• Bob Berkebile, founding principal of BNIM Architects, is the Vision 2020 chair for Regenerative Design.

    Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan

    Bob Berkebile, founding principal of BNIM Architects, is the Vision 2020 chair for Regenerative Design.

By 2020, the year of perfect vision, homes in demand will bear little resemblance to those in which I and my contemporaries were raised. Housing will be healthier for residents, the community, and the planet, and buyers will require site-specific, performance-based information via mobile applications that will inform their decisions about which home to rent or purchase. The same technology will remotely control the comfort of the residence and the operation of its appliances and security systems while simultaneously negotiating with utility providers for clean power at the best rate. Amenities that currently are not well defined will influence consumer decisions. Requests for net-positive energy and water will be common, and interest in proximity to work, good food, recreation, and entertainment will be the norm.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF HOUSING

Some of these amenities were available in our earliest homes—cave dwellings and other shelters found or created. In some ways, we did not know how good we had it; the best caves offered daylight, natural ventilation, and passive conditioning. There were no lawns to mow; no mortgages, utility bills, insurance, or taxes to pay; and no foreclosures. Scientists are discovering that there were other important benefits we are only beginning to appreciate, including a strong sense of community, quality time with our families, and living in nature. Noted biologist E.O. Wilson uses the term biophilia to describe a belief that humans inherently enjoy nature, and his hypothesis suggests that we gain balance and well-being from living in natural environments.

As the human family grew, so did the need for housing, and when all the caves were taken, Homo sapiens began to demonstrate their resourcefulness with a variety of constructed shelters. Beautiful designs uniquely suited to culture, function, climate, and local renewable resources can be found throughout the world. Sophisticated use of natural systems and local materials and the ability of early cultures to create comfort, a sense of community, and security by design are remarkable.

The dawn of Western scientific thought and the Industrial Revolution transformed our concept of shelter and, by extension, our relationship with nature. Nature, which had been worshiped, feared, and celebrated as the source of beauty and life, became a resource to be managed, or “bent to our will,” as Francis Bacon put it. As a direct result, our views of natural resources, home, and community changed dramatically.

For the first time, the temperature of our homes could be controlled in summer and winter simply by dialing the desired temperature rather than by hauling wood, coal, or ice. Our descendants loved the ease of these new creature comforts and were quick to embrace them. It was seductive; life was good. With this new comfort, however, came hidden challenges: separation from nature and unprecedented consumption, waste, and pollution. Thoughtful designers attempted to address these issues with new concepts for living, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, “a machine for living,” Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses. These new ideas and numerous others were overpowered by cultural shifts supported by market forces, federal policies, and corporate interests.

Following World War II, a spike in home construction was triggered by the GI Bill’s low-interest home loans and access to new land funded by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, yielding an explosion of highways, housing, and suburban development.

These events redefined the American dream, created a dependence on automobiles, and increased the operating cost of city services due to larger service areas and decreased densities. A rise in population and affluence over the last half century accelerated sprawl development with larger homes, more cars, and more stuff, resulting in significant increases in the consumption of critical resources and a crippling dependence on fossil fuels.

One decade into the 21st century, it is clear that this development trend is not sustainable for many reasons, the most acute being disruptive climate change. The causes are well known and linked directly to this development pattern and fossil fuel–dependent lifestyle. We have dramatically increased the release of carbon (280 ppm at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 340 ppm 35 years ago when Wendell Berry wrote The Unsettling of America, and 390 ppm today), with similar decreases in the natural systems that absorb carbon. Most scientists agree that we must reduce the level to approximately 350 ppm if we hope to sustain human life.

The science can be very depressing, unless we consider the potential of remarkable breakthroughs and emerging trends that are occurring throughout the world that could change our trajectory. Duane Elgin describes this potential in Promise Ahead. He believes that in our evolution, mankind separated from nature and lived self-centered lives, as in adolescence, in order to understand ourselves and explore our ingenuity. He suggests that we now have the option to “grow up” as a civilization and restore our positive relationship with nature, or not. It is a choice. We can also choose to stay the course and destroy human life. If we choose to make the shift and reintegrate, we have the advantage of the impressive tools and technologies we have created to accomplish the daunting task of revitalization in the short time available to us.