Future HousingAs we embark on the twenty-first century, one of the favourite pastimes this
time of year is looking into the future. Whether it's comedians or
supermarket tabloids, everyone pretends clairvoyance. When last we talked
about American domestic architecture, I promised to indulge in a bit of
prognostication myself. So, peering out the old crystal bay window looking
into the future I see...hmmm...can't see much of anything. I seem to be
steaming it up. Maybe we ought to look out the other side, at the recent
Despite all the eclecticism, and enough revivalism to win over the Devil
himself, these trends are not the ones leading into the future. Housing
styles seldom suddenly spring to life out of the sheer genius of a single
designer, engineer, or architect - not anymore anyway. Today, housing styles,
like most other innovations, develop in a lab - in this case out in the field
(literally) - in the form of experimental housing, sometimes called folk
housing. The surest indicator of future housing styles is that which is
today highly experimental. But even here four criteria must be met.
First, a house must be economical; second, it must be practical; third, it must
be environmentally friendly; and fourth, if not exactly "beautiful," at least
not bug-ugly either. It is by this set of criteria that we must measure the
viability of various recent housing trends.
After the Second World War, one of the first experimental housing designs
came from the military - the venerable Quonset hut. Let's look at how it
stacked up to our criteria. It certainly was economical; the military had
seen to that. Practical...well, aside from the sloping walls and metallic
structural elements, it allowed for an infinite variety of floor plans,
provided you could figure a way to put in windows. Environmentally friendly?
Effectively insulating them was difficult if not impossible, although few
trees had to die to afford the humans of the specie shelter from the cold.
Attractive? Well, it wasn't a look designed to endear itself to former GIs
who'd had to live in them under conditions they'd mostly like to forget. And
while not exactly ugly, with a few flowers, a coat of white paint, and a
little decorative trim the term "homely" might come to mind.
Another architectural experiment which developed in the 1950s we call the
"A-frame." For once, it's a very aptly descriptive label. It rated high in
being cheap and easy to construct, but had the uncomfortable feeling of
living in a lofty attic. And like the Quonset, windows were best built in
one end or the other. Dormers took the work of a skilled carpenter and
drastically increased the cost. Environmentally, though built of wood, they
were often situated on "stilts" and were compact, so they tended not to disturb
the woodland landscape in which they often sprouted like the oversized pup
tents they resembled. As many American then and now have decided, though
reasonably attractive, they're a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want
to live there.
Buckminster Fuller had a good idea. He suggested everyone might like to live
in geodesic domes. Though geometrically complex to design and engineer, once
the experts did that, any layman with a screwdriver and a putty knife could
put one together for a very modest cost per square foot. Unfortunately, they
not only tended to look like igloos; they were not much warmer in winter
either. Also their circular shape, while offering flexibility, certainly demanded
more than a little ingenuity in devising a practical floor plan. And attractive?
Well, perhaps - certainly not by mid-twentieth century standards - but, I guess
one might get used to them in the future. So this one rates a qualified "maybe."
The real success story to come out of the past century of experimental
housing seems to have come from a most unlikely source - the circus. No, not
the tent, but the tin cans on wheels the circus people called home.
Actually, if you want to press the point, you could even trace their lineage
back to European Gypsies. In any case, what started out as a little camping
trailer (a term that still makes the manufactured housing industry cringe)
before the war, grew like the baby-booming kids living in them. Soon it took
far more than a car to pull one. My grandmother once lived in a sweet little
Marlette, thirty feet long and eight feet wide; and small as it was, even
then it took a truck to move it. By the fifties they were ten feet wide; by
the sixties, twelve; and unbelievably each decade since has seen them
grow by another foot or two in width and reach up to 80 feet in length.
Economical? You betcha - the cheapest "permanent" housing you can buy in
cost per square foot. Practical? Well, I've lived in a couple, and you "adapt."
Environmentally friendly? Yes, at least until they get old. Unfortunately,
few are recycled. They tend to hang around the rural landscape in some
areas looking worse than junked cars. Attractive? Well, they went through an
awkward mid-life identify crisis when designers didn't know whether to
make them streamline like cars or boxy like houses; but eventually, as they
developed into multiple-unit modular homes, boxy won out. Today, there's a
sort of uninspired, uniform sameness to them, but they're no worse than most
low-end stick-built models. And on the inside, having come from drawing
boards of professional designers, they're often far more attractive than their
So, is the future of American domestic architecture to be found in assembly
line modules stacked together like so many giant Legos? Frankly, yes,
though like many one-word answers, there are qualifications. Actually,
practically all housing, today even, is manufactured. The differences
have to do with the size of the modules and where they are assembled.
Virtually all doors, windows, cabinets, bathroom fixtures, lights, flooring,
siding, roofing - you name it - comes from a factory. In a sense, these are all
modules. Today and in the future, trend is for the modules to get bigger and
bigger, if not "trailer" halves pulled to the site by semi trucks, at least I
think we'll see a lot of smaller modules such as whole bathrooms and kitchens
take this form. These are the two most expensive rooms in any home. Also,
they're the elements in all homes demanding the most careful design/planing
and where the greatest cost savings can be found in factory construction.
Though it's possible any number of "retro" skins may cover these and other
modules - and quite likely that multifamily units will proliferate even more as
real estate becomes ever more expensive and limited - if the past is any clue
to the future, this century will see ever bigger, more attractive, more
economical, and more environmentally friendly homes than ever before,
with a greater emphasis on flexibility and versatility in the use of space than
ever before too.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 December 2000