a few recent centuries, we need to be prepared to admit that it too may pass. In fact, I think it will pass sooner than we think.

13 tlynch January 9, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Playing devils advocate:

Many people do not want a “machine for living”, but rather want a home. A home has to invoke certain feelings.: warmth, security, etc… different feelings for different people.

From a functional standpoint, the color that walls are painted make very little difference (reflecting light, absorbing heat aside). People obviously have a strong preference for one color over another, and I bet we have all walked into rooms and either loved the color or hated it, we have personal preferences. People do not want to live in a house that does not feel right to them.

I think these feelings are commonly overlooked in modern architecture and this is why the general public is slow to embrace it. I am not saying that these feelings cannot be replicated in a new manner with new styles, but the cheapest and easiest way to invoke these feeling might be to copy a few details from grandmas house and slap them on the facade, remember – most people do not think too much.

I would put forth that creating a new modern vernacular that is capable of invoking these same feelings is a far greater task than we anticipate, and the cost associated with building a house of that uses that vernacular might be cost prohibitive.

Everybody can paint on a canvas, but only a few people can paint in a way that moves people. If you are a common artist, it is much easier to create a painting that people like and will buy by simply painting a beautiful landscape than it is an abstract piece of art that people love. Modern architecture is abstract art, and you better be really good at it – or you are just splattering paint on a canvas.

14 lavardera January 9, 2009 at 6:10 pm

modern architecture is not abstract art – this is an empty stereotype. Modern design can be as warm as any traditional design, warm or cold are just two characteristics that could be from modern or traditional homes.

People constantly try to build a basis for the rejection of modern design on this and it just does not hold true. What does hold true is that people just don’t think very much, from consumers to presidents, and that’s why housing, and much else is in so much trouble.

I think a little warm modernism that could coax people out of that familiar (and mindless) rut is just what we need. In fact its just the kind of thing that can make them start looking at the rest of their lives with fresh eyes. A little catalyst never hurt anybody.

15 Sea Wolf January 9, 2009 at 6:38 pm

I like honest approaches to time, place, and culture, whether deemed Modern or not. That said, here are some questions your defense of Modernism leaves out: If Modernism is a new and innovative response to our time, how come so many houses published in Dwell magazine have an Eames chair (circa 1956) in them? If Modernism is about place, then how come so many Modernist houses present themselves as sculptural forms set AGAINST the backdrop of landscape, whether urban or natural. One design shown in Dwell involved knocking down a Seattle Bungalow and putting in its place a cubist form seemingly floating above white gravel . . . how is this an appropriate response to place? It only works its visual trick with the rest of the neighborhood as a foil. If Modernism is an honest response to climate, then why does so much Modernism dismiss a sheltering pitched roof out of hand? Rocio Romero’s LV prefab (which I really like nonetheless) in Missouri goes through great lengths to channel away rainwater and otherwise appear as though its flat roof were a perfectly obvious and rational response to a temperate climate with year-round rains, heavy winter snows and broiling hot summer days. I’m just asking.

16 tlynch January 9, 2009 at 6:43 pm

I disagree that it is an empty stereotype, instead, I think it is a very good analogy.

People have reactions to things for many reasons. Many people love landscape paintings, or photos of sunsets, even when they are not great art. I believe this is primarily because of the memories that they relate to. They are not being moved by the actual composition of the art, but rather by the fact that they are a depiction of something that the viewer is fond of.

You do not have that same crutch with modern art. The colors and composition alone must reach the viewer, this is much more difficult. But if done correctly can be mcuh more direct and pure.

Traditional houses are like landscape paintings, most are really not that good, but the average person can see things in them that they can relate to and like. Even if they are terrible architecture, people look do not notice because it looks like something that they have good feelings about.

In a similar fashion, modern houses are like abstract art. They do not use the standard elements in a superficial manner that the user can easily relate to. The form alone must convey the feelings that the user wants to feel.

17 Brandon January 9, 2009 at 8:08 pm

I suspect that many of the design decisions of the LV homes were driven (no pun intended) by the need to pack the components on the back of a truck. Even so, aesthetics *are* important, and a flat roof just does it for a lot of people. There are trade-offs with any design choice, and I’m reluctant to conclude that Rocio Romero’s choices were due to a slavish devotion to modernist tropes.

