Why there isn't a market for modern homes?

(Roger K Lewis)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 27, 2010

If you live in a detached house or townhouse, chances are it is not a stylistically modern or unconventional one designed by an architect. Instead, it is probably a relatively traditional home with relatively traditional furnishings.

Even if you wanted to live in a decidedly modern house, you would find few such homes on the market, since homebuilders have long built mostly traditional homes. America's labor force and material suppliers within the homebuilding industry are, likewise, completely attuned to constructing traditional dwellings.

Why are modern homes embraced by so few? Why do most Americans prefer residences whose designs are rooted in the past? People accept and admire modern design in office and commercial buildings, schools and hospitals, museums and other civic buildings, and even in religious structures. Likewise, most apartment tenants and owners have no problem inhabiting modern apartment buildings. But when it comes to single-family homes, aesthetic innovation and cutting-edge design just doesn't cut it.

People stick with conventional design for several reasons.

Allusions to architectural history.

Comfort with the familiar is reinforced by association with and admiration for historic architecture. Residential styling can allude to architectural motifs from buildings characteristic of colonial America, Greece or Rome, the European Renaissance or Spanish missions. Allusions appear in cornices and moldings, gables and pediments, arches and columns.

Like it or not, history plays a big part in American culture.

Comfort with the known.

Many people have grown up in traditional homes surrounded by other such homes. People have deeply embedded beliefs about what houses should look like: ridged, sloping roofs covered with shingles; shutters flanking double-hung, paned windows; paneled doors; brick veneer or lapped, horizontal siding; dominant 90-degree angles; and separate, rectangular rooms.

Those images feel comfortable, strongly influencing taste and aesthetic preference.

Desire to conform.

Most people prefer to fit in, to blend harmoniously with their surroundings. This is true of how they dress, converse, dine and conduct business, and it is equally true when they choose a home. In predominantly traditional neighborhoods, most buyers opt for a traditional home. Being slightly different might be okay, but standing out conspicuously while defying convention is discomforting.

Less economic risk.

The supply and variety of traditional homes greatly exceed the supply and variety of unconventional, modern homes. Focusing on home prices and resale, buyers tend to believe they are on safer economic ground owning -- and eventually selling -- a more traditional home.

Conversely, modern homes lack broad appeal because of perceptions -- and misperceptions -- about cost and comfort. Many people believe modern architecture costs more to design, build and maintain. Contributing to this belief are expensive, modern, custom-designed houses featured regularly in glossy magazines.

Although a modern house, or house of any style, can be more costly than a traditional house, this is not inevitable. Creative architects can design modern homes, including production homes, that cost no more per square foot than traditional ones. Regrettably, because of the limited market for modern homes, many talented architects never have the opportunity to design production housing.

Some people complain about the spareness, hard surfaces, sharp edges and lack of intimate, domestic scale when they look at photos of modern home interiors. Often devoid of people and furnishings, such photos can suggest a lack of warmth and coziness. Glass walls might beautifully unite the interior and exterior but compromise privacy and provide insufficient wall space. Even the furniture can look uncomfortable.

But those photos typically reflect the architect's and photographer's desires to emphasize architectural space, structure and geometry, not livability. In fact, a modern house, no matter how minimalist or unconventional, can be furnished to be as comfortable as the owner desires.

Poor design yields bad architecture, no matter what the style. Thus, a building is not good architecture just because it is modern.

Consequently, some people are down on modern aesthetics because they have seen or experienced a badly designed modern building. A poorly designed traditional home, being but one of many, is easily forgotten. A poorly designed modern home, being one of a few, is remembered. This statistical reality can further tarnish the reputation of modern home design.

Modern home design could become more popular, but only if tastes and perceptions change. Given America's history and culture, its market-driven homebuilding industry and widespread aesthetic indifference, change in the near future is unlikely.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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