As we move into a new millennium, Even the future of home building itself is in question. We have fewer acres ripe for suburban development.
Real estate prices are escalating beyond the reach of many families. Traditional building materials are becoming scarce and expensive. Energy is an enormous concern: witness the
record high cost of oil, a nonrenewable resource whose supplies are finite and whose global demand is increasing. With even the way we build houses under scrutiny, it shouldn't surprise anyone that design is going to be a big concern.
You'd feel at home in the future
These homes will incorporate many senior friendly features, such as
single floor living, excellent task lighting, and wheelchair level appliances, switches, and counters. Another potential barrier for older occupants is dealing with the sophisticated appliances and systems that the future certainly will bring. Because this generation of homeowners is defined more clearly as a special market, a broad range of products will be designed with them in mind.
McMansions or shoeboxes?
Although the colonial, the Cape, the Victorian, and the bungalow seem to be with us for the foreseeable future, it's less clear if these homes will come in small, medium, large, or jumbo. For now, they keep growing even though the average family is getting smaller. In 1950, new houses offered just 290 sq. ft. per family member; by 2000, that figure had swollen to more than 800 sq. ft.
An unfortunate result, is that advances in energy conservation tend to be canceled out by increases in house size. Smaller homes not only are cheaper to build and live in, but the savings also can be put into finer materials and craftsmanship. It remains to be seen if this revelation will come about only when big houses become forbiddingly expensive.
Green houses of every color
Just how green will our future be a generation from now? To date, our strides have been short of remarkable.
In conscience, we must mark the end of the era of substandard housing that is cheap to build but expensive and wasteful to maintain.
While contemporary sustainable homes often may look like the house next door, their design is based on forecasts of our actions on a world that doesn't yet exist. The failure to consider the future.
For example, what will be the impact of extracting enough petroleum to manufacture an asphalt roof that has an expected life of 30 years? And how about the environmental consequences of disposing of that roof? The life-cycle cost of building materials increasingly will shape how building materials are chosen. Vinyl is now the most popular siding because of its low cost, ease of installation, and minimal maintenance, but the long view favors other alternatives.
Does wood have a future?
If you invite someone to envision the house of the future, chances are the place won't be made of 2x4s. But ask the same person to conjure up the house of their dreams, and it's likely that wood plays a role, and not just in token touches, like a scrap of burled walnut on the dashboard of an expensive car.
Wood feels good, smells good, can look better with age, and has a lot going for it from the green point of view. It is sustainable (as long as it is harvested responsibly), healthful (it doesn't outgas toxins), and relatively durable (if maintained). Compared with other commonly used siding materials, it requires the least energy to produce and involves the least total embodied energy over its lifetime. On top of that, wood potentially has the lowest environmental impact. When a house has come to the end of its useful life, the wood components may live on in another structure the cradle-to-cradle scenario, as when oak barn beams live on capably in a second or even a third building.
Even on a local level, though, as wood becomes pricier, conventional lumber increasingly will give way to engineered products: LVLs, roof trusses, and wall panels, as well as plywood. Just a decade ago, engineered I-joist flooring was used in only 20% of new construction; that figure is now approaching 50%. Engineered wood can be made with relatively little waste, using trees that traditionally are overlooked in favor of awe inspiring forest giants.
Horizontal lap siding will be with us for years to come. It does a good job of keeping out the rain, and it has the look that vinyl siding strives to mimic. This isn't to say that wood can't be made more durable. The next generation of siding materials will probably be various forms of wood/plastic composites, most of it arriving at the site with a factory finish.
Concrete, steel, and dirt
The future of wood frame construction is far from secure. Light gauge steel frame structures have been making dramatic inroads as lumber prices continue to rise.
Concrete wins green points for durability and for making use of such potential waste products as the ash residue from coal fired power plants. Autoclaved cellular concrete (also known as ACC). ACC has a closed cell structure that makes it lightweight, allows it to be cut to size, and even adds a bit of insulation value. The material has the potential to be cast with integrated detailing. "Quoins, keystones, arches, and carvings".
The redemption of the manufactured home
For centuries, the job of fabricating dwellings has been carried out by hand in a highly visible, sweaty, noisy, and somewhat hazardous process that has changed little in the past 150 years.
"You wouldn't drive a Ford Model T, but you live in one." Innovations have been restricted largely to substituting one material for another, rather than taking an evolutionary step forward. True, the
stick built process has been tweaked in recent years to cut costs and to increase energy efficiency, but this cautious approach of minimizing the bad rather than seeking bold new answers instead of designing houses that can accept new technologies easily as they become economically attractive.
Manufacturing promises to provide the paradigm shift required to dislodge the industry from its antiquated ways. The image of factory built shelter has been tarnished by the legacy of cheaply built, disposable mobile homes. But change is well under way. While 90% of conventional homes were
stick built 25 years ago, that figure has dipped below 70% as panelized construction has built momentum.
Prefab homes require less on-site skilled labor from the shrinking pool of capable framers and carpenters. If a supplier provides the home's utility core, there isn't the need for as many subcontractors .
Future Forward Designs
Forward looking architects and builders still are forced to reckon with clients who would rather live in a Leave It to Beaver colonial than an
envelope stretching marvel.
Another factor behind the slow evolution of home design is the reality of 77 million retiring baby boomers. An overwhelming majority of this
white haired tide will choose to grow old in their present homes.
The popular notion of factory built homes is that they roll out on an assembly line, as identical as toasters. But prefabrication will allow architects and even their clients to customize homes in a revolutionary way.
Here's the projection. Dozens of competing suppliers around the country will produce a great array of standardized components, which then can be combined in almost countless ways. To allow prospective buyers to view these components and reconfigure them into the home of their dreams, architects will develop an
Internet powered "design engine." This program will guide buyers through the design process in much the way that a real architect might. Then, after coming up with their design, the buyers will "tour" a virtual model to see if it suits them. In this way, architects will be able to influence the design of modestly priced houses that traditionally haven't benefited from their professional attention.
This approach of mass customized, rather than mass produced. Consumers already may be familiar with the process, having specified the options for a Lexus car or a Dell computer.
For now, most manufactured homes strive to look absolutely traditional, as if to conceal their humble birth in a factory. But the constraints imposed by a set inventory of prefabricated components may have a liberating effect on design.
People say that manufactured houses have no style. As architects develop a new manufactured aesthetic, we may find that home buyers begin warming up to the clean, industrial look.
Redesigning the design process