That said, I love modern homes that take archetypes like gabled roofs and do something relevant, appropriate, and true with them. For me, modernism is about honest, efficient uses of materials. So, an Eames chair, even 50 years on, is a perfectly legitimate choice for a modern home (assuming that it’s comfortable for you, too). But, I also love the look and feel of something like de la Espada. Of course, the common thread between the two is that they’re both *ridiculously* expensive.

And, if I can bring this back in a roundabout way to the 100K Houses, this overpricing is where the modern design industrial complex frequently fails to live up to its ideals (as I understand them). I once wrote a letter to the founder of DWR in which I tried to get him to address the disconnection between the price of modern, mass-produced objects they sell and the cost of materials and labor used to make them. Why does a plywood Eames chair cost $500? It’s PLYWOOD and there’s no way the forms used to make them weren’t fully amortized a generation or two ago. I’m all for profit, but it just seems perverse.

So, a house like the 100K is right up my street, even if I wouldn’t make all of the same decisions that Chad et al have made. I think a truly modern house should try to address the housing needs (and wants, too, to some degree) of the masses. Otherwise, it’s just a flavor for the rich to choose. Don’t get me wrong; I love my rich friends’ sleek homes. They’re beautiful, and I envy them up to a point. But, those houses are built just like the high-end homes in gated communities that we love to vilify.

It’s like trying to assert that a Ferrari F430 is inherently more modern than a Rolls-Royce Phantom because the former uses aluminum and carbon fiber instead of burled walnut and leather. The reality is that neither car is particularly modern because they’re manufactured in much the same, labor-intensive way. A Honda Civic, by comparison, is the truly modern car.

I must confess that I’d happily accept any of the foregoing stuff. The chairs, the houses, the cars. But my desire to own them doesn’t make them modern. I’ve gone very long here, and I’ve strayed, so let me summarize:

The shape of the roof doesn’t make it modern or not modern. Standing out or blending in doesn’t make it modern or not modern. For me, modern is about the process used to arrive at the conclusion. 100K is definitely and justifiably modern.

18 Jerry Hajek January 9, 2009 at 8:08 pm

Greg, I couldn’t agree more. I react to your designs on that basis (‘warm modernism’, which I think is a very apt description), and some of the ‘mid-century moderns’ that came and went in CA are good examples of a style that is still attractive to a widening segment of the public. It is still true that an unfortunate number of the mcm’s of that era were not built terribly well and are energy sieves which got them a bad rep which I feel is still hanging over the the ‘moderns’. However, they’re are getting tremendous interest and their pricing reflects their popularity with folks like us. (Until the RE bubble went *poof*, but that’s another line of discussion…) That’s a nice taste trend to contemplate and respond to.
I don’t think that it’s impossible to blend a certain level of local vernacular style into a ‘modern’ framework; I’ve seen it done. It makes sense and would have an appeal to a buyer that is primarily looking for a place to raise the kids, bbq in the yard, and store the ‘stuff’ that we collect as our lives unwind. (By the by; More Closet Space! Or Something like that….Anything like that…. It will remain a demand no matter What it looks like, and it will always be a selling point….I see photo spreads of attractive homes and still wonder where the junk is hiding. I KNOW they’ve got ‘stuff’ squirreled away Somewhere beyond the field of view; we’re not all that different, ultimately.)
…and I don’t even want to think about the ‘art’ of architecture. I can appreciate it. I can’t afford to live in it. I have art. And, no, it’s not dogs playing poker (ceramics, some prints, even neon). Excessive glass means no place to hang it. And most lots don’t have a view, unless you like your neighbors’ carport/patio/the pickup under ‘restoration’. Site sensitive…within reason and a rationale that doesn’t mean meshing with a machine for living, but a space one can live within without major changes in the way one lives.

19 lavardera January 9, 2009 at 9:15 pm

tlynch, you’re wrong. It doesn’t work like that. Yes, people look at traditional homes and identify it with comfort and warmth – they read it like a sign whether the house is contrary or not. Yet you expect them to look at modern houses and suddenly become inqusitive and thoughtful. They don’t – they reject it out of hand, it is cold, or some other empty stereotype. They read it and react in the same way they do a traditional house. People have been conditioned to experience their world this way.
The more people are exposed to things that force them to question those assumptions the better the chance they can break the behaviour.

20 lavardera January 9, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Sea-Wolf, I agree with your crit of the LV. However I would counter that most of the traditional housing built in the US makes this same kind of mistake with regard to context and/or climate. The LV at least brings to the table a whole host of challenges, from how we build houses to what they look like and how big they are. For a placeless and contextless product I tend to cut the LV some slack on these issues.

