By definition, a model home is a dwelling created for purposes that go beyond the standard rationale of providing shelter or profit. In some instances a model home may be fueled by a social, aesthetic, or philosophical agenda, as when Prince Albert erected a prototypical worker's cottage in London's Hyde Park in 1851. Albert's effort to improve the conditions of a social class became the progenitor of many socially minded model homes created in America and Europe since then.

In some cases these demonstration dwellings, as they were later termed, simultaneously provided architects with an opportunity to advance an artistic program. Best known to design professionals today are the 20th-century houses built to espouse Modern-ism. In America, the Case Study Houses designed by various architects and built in California from 1945 to 1966 epitomize the confluence of aesthetic and altruistic objectives. Conceived and published by John Entenza in his magazine Arts & Architecture, the homes promoted the notion that Modern design could address the requirements of postwar, middle-class suburban life from a technological, artistic, and cost perspective.

Model homes have seldom been produced purely for charitable purposes, however. Entenza's homes were created in collaboration with developer-builders, sold for profit, and occupied. In many cases vendors of building materials or technologies provide their products at a discount in order to access a potential market. Architects assume their practices will benefit from the accrued exposure. In fact, nearly every party involved likely enters into the project expecting to advance their corporate objectives as well as larger, collective goals.

first resort

Lately a new variation of the model home has appeared that injects its historical characteristics into a contemporary context. This current permutation emanates from developers using model homes as a mechanism for promoting their projects.

I recently completed one such home at The Greenbrier, a historic springs resort in West Virginia, on behalf of the Georgia-based development company Dolan, Pollak & Schram. Its uniqueness as a project type offers insights into the opportunities and challenges for architects working on nonconventional houses.

Several aspects of the Greenbrier commission were appealing. From an architectural standpoint, the most intriguing was the chance to promulgate in built form a standard for design and construction quality applicable to the emerging community. Facing the sobering reality that I might not be the only architect ever to design a custom home there, I drew up a set of design guidelines per the developer's request. These rules would ensure a coherent vision for the other custom homes, as well as reinforce property values by setting high standards. Our model home would be expected to communicate these values clearly and skillfully.

Advancing the aesthetic interests of the developer neatly dovetailed with my own artistic proclivities. We both sought to respect the historic and environmental qualities of a 200-year-old resort, while adapting this legacy to the needs of 21st-century homeowners. These dual qualities gave me occasion to explore my growing interest in synthesizing Traditional and Modern design, adding to the appeal of the project on a personal level.

Of course, pursuing one's artistic interests might be routine for many architects, but the Greenbrier job differed from the normal process in that the client did not exist. Instead, the project team created a fictional client profile to drive the program and provide a basis for making decisions. While one might think this would be typical for a speculative home, it is unlikely that most developer-builders give it the depth we did or contend with the thematically rich context of The Greenbrier. More important, once the schematic design and image of the house were determined, the developers largely left design to the project team, giving us substantial latitude for creativity.

plus side

More material considerations were evaluated as well, such as the fact that this model would be among the first custom homes to be designed for the 500-lot, 5,000-acre property. Coming to a development so early positioned us well for creating the relationships and tangible products necessary to pursue other private commissions there. Once the house was built, it would serve as a three-dimensional brochure for our architectural qualifications.

Equally beneficial would be the exposure offered by Town & Country magazine, with whom the developers had partnered to produce the house. A large-circulation, upscale publication, the magazine committed itself to producing a lavish story at the project's conclusion. It also brought most of the vendors into the project. The magazine's presence echoed the intertwining of architecture and media in the famed Case Study Houses, and underscored the fact that each participant benefits from the other.

Finally, the project created an attractive opportunity to work closely with a highly talented interior designer, Victoria Hagan. Victoria's keen eye and architectural sensibility yielded a better scheme than would have resulted if we'd worked alone.

final analysis

Despite these enticing circumstances, an architect ought not lose sight of potential hurdles in this kind of project. Foremost among them is financial sacrifice. Often the architect will be required to lower or defer fees until sale, in return for enjoying future benefits. Putting further pressure on this decision is the additional time required to coordinate an expanded project team. Generating marketing materials, interacting with the magazine, and facing intractable deadlines add extra hours of work.

Since model homes today are frequently driven by interior design, architects also should evaluate the degree to which their efforts will be appreciated. Fortunately, in her Town & Country essay, design writer Sarah Medford discussed at length the value of fostering collaboration between architect and interior designer. Her doing so not only helped validate our efforts, but also advanced an important idea for the public as a whole.

Last year the Greenbrier residence was sold for a substantial sum, and in October 2003 the owners moved in. At that point the model house became a real home, and our work as its architects was truly done.

Donald M. Rattner undertook the Town & Country show home while a partner at Ferguson Shamamian & Rattner. He founded the New York City firm Studio for Civil Architecture in 2002. Rattner is also working with residential architect's sister publication BUILDER on a show home for the 2005 International Builders' Show.