Friday, December 28, 2007

Building the Modern House - an owners tale by Dan Akst

Daniel Akst is an author and journalist who has written several articles covering the recent prefab and Re-Modern movement. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and he's even written about modern homes for This Old House. Most significantly he has built his own modern house and written extensively about it. These are a worthwhile read for anybody building their own modern home. Dan first offered up his story in a three part article that appeared in Money Magazine. You can read the text of these articles on his own web site here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 He also wrote a shorter account with more of a design emphasis for Metropolis Magazine that you can read at the on their web site: link. Its interesting that at the end of this article Dan calls for the production of decent house plans for modern homes: ...If they did, they might want to use a stock plan; but here is another reason why more interesting houses don't get built, even by individuals who care about good design. Most of the house plans sold through books and on the Internet are awful; a few decent ones are available (including some in the Life magazine's "Dream House" series) but virtually none are Modern, unless what you really want is a chunky-looking "contemporary" with diagonal wood siding. The absence of good Modern stock plans means that people who want this kind of house have to hire an architect, at fees ranging from a few thousand dollars to perhaps 15 percent of the construction cost. Although Modern architecture remains suffused with the rhetoric of idealism, even relatively prosperous families who are thinking of sponsoring it will beg off unless the entire clanking apparatus of home-ownership--all of it geared to the lowest common denominator of design--can be brought around to accommodate something more interesting. Modular housing might be one answer. Another would be the publication of some first-class stock plans that specify standard materials to achieve quietly fabulous results. Incredibly this is just what we have set out to do, and our customers have in fact done. Dan's article was in the November 2002 issue of Metropolis. Our plan site went live on November 4th, 2002. He's also a good novelist - I've read a couple of his books and enjoyed them. More info about the rest of his work on his web site

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  1. I think we're turning the corner on the typical house design. I'm definitely noticing more modern house designs in new houses that I see being built. I wish it would happen faster, but at least it's happening. It seems inevitable to me anyways, I seriously doubt we're going to be building fake historical styles in 100 years from now, so there will come a day when everything is modern. I think the baby boomer generation tried to resist modernism, but they're fighting a losing battle, and now their kids are reaching the age where they're starting to buy and build homes and don't want a tacky fake historical style house if they can avoid it. Fake architecture is old and busted, modern is sleek, sexy and sophisticated.

  2. I don't know if the future holds a complete turn over to modern housing, but its obvious that the generations of new home buyers are not as interested as past generations in accepting the assumptions of their parents of what their home should be like. To me the mission is to supply he demand emerging from that change. Feed the change - not sure where it will take us.

  3. The metropolis article by Akst, covers a lot of ground and is very well done - how he relates the interaction with his builder, as well as his observations of the market - all fit with my experiences.

    I don't know how we can support the idea of modern as mainstream or forecast an end to "historical styles" when it is hard to even point to evidence of a trend! To Dave's comment above, the historical styles most certianly have a century of staying power - built as they are on ideas that are, in some cases, thousands of years old!

    Having had the good fortune of looking at this question from outside the US, it has occured to me that "modern" - in the US doesn't really have a "style" - modern, is more a shorthand for a need to be innovative - its existance as the residence as artistic creation. I think Dwell, for example, re-enforces this by presenting modern as a lifestyle - and not a style.

    Here in Sweden, modern actually is a style - it has a name here that the locals know and understand, "funkis" - and it can be presented in a totally stylistic manner that the market accepts. The latest incarnation of modern in scandinavia, one that is softened by introductions of wood and use of color - and references to vernacular forms - is called "nyfunkis" - or translated by the developers who are building with it, as "nordic neo - functionalism".

    I would argue that Wright succeeded in creating a style, "paririe" - and the Bungalow certianly was a recognizable "style" - but modern, it seems to me, simply has failed to become understood as a style.

    Akst in a way shows us why this is - a modern house is a "one off" that involves an architect ... and in his case, a repurposing of a grain bin. Part of the objective of the exercize is to live in something that is "unique".

    Do the remodernists have a developer champion - someone who has actually put real money on the line with the ideas of "modern"?

    I can think of a couple midcentury developments in CT, but these are being pulled down and replaced by homes that are at best, sensitive, "not so big" homes with vaugely craftsman details.

    Anyone, anywhere? There must be some examples - Akst closes his article with reference to Joseph Eichler - I know that this was a developer or an architect out in California - but that is all I know.

    Greg would you be willing to do a post on Eichler, and share with us what Akst means by his reference to Eichler?

  4. I don't think we can, or should forecast or work towards an end to historical styles. To me this is inconceivable, un-fair - the perfect corollary to the current status quo where modern is boxed out of the marketplace. I don't want to see that happen - its no better than were we are. I always frame this struggle against making modern houses available - giving people who like modern houses the choice of buying or building one. Its about having choice, not taking it away. Frankly that is why I think many people dislike modern houses - they are afraid that they will be forced to live in one! (When I get that from people I say, hey, you are afraid of it, I've been living it!)

    Look, my own point of view is why would you want to build anything but a modern house in modern times. There are plenty of old houses to buy if that's what you like. If the entire country wakes up and sees it my way, great, no more phony old houses. But until then choice is something that everybody should have.

    As far as developer champions, yes, there are a good number of small developers out there doing modern. Many of them are into row buildings, or condos, in more urban settings, but there are some suburban developers doing modern out there. Historically Eichler was the champion of them all. I could write an entry about him, but there is already a wealth of info about him on the internet, and in several books. A good place to start is the Eichler Network: There is a good amount of history, a community message-board, and a valuable home owners knowledge-base that has grown up around these homes. Its obvious that there is a whole economy surrounding these homes and their up-keep and improvement. This is a couple of thousand homes in California, and they have their own economy. Don't tell me we can't do the same across the entire country.

  5. Greg, that is a great, great story, thanks for that link! There is WAY too much there to take in with a single cup of coffee, but I now understand what "eichler" means ... thanks!

    The story about his stance on race - and degree to which he took risks, and put his money on the line to pursue his ideals ... amazing.

    I'm going to buy the book.