Elevation Evolution

Pre-World War II, the notion of mass-produced housing in America was neither relevant nor existent. Houses stood as humble structures dotting the countryside or opulent mansions of the country’s most elite. The range of architectural styles was just as vast, from Colonial to Revival and Queen Anne to Tudor. Housing was a surfeit of historically influenced structures built with rich integrity and artistry.

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It wasn’t until the 1940s and the end of World War II, with GIs returning home, that there was a mass demand for housing. “The Postwar Economic Boom,” as it came to be known, was a prosperous time in history, particularly for builders. The Federal Housing Act, which was passed in 1934 and created the Federal Housing Administration, fueled the housing industry. Hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country were buying single-family homes.

Photography by Bassenian Lagoni

Home builders began responding to the need. Speed, efficiency and affordability became the hallmarks for housing developments. With the ever-increasing demand, they couldn’t build them fast enough, and given the limited economic means of the consumer, they couldn’t build them inexpensively enough. As a result, the artistry of home design began to decline. Single-story homes of modest square footage were the prominent housing type and, but for a few exceptions, became the prototype for suburbia. The American dream was born.

Pop culture brings builders and architects together

Residential development until the late 1950s continued this model, driven by builders typically without the involvement of architects. At this time, the country began to see a renaissance in design. Whether it was the automobile industry, consumer products or housing, design began to separate the norm from the newly desired. Pop culture and free spirit were influencing society, and people’s tastes and preferences shifted.

Recognizing the opportunity in this shift, builders began hiring architects. The face of home started to change. Communities began to take on a new look. No longer was the house merely shelter, with little thought given to its image, nor were they steeped in rich pedigreed history. The house became an expression of the times. From the midcentury modern ranch homes of the ‘50s and ‘60s to the shed style of the ‘70s and ‘80s, many communities exemplified a new and unfamiliar character that is now memorialized as an era.

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The 1990s brought about a resurgence in mass-produced housing. After decades of a less “stylized” approach to residential architecture, historical references began surfacing, and within a relatively brief period, new home communities rooted in identifiable historic styles were sprouting across the country. Neighborhoods composed in an eclectic array of architectural vernaculars became en vogue.

The romantic notion of returning to Grandma’s house swept the nation, and the white picket fence American dream was born again. For the next two decades, builders and their architects pursued a more pedigreed architecture, authentic to a snapshot in history. The eclecticism within these new home communities perpetuated the idea of individuality for its home owners. Your neighbor’s home on either side of you looked nothing like your own, and your identity was secured.

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Housing’s new, emerging face

The Great Recession shook up the industry. The housing boom, on a fast track, slammed full speed into an unavoidable brick wall. Countless builders shut down, others adjusted, and a third category was born — builders looking to create a new model and make their mark coming out of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

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Parallel to all of this is growing concern for the environment, a technological world advancing at the speed of light, and a changing demographic: Baby boomers are fast approaching retirement and won’t be the economic engine, while the millennial generation is strapped with debt.

What’s a housing industry to do? Rethink: All of the listed drivers are running in parallel, and all of them are reshaping the way we think of today’s house both inside and out. Specific to the face of home, we’ve entered a transitional era. The movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s turned its back on history, and the ‘90s referenced only the past. Today, housing is taking on a new face, a sort of old and new, if you will. We see architecture rooted in the past, but advanced into the present, the warmth of history fused with the sophistication of today’s technology and materials. It is an architecture that is an expression of today and the people who inhabit the times, younger buyers looking to express who they are through their homes and older buyers desiring homes that match the reinvention of themselves.

The face of tomorrow will continue to take shape based on these drivers. We cannot predict what technology may do to the future look of the house. Photovoltaic paint in lieu of solar panels, passively designed elements to improve a home’s heating and cooling performance, and recycled and repurposed materials will all contribute to the new face of home.

Demographic shifts will lead to specific preferences, and environmental concerns will certainly drive our thinking. Prefabrication has yet to have an impact, but it only seems natural based on so many variables. The house of the future will truly be that. We live in an exciting era, and one we believe will see more changes in 10 years than we saw in the previous hundred.

The original article, written by David Kosco, was published in the Spring 2017 Issue of Best in American Living. David Kosco, AIA, is senior principal and director of design at Bassenian Lagoni.

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