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Americans Spurn Modern Homes



Resistance to contemporary design has been the rule, except when the public embraced modern homes that were appropriately priced, well designed, and allowed for the privacy and organization of family living. Joe Eichler in California, whose production houses in the 1950's now sell for 30x what they did when they were built. Or how about the 20,000+ Levitt homes designed by Alfred Levitt, in Levittown NY, which were mass produced with panelization and prefabrication? Those now go for 10 to 15x their original prices. The first generation of homes in Reston Virginia, where Robert E Simon insisted on good design; or at Columbia Md, where the Rouse's insisted also.

But these are the exceptions, and Levitt, Rouse, and nearly all of the other big builders threw in the towel and followed the styles promoted in the mass magazines.. That despite the fact that the buyers of Eichler and the first generation Levitt homes loved them. There were other good reasons: Mass production of components resulted in lower construction costs for the builders who used the mass produced siding products, trim products, windows, etc. Today it is very expensive to buck the trend. The trend to use plastics to replace nearly all the natural materials formerly used in housing has reinforced this trend.
Alfred Levitt actually took most of his cues from Wright, and as there really weren't mass produced building products in the years immediately following WWII, he could achieve the lowest prices in the industry by innovating. That all ended five years later, when his brother William converted 100% to neo colonial.

Only with the advent of new programmatic requirements requiring new solutions will we again have an opportunity to see house design use innovative materials and techniques.

Richard Rosen, AIA


Cyburbian Emeritus
ASQ, where are you?

Personally, I don't spurn modern homes becasue of material or technique - its the quality! ...I suppose lack of quality is a technique in itself.

In the housing boom southeastern Wisconsin has experienced over the past 11+ years, everyone with a hammer thinks he can become a "spec" homebuilder. As a result, quality is hit-n-miss. "They just don't build 'em like they used to".

Of course, there are obvious exceptions, but the quality builders KNOW they are quality builders, and gravitate to the upper end of the market, building fewer units with higher profit margins.

Why do we avoid the contemporary? Well me -- I own a 1931 colonial -- in our market new homes of comparable craftsmanship sell for 2x to 3x the price for the same floor area and amenities.

On a related note, I spent my childhood in the late '60's and early '70's growing up in the "Thunder Hill" neighborhood of Columbia, MD. Now as a professional planner I enjoy periodic visits to observe how the neighborhood has matured. I am always pleasantly surprised.


Better quality in less sq ftg?

If you look to building a livable space in a very small area, 200 to 900 square feet in space, the materials used are going to have to be very superior. Ive found in the book 'New Small Homes" by Aurora Cuito , examples of dwellings squeezed into hi density urban locales and also prefabricated residences that look spacious and absolutely functional, utilizing loft space, built ins, natural light sources, and lots of other way out ideas for living in a space the size of a mouse hole.

Kaufman & Kaufman Prototypes Su Si and FRED, don't call it a new mobile home, its a house container!

I live in a basic low ceilinged cinderblock walkout built probably in the thirties. it is beautifully sited overlooking giant pine trees and a spring fed 300 acre lake. We have run out of room in our 1200 sq ft place, and want to expand but we are seriously considering other design and material solutions, before calling the build a shell guys to rough in another box to the back of the house.
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Modern Housing

In California, "modern" housing types actually dominate the market-

Depending on your defintion of "modern!"

None of the stuff we get looks like a "colonial," nor does it really look "Mediterranean" in anything but name and the use of stucco. Lots of swooping lines, big windows, open floor plans. I would argue that many of these features ARE modern. Not the bizarro Rem Koolhas modern, but new California houses are certainly not, in general, traditional.

Now, 250 of these "modern" houses, with their four car garages (Le Corbu would love the dominance of the car in suburban California), and the Engineering-Division defined street widths (four fire trucks need to drive down the street simultaneously-just in case!) make for pretty grim neighborhoods. But, who cares about neighborhoods, we just need to fire up the DVD player and close out the world!