The most surprising thing about the International Builders’ Show (IBS), held at the Las Vegas Convention Center in February, was that the majority of fully built houses on display were not the faux Tudors or mini Mediterranean villas that we’ve come to expect from the home building industry. Instead, they were remarkably au courant. For instance, the Professional Builder’s Show Village, located in a parking lot across from the convention center, featured the Fire Island House, a 2,677-square-foot beach house designed and fabricated by Austin, Texas–based KRDB, which is headed by Chris Krager, AIA. Since the late 1990s, Krager has attracted a following by designing and building modest, sleekly efficient homes. He recently completed his most ambitious project: an energy-efficient subdivision on Austin’s east side, with 40 site-built houses mostly priced in the low $200,000s and sized under 1,800 square feet. (According to 2012 U.S. Census data, the average single-family house in the United States, at 2,505 square feet, remains almost as large as it was pre-recession.)
The open-plan kitchen and living areas in Krager’s modular home, while a bit austere, are not very different from the interiors now advertised on the websites of more conventional home builders. But the architectural form—a pair of rectangular modules stacked perpendicular to one another—is a conspicuous departure from anything that the big builders are offering.
Krager has been exceptionally skilled at getting his modular designs built. But even he had a tough time getting the Fire Island design fabricated, delivered in components, and assembled in Las Vegas. Irontown Homes, a Spanish Fork, Utah–based company that was supposed to build the house, closed its doors before the show, and Krager worked with a facilitator named Cutting Edge Homes to come up with a last-minute solution. The experience reinforced his sense that the challenges that await architects who dream of using pre-fab techniques to take on the home building industry are “institutional” in nature. He’s found that while small modular companies tend to be flexible enough to work with architects like him, “they have proven to be wild cards. I have had several of them go out of business.” And the more economically stable big fabricators “are mostly unwilling to change their culture.”
Still, standing inside the kitchen of his beach house set in a Las Vegas parking lot, Krager identified a positive change in the marketplace. “My niche, in the 15 years that I’ve been doing it, has gone from being micro to being small.” Builders now call him, looking for a new approach to design. “And,” he added, “they’re looking to build stuff that’s modern.”
Indeed, Krager’s conspicuous presence at the IBS—which was organized by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and attracted more than 70,000 visitors this year—could be read as a harbinger of change in the industry. Especially considering that the show’s 2014 New American Home (co-sponsored by the NAHB and Builder, a sister magazine of ARCHITECT published by Hanley Wood), and staged 13 miles to the south in suburban Henderson, Nev., looked like a Richard Meier wannabe. A big assemblage of boxy volumes, the house was actually designed by Aspen, Colo.-based Jeffrey Berkus Architects (with interiors by Marc–Michaels) and doubled as an encyclopedia of every current home design trend: a flowing, open-plan layout, two gargantuan kitchen islands, an extra master “VIP” suite for multigenerational living, a master bath with a cavernous walk-in shower (spray patterns controlled by LCD display), and an immense freestanding tub accompanied by an eye-catching gas-fueled fireplace. And, despite its generous 6,706 square feet, the house was deemed a model of energy efficiency. With its 16-kilowatt photovoltaic array and airtight thermal shell, it was designed to achieve “Emerald” status, the highest rating in the National Green Building Standard, the NAHB’s answer to LEED.
To be sure, architects remain very much on the periphery of the home building industry. Of the roughly 428,000 new homes sold in the United States last year, about 5 percent were designed by an architect for a client, estimates Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, chief economist for the AIA. On the IBS showroom floor, most exhibitors showcased component parts and systems–engineered wood trusses, decorative garage doors, central vacuum cleaner systems, and Chinese-manufactured widgets. Crowds gathered for demonstrations of caulking techniques. Architects made scant appearances—for instance, as panelists at the show’s education session, “Evoke Buyers’ Emotions through Home Design,” or as speakers weighing in on the Gen Y floor plan.
Nevertheless, the show did highlight the trends among the nation’s biggest production home builders—the D.R. Hortons, Pultes, and Lennars. Their subdivisions, while not architecturally significant, represent a distillation of popular taste in built form. They’re a perfect way of gauging the extent to which ideas that were experimental a decade ago have pushed their way into the mainstream. They’re also designed by architects. Just less … intimately. They’re targeted not to an individual client but to the tastes of an everyman (or everywoman) home buyer conjured up by relentless market research.
“On the production side, we need to understand the trends from a bigger perspective,” says Doug Van Lerberghe, an associate principal and senior project manager at Kephart, a Denver architecture firm that works closely with production home builders. The goal is to identify “what people like in the masses.” Or, as Dan Nickless, president of the Denver division of Ryland Homes, framed it, “We find a great architect. They have to be talented enough to not be about their ego. They have to be open to the research.”
The architects who serve as design consultants to the leading home builders aren’t well-known demi-gods with big ideas about the nature of form and materials. Rather, most of them work for firms like Fieldstone, a consultant to the home builders with offices in, among other places, Tampa, Fla., and Auburn Hills, Mich. Like many of his business partners, J. Bryan Barrett, Fieldstone’s vice president of business development, was laid off by one of the home builders—Pulte Homes—during the recession. “Whatever they build, we design,” Barrett says.