21 Scoats January 9, 2009 at 9:37 pm

lavardera, I respectfully disagree.

If a modern home is bright and fun, I think people will like it on it’s merits if its particular aspects appeal to them. Too often modern homes are cold, sterile and to be honest bland.

The Esterick House in East Falls, while maybe unfair since it is a masterpiece, is a place that has a homey interior.

22 tlynch January 10, 2009 at 1:31 am

In my first post I stated that most people do not think to much. I was going to write that most people are stupid, but that might be a little too harsh.

I would say that intelligent, thinking, people can understand modern architecture and are primarily drawn to it on an intellectual level more than a subconscious, emotional level, or possibly the intellectual level leads to an emotional level once the house is fully understood.

The more common modern architecture becomes, the more comfortable people will get with it, and the outright and irrational rejection might become less common This will lead to more people allowing themselves to take the time to understand it.

The Esterick House appears to be a good example of a modern home that emotionally touches people without traditional details.

The Eames Lounge Chair is another example of modern design that people have an emotional reaction to. Maybe the way that it relates to the human body is so fundamental that almost everyone can feel it without having to intellectualize it.

Think about the Roman arch and the Gothic arch. I believe that the emotional reaction to each of them is not a matter of being conditioned, but rather a reaction to the innate understanding that we have for their forms. This sort of reaction is what is often overlooked with modern architecture. I am not suggesting that we should continue to take items that we have connections to and falsely place them in our homes to evoke certain feelings, but that truly great modern architecture will evoke the feelings that we want in a home.

23 anje January 12, 2009 at 9:45 am

Just a quick comment on style – without being anti-modern I think one element of the 100k/120k houses that makes them less comfortable and warm-feeling is that very high ceiling in the common space. I understand that the current design saves labor costs. Although high ceilings permit some of the very nice light in the homes, 1) doesn’t it take more energy to heat a tall space like that? (cf the low-ceilinged trinities of Fishtown that were not built for LEED but are pretty energy-efficient nonetheless) and 2) people like cosy spaces. Who wants to feel lost in her own kitchen?

I do like the homes as they are, but I think a lot of fence-sitters can be won over by some changes to the vertical space.

24 chad January 12, 2009 at 11:31 am

Anje – Lower ceilings to win over more people? News to me. High ceilings sells home. We say it all the time in RE. The closer a home’s ceilings are to 8′ the harder it is to sell…

I hear you on the more energy to heat and cool. There are a couple things that swayed us in this direction. One, with a pretty small house, the high ceilings help compensate for the smaller than average square footage. Two, the use of radiant heating and tight SIP construction greatly reduces the impact of a little extra cubic footage in our HVAC calcs.

25 Jerry Hajek January 12, 2009 at 4:20 pm

The classic way to distribute heat/a.c.’d air in a high-ceiling application is the ceiling fan. Of course it helps when there’s a appropriately mounted box in the ceiling for mounting and power. But then, some folks hate ceiling fans.

26 Grant January 12, 2009 at 6:27 pm

As I see it, the primary difficulty with widespread acceptance of modern architecture is sense of place. In So Cal where whole neighborhoods are built with a modern style, modern architecture gets zero resistance.
But would it be appropriate to place to build a modern structure in the middle of Colonial Williamaburg?
I think people would understandably reject such an out of place house.
I don’t think most people inherently reject modern architecture. I just don’t think most developed communities have much “place” where modern architecture “fits in” and doesn’t look and feel like an invader.
I “feel” like the 100k house has an appropriate sense of place. It doesn’t just use ita surroundings as a “foil” for attention (as someone else alluded to earlier).
Yes, we need more places where modern architecture fits.
Or else we need to do a better job at “fitting” modern architecture to the sense of place where we are building. Then modern architecture will be “comfortable” to the masses and increase in popularity.
The house I am planning to build is modern in its technology, materials, energy efficiency, and construction techniques. But to give it a sense of place here in the rural southeast, I am drawing heavily upon traditional southern architecture with wrap around porches an
The design is functional, not merely false decoration.
Without an effort to fit “place” modern design is all too often intrusive.
Once again, I think the 100k house fits its “place” quite well.

27 Grant January 12, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Sorry for the typos. I’m still getting used to this BB Storm.

