New Houses for a New Century

Four residential architects redefine home sweet home.

March 1, 2000

Several months ago we looked at some of the most traditional housing styles with the idea that architecture is often a key selling point in real estate and that salespeople can benefit from knowing the particulars of different styles.

This month we interview four architects who are on the cutting edge of home design about some of their most recent projects and how they illustrate what’s on the horizon in terms of new residential development.

Predicting the future is a notoriously risky venture. Weren’t we all supposed to be living in geodesic domes by now, with spaceships parked in the garage? None of the architects we consulted are predicting anything that extreme. As a matter of fact, the future--if these designers are right--looks a lot like what we’re used to. The main differences are materials and technology.

“A house is a machine for living in,” the great modernist architect Le Corbusier said. That’s more than ever the case today, with computers and microprocessors finding their way into everything from window blinds to coffeemakers. The trick is to make these high-tech habitats cozy. These four architects are leading the way.

Modern angles

“There aren’t many 90-degree corners in this house,” says Colleen Mahoney of a beach house she designed north of San Francisco several years ago.

Mahoney, the founder of Mahoney Architects, Tiburon, Calif., says the innovative floor plan of the house is a testament both to new technology and to the new realities confronting residential architects in the 21st century.

Computers now make the calculations involved in curved and oddly angled designs much easier, and the highly restricted and regulated nature of residential development today makes these design innovations necessary.

“There were restrictions on heights, setbacks, distance from the water, and many other details,” says Mahoney. “When you’re given very specific size and design limits, you have to work harder to give the interior of a house some visual interest.”

The house, which is slightly less than 2,000 square feet, also allowed Mahoney to demonstrate one of her guiding philosophies as a designer--that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

“My premise is that if a house needs an intercom, it’s too big,” she says. “I think houses will get smaller in the future. We’re starting to see a lot of 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot houses being built, which is ridiculous. They’re not beautiful, and they’re not comfortable. They’re drafty and hard to furnish. You don’t want houses to be monumental.”

(Mahoney practices what she preaches. Her own house, a vintage 1940s bungalow, is about 1,200 square feet.)

Smaller, however, doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper. The beach house, minus the very high-priced lot it sits on, cost about $750,000 to build.

The reason is the care lavished on details. “There’s custom tile in the master bathroom, custom glass in the guest bathroom, and custom doorknobs throughout the house,” says Mahoney.

She adds that “we’re finally seeing a strong resurgence of artisans participating in the creation of a house, because people can afford them and see the value of them.”

The traditionalist

It’s a truism in real estate and architectural circles that modernism has failed when it comes to house design.

Look at just about any recent development or subdivision, and it’s almost as if the 20th century had never happened. What sells today are the same styles that appealed to our grandparents and great-grandparents: Tudor cottages, prairie bungalows, and mock Victorian and Georgian minimansions.

Don’t be deceived, however, says Scott Fiorentino of TMS Architects, Portsmouth, N.H. “People may want the outside to look like 1900, but they don’t want the inside to look that way.”

This duality, a traditional facade coupled with a modern interior, is key to understanding current residential design.

A house Fiorentino recently designed on a golf course in New Hampshire has a shingle-style exterior with the graceful lines of a turn-of-the-century Adirondack lodge. (Even here, however, looks can be deceiving. The rusticated detailing is made of synthetic stone, a modern product that’s just as durable as the real thing but about 30 percent cheaper.)

Inside, everything revolves around a large combination kitchen-dining-living room area that’s about as far from typical Victorian notions of domestic life as a hot tub.

This space, universally known as the great room, is happening all over the country and at just about every price level.

The reasons are twofold: The first is that lifestyles are more casual today. The second has to do with technology. New engineered lumber and steel framing methods make large-volume rooms possible, and improved heating and cooling methods make them practical.

“You don’t find cathedral ceilings in authentic Victorian houses,” says Fiorentino. “Today, however, you can heat these spaces efficiently and not feel that your money is going out the window in the wintertime.”

An open house

A decidedly modern professional couple gave John Banks of John Banks Architects in Chicago the go-ahead to design a decidedly modern three-story house in what’s known as Harbor Country--the Midwestern equivalent of the Hamptons--in southwestern Michigan.

The house is about 7,500 square feet and constructed of buff-colored brick. It shows how open floor plans, a key trend of the past few years, can be used to create a house that’s both comfortable and practical.

“The first floor is completely open,” says Banks. “The room dividers are cabinetry boxes that create separate spaces for cooking and dining and lounging. The back wall is a continuous plane that goes from the master bedroom at one end to the breakfast room at the other and gives the house a very spacious, flowing appearance.”

At the center of the house is the kitchen and a great room area. “Kitchens are more important than ever,” says Banks. “Even when people don’t do a lot of cooking, the kitchen is where they gather and socialize.”

The latest wrinkle in kitchen design? A computer station. “Most people want a place where they can plug in a laptop and surf Martha Stewart,” says Banks.

Less important today, he says, are formal living and dining rooms. “People still ask for them because they think it will make a house easier to resell, but they’re generally unused.”

The house also demonstrates another trend that many say will become more important in the future--separate spaces for couples who, to some degree, both live and work at home. The house contains separate offices, separate dressing rooms, and even separate two-car garages.

The trick, says Banks, is juggling the simultaneous demand for modern convenience and traditional styling. “People today want a zone of safety and comfort at the end of the day. They don’t want to come home to some cold steel-and-glass house that feels like an office building.”

No wasted space

How does an annual heating bill of $67 strike you? That’s what Kirk Gastinger of Gastinger Walker Harden Architects in Kansas City, Kan., pays for the 2,000-square-foot house he recently built for himself on a site just west of that city’s Country Club Plaza shopping district.

The remarkable thing is that he achieved that level of efficiency not by adding any fancy high-tech energy savers but by going back to some fairly basic principles of home building.

The first is that the house, which is oriented on an east-west lot, is constructed around a courtyard that acts as a collector of light and passive solar heat. The second is a Russian stove, or radiant heat fireplace, in the two-story dining room. “I put a little fire in it in the morning and another at night,” says Gastinger. “The heat circulates through the chimney and heats up the tiles and masonry. If you touch the bricks six or seven hours later, they’re still hot. It heats the whole house.”

The house, in many ways, is defiantly low-tech. “We operate the house,” he says. “It doesn’t operate us.”

Gastinger is a strong advocate of smaller houses, a trend he sees taking off among older and childless couples.

“I advise clients to build the smallest house they can afford from a functional standpoint,” he says. “That way, you have money for the countertops you want, the hardware, the sinks, and the floor finishes.”

The layout of the house is designed both to minimize wasted space--the only real hallway is a suspended catwalk with a glass floor that goes through the dining room--and to accommodate Gastinger’s lifestyle. He doesn’t have a great view from his living room but says, “I don’t need one because I’m in there mainly at night. On the other hand, I’m in the dining room a lot during the day and like being able to look outside. That made me realize the living room didn’t have to be in the center of the house.”

Robert Sharoff is an architectural writer for The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Magazine. With photographer William Zbaren, he has produced books highlighting the architecture of Detroit and St. Louis. He is a former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.

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