PulteGroup, the nation’s second largest home builder by market value (16,505 homes sold in 2012), has rejuvenated its in-house design department now that the economy has improved. “We have a process that we started a couple of years ago that we call ‘Consumer Inspired,’ ” said Scott Thomas, the firm’s national director of architecture. PulteGroup stages endless focus groups with home buyers in which they attempt to understand “how they live with a family, how they engage with each other, what the things they do during the day. … Then we use that information to bring to the floor-plan innovations that just don’t exist in homes today.”
When I caught up with Thomas a couple of weeks after IBS, he was in Philadelphia with his architectural team (Thomas has since left Pulte). “It’s what we call a design charrette,” he told me, sounding for a moment just like any architect. Then he continued: “We got a request from one of our zones for some product, so we’re in Philadelphia as a group trying to design that product.” The exercise that Thomas describes is rigorous, taking nine to 12 months: “We actually have five consumer touch points along the way. Once we’re through designing several floor plans, we’ll lease a warehouse space in a city somewhere, build prototypes of those plans, and take consumers through them, listening very closely to what they say, and making changes to the design. Then we actually take that same floor plan, once we’ve made those changes, out into a field somewhere and do what we call a ‘first build.’ And then we’ll actually run customers back through it again.”
While it’s easy to disparage the notion of architecture that’s driven by market research, this very literal link between program and built form has its equivalent in the world of high architecture—specifically, the data-driven methods made popular by leading Dutch firms. I can recall, for example, a conversation with Joshua Prince-Ramus, AIA, the project architect on Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s (OMA's) 2006 Seattle Central Library, and who is now the principal of his own firm, New York-based REX Architecture. He explained the erratic shape of the Seattle building by showing a diagram drafted by the library’s administrators that showed all the functions that they required in the new building. He then claimed OMA translated the librarian’s chart directly into architectural form—a method that he called “hyper-rational.”
The innovations by the home builders are, of course, far less radical: tweaks in floor plans or more emphasis on energy efficiency and solar power. (Last year, one production home builder, Brookfield Residential, even included a super-efficient “passive house” in a Denver area subdivision.) But mostly the tweaks are related to lifestyle. Thomas was one of several architects I spoke with during and after IBS who, when asked for an example of innovation, cited the Drop Zone. This radical change in mainstream home design is a vestibule situated between the garage and the main part of the home where kids can leave their book bags and adults can plunk down their keys and charge their cellphones. It’s an official acknowledgement that the front door of the typical American home is, in fact, the garage. It is, as Prince-Ramus would say, hyper-rational.
The production homes are the outcome of a slow-moving feedback cycle, so today’s interiors resemble those that began appearing in shelter magazines 10 or 15 years ago: open-plan living areas dominated by a kitchen island. If the space is broken up at all, it’s by a wall with a two-sided, glassed-in gas fireplace, generally on a wall that also supports a large, flat screen TV. There’s no longer a dining room. (These are “almost extinct” says Van Lerberghe.) Or even a separate living room. But new rooms are emerging, like the “planning center.” This is usually adjacent to the kitchen, “a small space that’s carved out that is centrally located in the floor plan, kind of like a pocket office,” according to Barrett.
Given the circular nature of the production home builders’ design process—new ideas have to gain popular acceptance before they’re adopted—the only architects who seem able shake the world of IBS, at least a little, are those who build their own designs. Krager is one. Another, found inside the exhibition hall rather than in the parking lot, manning a large, centrally located booth, is Phil Kean, AIA, the NAHB’s 2013 National Custom Builder of the Year. Kean is based in the vacation home mecca of Winter Park, Fla., and sold his first spec house in 2002. “The next year I did two spec houses. And the next year I did three. And I got my contractor’s license.”
Now his firm designs and builds about 20 luxury homes per year, with prices starting at $500,000. Some are clearly Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired, and others are more typical Spanish or Mediterranean style, all with wide-open, daylight-filled interiors. “I think a beautiful traditional is as beautiful to me as a beautiful modern,” Kean says.
His booth at IBS, perhaps the largest occupied by an architect, was staffed by men in matching red bowling shirts selling a concept Kean calls WayCool Homes, a sophisticated program of stock plans, intended for use by other custom home builders. The program offers builders a protected geographic territories, access to upwards of 90 designs, an iPad stocked with photos and specifications, and, of course, a WayCool app. Kean likens his strategy for franchising his architecture to Wright’s attempt to create a more democratic, affordable home. “Part of it is that whole philosophy that Frank Lloyd Wright did with the Usonian homes,” Kean says.
But instead of rethinking the outward appearance and interior shape of the American home as Wright did, or inventing a new palette of materials or new methods of construction, Kean is mostly updating how plans are distributed. Within the context of the home building industry, his focused, technologically assisted approach to extending the reach of his design and build practice is genuinely innovative. But something odd happens when Kean channels Wright: “Everybody should be able to live in a quality designed home. That was his concept.” The chasm between the lasting impact Wright’s ideas had on the way we live, and the incremental way forward favored by the home building industry, becomes all too obvious.
More from IBS: a review of the top product trends.