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New Home Architecture: Who’s driving the bus?

By Rick Reynolds

Do homebuyer choices drive future trends in architecture or do future architectural trends affect homebuyer choices? Thankfully, the answer is both.

Home buyers, for their part, must anticipate future needs. Where does my home need to be? How many people will live in the house? How much house will I/we be able to afford? How will the home’s design and function live over time? All tough, but necessary questions to address.

Conversely, reputable architects and builders study consumer preferences, but know they must also project their clients’ current and aspirational needs forward. The trick is; design/build professionals must lead their clients’ targets in an ever-changing, unpredictable world.

When it comes to planning a new home, everything is in flux, from building technology, materials science, energy sources, building codes, and climate change—to the economic outlook, interest rates, credit availability, and employment prospects. So many variables. So much to consider.

And change is accelerating. But unlike fashion apparel and smart phones (which change every year), or cars (which last about a decade), for our largest investment, our homes, to be truly sustainable and hold their value, they should remain relevant over time periods that can last into centuries. And who can predict what will happen next month, let alone, in the distant future?

The answer is—no one. What we can do is learn how a home lives over time* and adopt a systems-based approach that takes into account the expected life spans of each element making up the house.

For example, to be sustainable, the outermost layer of the home, defined here as the structure and insulated shell, should last for centuries. In contrast, the roofing material, exterior finishes, and mechanical systems may last in time scales measuring in decades, whereas the decor, including room designations, large appliances, and fixtures may need to change every decade or so as the occupants’ needs and technologies change.

Lastly, our beloved, can’t-live-without stuff, including moose-shaped vacation mugs, little-used bread machines, and seasonal gadgets like ice cream makers can wind up in a neighborhood garage sale faster than a speeding waistband.

Therefore, the key for architects, builders, and homebuyers alike is to invest the most thought and resources in the longest lasting elements. In achieving high performance homes that are, at the same time, healthy, comfortable, durable, and energy-efficient, the challenge is to balance the non-essential, wish-list items—luxury items like the granite countertops and designer appliances we may crave—against the underlying value of the home itself.

Finding this balance takes discipline. Ignoring the balance can be expensive.

For example, why make 15 to 30 years mortgage payments on relatively short-lived prestige appliances that have long since adorned the recycling center? After all, three decades of principle and interest on a ten-year Sub Zero fridge or Wolfe stove that died two decades prior, could well buy a new car. Either purchasing these luxury appliances outright, outside of the mortgage, or simply specifying lower cost appliances, can help owners and builders focus limited resources toward the underlying quality of the house itself and its performance over time.

A well-insulated, tightly-sealed, high-performance home with an air source heat pump and sophisticated heat recovery ventilation system can save thousands of dollars a year in energy costs over a standard code-built home, while at the same time, promoting health and comfort. That’s a dividend that pays out every year.

Moreover, the minuscule energy requirements of high-performance homes mean that these homes can be cost-effectively heated, cooled, and ventilated using electricity generated from alternate energy sources like photo voltaics (PV’s), all but eliminating the need for greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuel combustion. Good for us. Good for the planet.

Lastly, how can we design our houses to accommodate all the unknowns? The first step is to admit we can’t. The second step is to learn how Open Building** can make simple mechanical changes—like moving light switches and outlets to transition a kid’s’ room, to a teenager’s room, and finally, to a home office or yoga space once they’ve flown the coop—and making it so simple that the need for demolition and reconstruction, involving multiple trades, can be all but eliminated. Good for our finances. Good for our landfills.

So who’s driving the home design/build bus? The answers is, both an informed architectural and homebuilding industry that promotes flexible, adaptable, high performance houses, and informed home buyers demanding more from their largest investments; each pushing the other to a higher standard.

To learn more about driving the high-performance home industry, please visit

*For more on how buildings live over time, see and Stuart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built”

 **For more on Open-Building concepts, see John Habraken’s Open Building concepts