Credit: William Stewart

“Houses are amazingly complex repositories. What I found, to my great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world—whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over—eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house,” says the humorist and travel writer Bill Bryson in At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010). “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”

There are sermons in stone, and nowhere do these stones (or wood, metal, and glass) speak more powerfully about our contemporary values than in the homes that architects design for others. Those values are evident in the questions we ask as well. How committed to sustainability is the architect and owner? Do the siting and the very design of the house itself make smart use of ambient sources of energy—light, wind, solar gain? Or are the gestures to sustainability and operational efficiency solely a matter of technological add-ons, like remotely controlled thermostats and solar panels? These tools are useful, of course, but they’re hardly matters of design.

What about resilience? This, too, is in part a matter of appropriate siting, especially as severe and debilitating storms seem to have increased in recent years. Resilience is also a matter of design—the design of basic shelters, of roofs that must carry heavier snow loads and stand firm against severe winds, and of regional building codes that ensure accountability. Yet these codes mandate minimum requirements. It’s our responsibility as architects to innovate beyond those minimums.

Affordability guides the design process, as well—but not in the sense of value-engineering out the soul of a home. Rather, affordability should imaginatively seek cost-effective materials, creative uses of space, and a strategy for economically maintaining the home long after it’s been completed.

We must, to quote Frank Lloyd Wright, “nourish” those who are sheltered by our work.

As Bryson writes, houses “are where history ends up.” His book’s title is shrewd. What seems like a history of “private life” is really an account of very public debates about how homes reflect the times in which they’re built. The architectural value of a home, then, is bound up in the lessons it teaches, as well as the stone, wood, metal, and glass that give it form.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
2014 President