28 lavardera January 12, 2009 at 6:41 pm

Grant, I understand your reasoning, but it does not stand up. Society Hill in Philadelphia, perhaps one of the oldest neighborhoods in the nation is full of modern houses. They live well with the other houses – context is a lot stronger than most people give credit. You would think that one modern house might destroy a neighborhood, when in fact the opposite is true, that the contrast often enhances both.

More often a new house that tries to be “historical” does more damage than a modern house – unless it can be built to the same standards and detail as the original. This is why in fact the Secretary of the Interiors reccommendations for the treatment of historic buildings say that new work should be differentiated from the historic elements:
“9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.”

The last point I’d like to make is that nobody is asking for widespread acceptance of modern houses. All I am asking for is that people who like modern houses have the opportunity to buy one at all! Right now the only choice is a difficult and often more expensive path for a custom project. That is not a lot to ask, and there is a lot of prejudice built into the system – loans, appraisals, etc that discriminates against the modern house and the people who prefer them. I’d like to see all that go away.

29 Carina January 13, 2009 at 12:45 am

You don’t have the urge to order them a copy of The Fountainhead? No?

30 Grant January 13, 2009 at 6:19 pm

I’m sorry this is so long, but I’ve really got a lot of thoughts about this… Too many people seem to think the ideas they are passionate about should be embraced by EVERYONE, because it is so self-evident how great their ideas are!


Whether you agree with the reasoning or not, I would assert that my comments are “common perception.” My neighborhood ARC would never approve the kind of architcture in the 120K house… They would claim non-comformance with the character of the neighborhood. The neighborhood is primarily the “classical architecture” brick McMansions (as opposed to faux architecture brick McMansions). Most are Colonial or Georgian in influence.

Only one is a faux architectural style with some drivet finishes that really look tacky! (Most of the McMansion neighborhoods in the area rely upon such cheap and tacky faux styling of the facade… Around here, it is hard to find a new neighborhood where such bad architecture doesn’t predominate.) Another house in my neighborhood tried too hard to be “impressive” with its 3 story columns that lead to a porch roof that isn’t scaled properly for the column height. This is aggravated by its siting up on the top of the ridge where the angle gives you the impression you are looking up the stuck up nose of the house… perhaps that is architecturally appropriate, but somehow I doubt it is the impression they were going for.

Other than those two poorly conceived houses, the architecture is pretty “classic” and appropriate to our local history. One of the houses is a very unique “modern” blend of styles that is architecturally impressive (imposing granite block facades and rounded copper roofed dormers, etc.) and well executed but still fits the “classic” “place” of the neighborhood. It also sits high above the road on the crest of the ridge, but its “design” and landscaping “grounds it” properly. Their architect did an exceptionally good job. It certainly is, however, ostentatious and ~7,000 sf. While I’m not exactly building a small house, I certainly don’t want my house too “look” that big. There is a 10,000 sf house down the street that “looks” like it might be 4,000 sf, and comes across as more modest. To me, that is much more impressive of a feat…

I’m planning on building the only house in the neighborhood that isn’t primarily brick and I’m expecting some resistance from the ARC. I’m going to argue the need for architectural diversity to keep the neighborhood interesting, and by drawing upon a Colonial plantation architectural style I will help the design of my house to “fit” the “place” of my neighborhood despite the lack of brick. I am going to such efforts because I am personally moved by many aspects of modern design, and hope to blend it seamlessly with the more classical lines of a Colonial plantation house that will fit the more traditional “place” of this neighborhood.

Sara made a comment I felt a strong association with: “I would just rather deconstruct a bungalow and then redesign it with a 21st century language/value set. So in essence, as you said, master that language and break new ground.” I had no recognized “intent” to do something like this starting out, but this is essentially what I am also doing and have hired an architect to help me accomplish properly… Where bungalows fit the “place,” it is readily possible to design “modern” bungalows that seamlessly and beautifully “blend.” In many rural farming communities people are designing very “modern” and comfortable homes with structures that resemble barns to fit the “place.” [I love the HGTV show, "Beyond the Box." That is my idea of "modern" architecture.]

Around where I live the ranch, colonial, and georgian styles tend to historically predominate. You have to go to the older inner city of Anniston to find many bungalows… They are uncommon and poorly maintained, and not a popular architectural style in these parts… Probably because such a standard bungalow form did not (does not?) function well in our climate. With modern energy efficient conditioning systems and tight construction, however, Birmingham has a beautiful planned development called Mt. Laurel, that is successfully bringing back the bungalow style and forcing it to work with the help of modern active conditioning systems.

