FOR MANY OF THE HOMES HE DESIGNS FOR THE SUN VALLEY RESORT area, Idaho architect Rich Childress is asked to find wood flooring that has been purposely (and recently) distressed to look old, presumably so that it conveys character and authenticity. “It would be more authentic to put in a new wood floor and let it age naturally,” says Childress. “That would be an honest use of the material.”
Honesty, however, isn't a word heard very often in home building when it comes to architectural styles and the use of materials. Imagine a 35-foot roof height on a single-story home or vinyl siding with an embossed wood grain and you start to get the picture.
Such deceit even flows into floor planning, where builders and home buyers apparently have a hard time admitting how people really live. “They make the fireplace prominent in the living room and then stuff a TV and video-game player in the corner so they can enjoy their technology every day,” says Childress, who practices out of Garden City, a historic enclave adjacent to Boise. “There's a lot of denial going on.”
For an industry facing more competition for buyers after a long, lazy high, it's time to get real. To embrace and demand craftsmanship. To use materials and products, from age-old to new-age, as they are instead of masking them as something else. To satisfy buyer demand for traditional exteriors by reinterpreting and updating familiar styles to suit today's world, rather than replicating (often poorly or incompletely) styles of the past. To consider each lot in each master plan and design homes that take full advantage of those conditions to offer a more livable, comfortable, and truly unique owner experience. In short, to deliver a pure definition of authenticity that buyers will see, feel, and pay a premium to have.
If that scenario sounds too idealistic, ignorant of the mass market, or dismissive of practical business concerns, especially for a production housing operation, consider that some of the nation's largest home builders, including Centex and Taylor Woodrow Homes, have already bought into it. And admit it, you know it will sell.
“I believe every builder is trying for authenticity because they know it sells,” says Geoffrey Mouen, an architect and land planner in Celebration, Fla., where he served as the town architect. “What they often lack is the technology, the skill set, and the time to make it happen.”
That's where folks such as Mouen and other contemporary architects come in with fresh takes on traditional house styles, materials, and forms that address current lifestyle needs and still give buyers a sense of comfort. “So many of those [historic] styles were developed in a certain point in history based on the way people lived then,” says architect Steven House of House + House Architects in San Francisco, who respects the familiarity, if not the livability, that buyers find in traditional house styles. “Our work is derived from authentic traditions but interpreted in a new way, for this time, place, and client.”
The process starts with land planning, lot design, and orientation, and finishes with, well, the finishes ... and includes every stick of material in between. “In so many markets, this one included, builders aren't taking advantage of the climate in a way that truly integrates with the architecture,” says Childress. “I think buyers would really appreciate that.”