Launch Slideshow

design zeitgeists

design zeitgeists

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    Mick Hales

    Estes/Twombly Architects managed to give this 1,040-square-foot Block Island, R.I., residence (above) an iconic personality. Ferguson & Shamamian Architects skillfully endowed a 12,000-square-foot house in Palm Beach, Fla., (top) with an understated elegance.

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    Warren Jagger

    Estes/Twombly Architects managed to give this 1,040-square-foot Block Island, R.I., residence (above) an iconic personality. Ferguson & Shamamian Architects skillfully endowed a 12,000-square-foot house in Palm Beach, Fla., (top) with an understated elegance.

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    Casey Sills

    A West Pennant, Nova Scotia, house (left) by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects takes cues from the surrounding natural environment. The traditional lines of an English country cottage define a Dallas project (above right) by Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects.

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    Undine Pröhl

    A West Pennant, Nova Scotia, house (left) by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects takes cues from the surrounding natural environment. The traditional lines of an English country cottage define a Dallas project (above right) by Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects.

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    Steve Keating

    A cozy reading nook (left) occupies a corner in a house by Christopher Alexander’s Center for Environmental Structure. Ben Trogdon Architects blurs the division between the kitchen, dining room, and living room at a Kirkland, Wash., project (below left).

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    Mark Darley/Esto

    A cozy reading nook (left) occupies a corner in a house by Christopher Alexander’s Center for Environmental Structure. Ben Trogdon Architects blurs the division between the kitchen, dining room, and living room at a Kirkland, Wash., project (below left).

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    Julia Heine

    This Sea Ranch, Calif., remodel (above), designed by Obie Bowman, AIA, incorporates driftwood columns and redwood siding. Bucking convention, McInturff Architects coated the walls of an Accokeek, Md., house (top) with asphalt roof shingles.

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    Tom Rider

    This Sea Ranch, Calif., remodel (above), designed by Obie Bowman, AIA, incorporates driftwood columns and redwood siding. Bucking convention, McInturff Architects coated the walls of an Accokeek, Md., house (top) with asphalt roof shingles.

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    Brian Vanden Brink

    Frederick Phillips, FAIA, designed his own house (left) for a site near downtown Chicago. A Martha’s Vineyard cottage (top) by Hutker Architects embodies the tranquil ideal of a vacation home.

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    William Kildow

    Frederick Phillips, FAIA, designed his own house (left) for a site near downtown Chicago. A Martha’s Vineyard cottage (top) by Hutker Architects embodies the tranquil ideal of a vacation home.

open plans / private spaces

We live in a society that values flexibility more than ever before, and our increasingly open-plan homes show it. Just as our phones now double as cameras and computers, our kitchens now multitask as dens and dining rooms. Open floor plans appear everywhere from the highest-end custom homes to the “loft-style” layouts of suburban single-family developments. Even the once-untouchable wall between the master bedroom and master bath is up for grabs. The distinction between rooms isn't the only one that's losing ground: Massive, commercial-style sliding, folding, and pivoting doors have almost erased the line between indoors and out. The new openness allows overscheduled families to spend time together doing different activities in the same space rather than sequestered in single-function rooms. And it reflects a new informality and personal transparency—a willingness to let guests watch meal preparation or cleanup, for example.

Too much togetherness isn't good for anyone's psyche, however. That's why more clients are requesting retreats within their open-plan houses. They're asking for meditation rooms, sitting rooms, studies, libraries—anywhere they can take a little break from the rest of the world (and even their loved ones). Some of the wide-open houses in MoMA's much-vaunted The Un-Private House exhibit in 1999 carved out rooms for getting away, proving that the most iconoclastic homeowners still need a little time to themselves.

manufactured products / natural materials

The cost of building a house rose steeply over the past decade as prices of traditional materials like wood and stone continued to escalate. Architects turned to manufactured products to help trim unwieldy budgets and soon realized that manmade materials could allow more design flexibility and require less maintenance. Durable products of plastic, aluminum, fiber cement, and engineered stone are now standard fare on many projects. Architects covet composites like Trespa and Parklex. And the tendency toward open floor plans creates a constant demand for light-transmitting, privacy-giving products such as Polygal and Kalwall.

But every yin craves its yang. While thrilled by the array of exciting new manufactured products, have-it-all Americans are simultaneously embracing good old natural materials. It's a sign of the times: “Organic” and “natural” enjoy exalted status as marketing buzzwords, the Whole Foods grocery juggernaut reigns, and prices of George Nakashima's earthy furniture have skyrocketed. Consumers concerned about indoor air quality are asking for inert, non-off-gassing elements such as limestone tiles, hardwood floors, and marble countertops. The most forward-looking houses today satisfy both desires, mixing carefully chosen natural materials with the best manmade items the industry has to offer.

urban living / vacation getaways

Remember when American cities were widely considered violent, abandoned hotbeds of crime? That reputation is a thing of the past, transformed into a vision of cities as urban paradises filled with cafés, culture, and nightlife. While neither extreme is completely accurate, it's true that many city neighborhoods have undergone a remarkable renaissance. As empty nesters downscale and recent graduates accept high-paying jobs, the market for downtown condos has soared. For these buyers (as well as renters, townhouse owners, and other city dwellers) the convenient and pedestrian-oriented urban lifestyle has replaced the suburban fantasy of green lawns and white fences. With gas prices rising all the time, the burgeoning popularity of car-independent city living just might continue.

Urban living has found its countertrend in the upsurge of vacation getaway sales. According to the National Association of Realtors, buyers scooped up a record 1.02 million vacation homes in 2005. It makes sense, demographically: Fitness-conscious baby boomers and adventure-happy Gen Xers and Gen Yers want to retreat to places where they can swim, ski, and sail, not to mention detach from their everyday lives. In a neat encapsulation of both trends, many suburban homeowners are buying pieds-à-terre in nearby cities to serve as weekend residences.