By Carolyn Weber In the last few years builders and architects have made an effort to vary new-home elevations and colors and reach beyond the beige box, but there's still something missing. What about the consumers who, given the choice of Craftsman, Mediterranean, or French Country, would choose none of the above? The industry is overlooking an entire segment of the market, which, as a result, is turning to resale and remodeling to satisfy their design needs.
Generations X and Y have proved their buying power in urban markets, but as they get married and start raising families, they're going to leave their slick city lofts in search of good schools and backyards in the suburbs. But what is there to greet them? Will they have to settle for moving their sleek furniture, candy-colored iMac, and acid green Volkswagen bug into a house that isn't conducive to their lifestyles?
The point is that nostalgia isn't for everyone, and contemporary architecture shouldn't be reserved for the custom market. A wave of modernism is afoot in America, evidenced by the dozens of popular new shelter magazines that appear each year whetting the appetites of sophisticated consumers. The latest cars feature forward-looking designs, and even retail giants like Target are catering to the mass market's growing appreciation for high style by enlisting architects Phillipe Starck and Michael Graves to design furniture and housewares. Yet the home building industry still looks only to the past for inspiration.
One developer who's gotten the message and had the guts to go modern is Kiki Wallace. His four-year-old, 80-acre Prospect Newtown community in Longmont, Colo., features a definitive TND site plan, but the architecture isn't strictly storybook. He started out building tame neo-traditional designs, but slowly ratcheted it up with unusual shapes, vibrant colors, unique materials, and wide open asymmetrical floor plans. "Why should we imitate the old days? They weren't always so great," Wallace remarks. "My goal is to push it forward to make it look like it was built today."
According to town architect Mark Sofield, the houses in Prospect are influenced by modern design, but are not necessarily modernist. "We're trying to make buildings that are relevant," he says. The clean, uncluttered forms and durable materials such as metal roofs came out of practical considerations for the way people really live today. "And houses with simple forms and straightforward details are less expensive and easier to build," he notes. "These are designed to accommodate the skill levels of the contractors that are available here."
Architect/builder Moshen Malakouti of Artech is also experimenting with out-of-the-ordinary designs. He had been building custom homes in and around Nashville, Tenn., but felt there was an opportunity to do something unique in the production market. His Woodside subdivision is an enclave of 10 bold, geometric houses perched on a wooded hillside, surrounded by mid-20th century cottages. "They are more on the modern side, but they're not too much for the market," he says. Malakouti admits that the bank was a bit concerned in the beginning but gained confidence when the first three houses sold quickly.
So will the consumers who opt for a quirky $30 teapot be so inclined with the largest purchase of their life? "Most of our buyers say they would have never even considered living in a subdivision, until they saw this one," says Sofield. Prospect and Woodside buyers have similar profiles: professional couples in their 30s and early 40s with slightly adventurous viewpoints. "For those people, there are no options in most markets," Malakouti explains. "People love these houses, and when you find the right buyer, it's a done deal."
Business at Prospect, which will include 520 units at build out, is steady and the developer and architect consistently push the design envelope. "It's a market driven project, and as long as there are buyers we will continue," says Sofield. Woodside sold out quickly, and Malakouti is currently searching for a new site, and hopes the modern communities will become his exclusive niche.
Understandably, the home building industry is reluctant to take risks, and second-guessing the taste of a huge group of people is difficult. So perhaps small steps like adding a modern style or two to the menu is the way to go. After all, it's not a new concept. In Prospect there are some strange adjacencies, just as there are in older, sought-after neighborhoods where stark white 1930s international style Art Deco boxes mix with cottages and brick colonials of the day, creating an interesting and eclectic streetscape. "A community is a collection of individuals, and the buildings should reflect that," Sofield says. "That's what typical suburban subdivisions lack."