More recently, the multi-gabled, atrocious McMansion styling (characterized by drivet trim around the windows and/or faux blocks at the corners) has sadly infiltrated and dominated the 2,500 to 4,000 sf “home builders association” driven home market. But this has become a locally identifiable and “popular” “style” that is (unfortunately) becoming a distinct part of our “place.”

Comparable, and yet distinctly different faux McMansion styles have come to dominate new neighborhoods in other parts of the country. The mass production neighborhoods in Kansas City, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, and Salt Lake City, each have a uniquely different sense of “place” and architectural styling that seems to draw upon local aesthetics. (I’ve travelled to each of these cities recently and the local sense of “place” in the unique architectural styles spoke loudly.) The local aesthetics were literally developed over centuries as “form” adapted to local climate and usage “function” needs. The mass production neighborhoods have adapted to cater to the resulting dominate “feel” of the local architectural preferences.

Form follows function and I am deconstructing a Southern Plantation house and redesigning it with a 21st century language / value set and with 21st century materials and systems. I hope to give it a distinctive “modern” edge while blending seamlessly with the classic roots of Colonial architecture that is such a strong part of our local sense of “place.” My wife also prefers the more classical architecture, so the blend of Colonial with modern is thereby also a compromise to meet both of “our” preferences.

What new ground do I hope to break? I am actually returning to the architectural understanding/genius of the 18th and 19th centuries (when central air wasn’t an option to ensure comfort) to design a house with passive air flow, shading, and orientation that helps to PASSIVELY manage both the humidity and the temperature of the house. Most architects have forgotten these skills as they have become completely reliant upon active conditioning systems to do this job for them. The result is wasteful energy consumption and neighborhoods haphazardly oriented without thought for climatic conditions. Such houses are also not passively livable in the event of a catastrophe…

I want to combine the historical southern architectural principles that enabled passive livability with modern material and systems advances such as ICF walls, energy-efficient windows, a metal SIP roof, a radiant floor system, and a whole-house ERV system. I want to further enhance livability with passive solar orientation, solar water heaters, and proper day-lighting, supplemented by energy efficient light fixtures and energy-star appliances. I’m going to pre-wire for PV panels so that when it financially makes sense to add them in the future, my home can become net zero-energy.

For hot & humid Alabama, the more traditional “modern” design (hearkening to the movement in the 1950s and 1960s) would likely not have the proper air flow patterns to lower indoor humidity levels and ensure the comfort or health of a home PASSIVELY. The resulting comfort and energy consumption issues have likely “historically” precluded spreading of this architectural style into this climate, just like adobe is likely to have climate problems here (without extraordinary design controls) and thus has also not become widespread.

Much of what we recognize as modern design only became possible due to the availability of active (energy hogging) conditioning systems. The advent of tight construction, active ventillation, better windows and doors, and energy efficient conditioning systems like ground source heat pumps and ERVs/HRVs are finally making “modern design” less of an enemy to energy-efficiency in hot AND humid climates… or the enemy of comfort in frigidly cold climates (How many modern homes from the 1960′s are infamous for their lack of even temperature through the home or dampness problems in certain corners of the home, due to the uneven airflow frequently caused by the “lines” of the 1950′ & 1960′s architectural designs??? I love the beauty of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces, but some of them are notoriously less than comfortable to live in and expensive to maintain.) Such pre-conceptions hinder new efforts to spread such architectural styles into climates where they previously failed to perform.

Prior to modern conditioning systems, the traditional lines of “modern design” really didn’t make sense for various climates. Historically, architecture was “tuned” to the needs of the “place.” The resulting architecture gradually defined the character of the place… A rustic mountain lodge would somehow seem inappropriate, prospectively even “silly” in the middle of San Francisco…

As someone else pointed out, a traditional flat roof (without expensive architectural design improvements) can be a maintenance nightmare in a snowy climate, or for that matter in a rainy climate. Modern materials and systems now make alternative design strategies more workable for varying climates, but the design is so counter-intuitive to the historical sense of “place” that it is often visually uncomfortable to most “locals.” It often “feels” like the architect is forcing a square peg into a round hole. Thus if you want it, you better plan on a custom build and a limited re-sale market (at least until the “performance” and durability of the design is proven), and potentially friction with neighbors who don’t appreciate the architectural “discontinuity.”

