Earlier this year, the AIA invited architects and architecture students to envision the home of the future. They were asked to come up with designs that not only help save the planet but do it affordably, while also addressing the social needs of the inhabitants. Winning entries in the “New Home on the Range” competition—first, second, and third place, plus nine honorable mentions—ranged from the poetic to the high-tech. Many of the winners thought in broad terms about how home design affects our social connections, radically reinventing the way we live.

All responded to the same program for a hypothetical Denver site: a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, single-family house with a two-car garage, not exceeding 2,400 square feet and located on a quarter-acre, 75-foot-by-145-foot lot.

Given the nature of the competition, it's not surprising that Modernism maintained a firm grip on the designs. The first-place winner, Jeffrey S. Lee, AIA, Pearce Brinkley Cease and Lee, Raleigh, N.C., took a stab at something that could be developed in the future. In lieu of traditional framing, he envisioned a thick, recycled-plastic box that could stand on its own, with double-sided walls to hold mechanical systems for heating, cooling, and rainwater collection. The skin could also accept inserts such as photovoltaic cells, insulating aerogel, and different opacities of glass to control light and views. Lee dubbed it the S House because it can shrink, swell, and squeeze to adapt to its owners by way of nesting or protruding volumes.

By contrast, the clean lines of Wooded House (second place) were dictated by a low-tech material—railroad ties. Ian Roll, Associate AIA, Boston, says the simple forms were inspired by the way railroad ties are stacked vertically for storage on palettes. The abstracted Prairie-style house gives new life to a material that communities need to dispose of anyway, and evokes an active lifestyle. “I was looking at the rails to trails program running through the Midwest and the interest in healthy lifestyles,” Roll says. “From that came ideas about the site planning: How do you inhabit your home but not necessarily be inside all the time?” Terraces invite the occupants out into the fresh air. And upstairs, a library window crops a view of tree trunks, making a clever ecological link between paper and wood.

With his Push & Pull House, third-place winner Thomas Raynaud, a French architect, proposed an equally simple, yet much more radical, vision of the future: a flat roof with photovoltaics and skylights, a floor, and ergonomic, self-contained pods that aesthetes can move about according to personal whim. “It's a reinvented Farnsworth house,” a judge said. “It transforms the modern glass box into product design.” Immensely versatile, the modules include double and single beds, a media station cum lounge, a shower, a restroom, and a kitchen. For added appeal, each pod contains a hi-fi sound system, and they all plug into the roof for power and drainage.

Some of the honorable mention winners also searched for new ways to apply emerging technology and, in the process, designed for ultimate flexibility. One of the more theoretical entries, @home, by Thomas Myers in Manhattan Beach, Calif., physically defines the degree to which communication technology has infiltrated domestic life. The design, which originated as Myers' senior graduate thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, features a Media(n) wall, or tech center, that slides through the house along a track. It turns any room into an office or entertaining area and, on another level, plays with old perceptions about the public and private realm. “What draws the line between who is in your community and who is not is no longer physical at all,” Myers says.

In Study in Red, it's the house's shell that flexes to meet the needs of its occupants. Helen Pierce, AIA, Moeckel Carbonell Associates, Wilmington, Del., created an outer skin composed of electrochromic operable windows. Interior walls are a combination of interchangeable glass and solid panels, all recyclable, laid out on a grid of adjustable floor plates. Space can be heightened, added, or subtracted to adapt to an increasingly diverse population.

Two other projects eased back from high-tech to focus on market-ready materials and methods. The Red House, by Travis Hicks, AIA, Louisburg, N.C., takes green design literally by turning over a portion of the lot to shared organic gardening, recreation, and natural habitat. A multifamily structure collects and stores natural resources through design features such as a butterfly roof, cast-in-place concrete, and a pool for evaporative cooling.

House 20-21, by Rado Ivanov, Associate AIA, Alexandria, Va., perfectly embodies the trajectory toward achieving resource-efficient homes through rigorous siting and uncompromising, off-the-shelf materials. Ivanov gave it a north-south orientation and a west-side trellis with deciduous ivy that allows the sun to warm the house in winter.

And he speced a laundry list of eco-friendly features, from steel framing that can be easily disassembled and recycled, to flyash concrete, porous walking surfaces, radiant heat, and low-VOC finishes. “These are all off-the-shelf materials and principles, just put together in a sustainable way,” he says. “This shouldn't cost more than a regular house.”