Houses like I see (and honestly love) in Dwell are almost non-existant here in rural Alabama… They just haven’t historically been practical for our climate. Just like you don’t see many adobe houses here either. Even if modern technologies make them functional today, they just don’t historically fit the sense of “place” so not many get built.

As for me, I not only want an energy efficient house, but I also want a “passively livable” house. If the power goes off or if systems break down and can’t be fixed, I want my house to continue to be comfortably livable. The 18th and 19th century architects knew how to do that… But it takes careful engineering, and quite frankly I don’t know that a 1,300 sf space can be functionally passive livable in extreme weather.

The antebellum mansions that are passively “comfortably” livable here in the southeast are not small homes. They have high ceilings and carefully planned airflow pathways that require additional square footage in the form of wide hallways and stairwells. They have expensive porches and belvederes and cupolas. They have ideal passively comfortable spaces for hot weather and for cold weather which aren’t necessarily the same and therefore significant increases in the square footage of the home. They have passively climate controlled food storage rooms that enable passive livability without daily, weekly, or even monthly access to a grocery store.

I respect what is being done with homes like the 100K home, but some people want a “passively livable” home that is also durable and highly energy efficient. That’s much easier to do with a larger footprint. To control the environmental impact, I am designing my home so that it can be a zero energy home with the addition of solar panels. The key to accomplishing that is to limit the energy consumption of active systems as much as possible… Passive lighting, passive heating and cooling, passive dehumidification and moisture control. Energy efficient active systems are only used as supplementation during extreme weather conditions… If all of the technology fails… the house will still be comfortable…

If an architect can design a “modern architecture” home with a small footprint that will accomplish such a level of passive livability here in the southeast, I’d be interested. I haven’t seen (or at least not recognized) it yet. There really is more than one path to being eco-conscious and sustainable.

Much of Japan has a VERY similar climate and flora as Alabama. I lived there for two years and fell in love with historical Japanese architecture which has proven to be passively livable for over 2000 years. Modern Japanese architecture continues to attempt to adopt and adapt that historical sense of “place.” The sense of “place” is noticeably architecturally different in Shikoku than it is in Nagano… At one point, I thought I would like to build a modern Japanese home with Historical Shikoku architectural roots, here in Alabama, because it would “functionally” be an excellent fit to the local environmental conditions, and would be architecturally beautiful and interesting. But to be “passively” functional it still requires a large footprint and a lot more materials.

But when a house is built to save energy and be durable and comfortable for hundreds of years is that not a wise investment in resources (even if it uses a lot more construction materials), as compared to relatively throw-away construction and limited life active systems to enhance livability??? I think the comfort and durability of 150+ year old antebellum southern homes and 1000 year old Japanese homes still have a lot to teach us to enhance “modern architecture.”

Who knows, I may still build a traditional Japanese style house someday… But I’d have to accept that I would have a very limited resale market and I would have to learn to manage and maintain the property completely myself, because locals would not understand how the house functions as a “system.” Even getting an architect and contractor to help properly design and build it would be an expensive and difficult learning curve… And I probably wouldn’t get approval to build it in a neighborhood with an ARC, because “if” it didn’t function as planned, it would become a liability to the neighborhood.

Such “practical concerns” are also what perpetuates systemic discrimination against modern houses. Too many “experimental” modern houses did not “function” as intended, and the resulting discomfort has made them financial liabilities (hard to maintenance, difficult to sell, etc.). “Unknown” and “unproven” are the very definition of risk, and loans and appraisals are all based upon managing risk to the financial institutions… The bias will not go away until the risk is reduced. As proven as (active system reliant) PassivHaus design is, the financial and construction industries are STILL shy of embracing it here in America.

An interesting thought: Eventually, the inherent risks associated with the faux McMansions is going to catch up with the financial institutions. They are not built for energy effeciency or for durability. Their costs of continued operation are going to far out-strip their loan value over time. When that happens, the real estate market losses on these homes are going to eclipse even what we are currently seeing. This is going to cause such cheaply/poorly built McMansion neighborhoods to turn into the “slums” of the future.

In the future: Smart design… proven to be energy-efficient and durable design… is going to be the “low risk” within the financial market place. When the real estate bubble finishes imploding upon itself, cheaply built tract houses will never again be looked upon the same by the financial markets. The days of the faux McMansion really are over. Try selling one 10 years from now if you still own it, when the high energy consumption and maintenance headaches are “proven.” Nobody is going to want to buy them, because on a monthly cash flow basis it will be smarter and cheaper to build a well-designed and properly constructed house. The faux McMansions are going to have comparable resale value to a used Yugo… because nobody is going to want these “failed” houses.

In the aftermath of the pending McMansion debacle, “proven” construction techniques and styles will get more positive attention from the financial companies. Good design such as is found in Dwell magazine and in the 100K house, that helps “prove” the long-term viability of modern design in varying applications and climates, will help eliminate the bias you complain about within the financial institutions. Nothing less will.

The failure of the McMansions may open the eyes of homeowners a little wider as to what is truly appropriate to their “place.” Many will want to look back to the “safe” houses of the previous century with their lower maintnenance costs for such security. (Honestly, ante-bellum plantation architecture is where I have ultimately decided to look.) But many more will open their minds to the scientific proof of alternative construction practices and modern design as they also seek to control rising energy costs.

As in all previous generations, those who have the resources to build a more comfortable, passively livable, durable, and sustainable home will likely do so. “Real” mansions won’t go out of fashion, no matter how resource conscious we become. The real mansions will just become more efficient at conserving the use of resources even if it means investing in the use of higher volumes of durable resources. But only the truly wealthy can afford to build “real” mansions that are truly comfortable and sustainable, and that will stand the test of time.

It is only the faux mansions that are unsustainable… The “masses” need their own sustainable options, and modern architecture has a critical role in finding such solutions. Some sacrifices will have to be made to achieve affordability for the masses.

I think the change permitting wider acceptance of “modern architecture aesthetics” which you seek is mostly on its way… But then again, few “locals” will willingly want to let go of their historic sense of “place.”

I guess what concerns me is “If” our nation continues to become increasingly transient, the historical sense of place may degrade with that transience, as homeowners bring their varying aesthetic styles with them as they are transplanted to new “places.” Unfortunately (and ironically), the spread of such cultural and even architectural diversity is also actually likely to create more homogenization… with less “local flavor” and less local cultural pride, and more evenly expressed individuality.

Diversity leading to homogenized architectural chaos… Is that really a good thing??? On a macro scale, who would be interested in visiting the Isles of Greece, or the City of Venice, or Williamsburg, or New York City, or San Francisco, or Eugene, OR, or New Orleans, or Natchez, MS, if the local sense of place was lost by such homogenized architectural chaos?

On a micro-scale, how rare would it be to successfully combine southwestern adobe, southern colonial, mediterranean, and modern architecture all into one seamless masterpiece of an architectural statement? The functions of the various forms are so incompatible it probably isn’t possible to make a viable architectural statement by blending such diverse styles.

If such architectural chaos is a horrible thought on both the macro scale and the micro scale (and I think it is self-evident that it is), what is wrong with preserving common architectural threads on the scale of our neighborhoods to maintain the desired sense of place???

Modern architecture has its place, but understandably not everyone wants it next door altering the sense of “place” the rest of the neighborhood has created for themselves… I think this should be respected to avoid the continued encroachment of homogenizing architectural chaos. To me, that would be as bad as the strip malling of America has been! All sense of local flavor would be lost. Which town am I in? They all just become comparable architectural “anything goes” hodge-podges… no matter how thoughtful and even “brilliant” the individual house designs are. To me, that’s not a compelling future for architecture…

There are so many reasons for me to get flamed by this crowd for this post… I guess I will get my fire extinguisher ready.

31 lavardera January 13, 2009 at 6:43 pm

I can assure that any sense of place in a recently built traditional subdivision is as artificial as disney world. An enclave of houses designed for their climate as you are describing would work well with any mix of house styles as long as they addressed these local issues appropriately. But your head image of a modern box of glass is nothing more than a stereotype of modern. What you are describing is a historical style called the International Style, featured in a show at the MOMA in the 1930s, where the outstanding features were similar white boxes regardless of location. Many people are still stuck in that image, but that is not what Modern is. Its simply a matter of building for today and avoiding historical detail or references.

Now if anybody thinks that is going to spoil their neighborhood that problem is in their head only. An ARC has every right to discriminate, no matter how stupid, and anybody who buys a building lot in a subdivision with an ARC has agreed to be subject to their over sight. You make your bed, you lie in it. The record will show that the neighborhoods with the greatest value in the nation have no such controls and a diversity of architectural styles. Whatever these committees believe they are achieving I can assure you its more about self validation than building community.

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