The “Jetsons” cartoon series of the 1960’s was a fanciful glimpse of American home life in the 21st Century. George, Jane, Judy, Elroy and Astro lived in slick automated house that looked as futuristic outside as it was high-tech inside. Here in the twenty-first century it would seem logical that house design should be evolving towards a space-age look, but traditionally styled homes that model themselves after eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth-century designs are more popular than ever. Is the architectural design clock ticking backwards or are these classic exteriors simply attractive skins hiding twenty-first century muscles and bones?
A Brief History
American house design has weathered four centuries of rapidly changing architectural styles and tastes. The early homes built by European settlers were simple and unadorned, reflecting the familiar forms of their homelands, but as prosperity grew they began to take on decoration copied from the great buildings of Europe. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, home style followed the fashion of the day – Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Neoclassical, Tudor, Italian Renaissance. These classic homes are often easily dated by tracing the architectural style to the time period when it was popular.
The twentieth century brought architectural revolt. Tired of modeling their designs on European archetypes, architects invented new forms of home design. The Arts & Crafts movement, for example, sought to create a more intimate connection between the house and the lives of the occupants. The warm and cozy bungalow homes scattered throughout this country are an enduring heritage of the Arts & Crafts style. The Modern movement promoted the house as a “machine for living” and stripped all ornamentation. Chicago’s Prairie School promoted an architecture born of the landscape – a style that Frank Lloyd Wright worked to perfection. Wright’s homes are still considered innovative eighty years later.
Then along came the post-World War II housing boom and a sort of chaos in housing style. In the rush to provide thousands of homes for newly prosperous Americans, good architectural design often took a back seat in new tract home developments and much of the scale, detail, and warmth of earlier “styled” homes was lost. Craftsmanship became a lost art. New homes and quality architecture have been only passing acquaintances since.
But our recent period of economic good fortune has revived an interest in the value of good architectural design. Books and television shows scrutinize design and construction and even an entire cable network is dedicated to educating us about housing and home design. More and more new communities are employing Architectural Review Boards in an effort to promote a higher level of design quality and to help maintain a consistent character throughout the community. And at architectural offices across the country, custom home clients (even those with modest budgets) are once again asking for attractive, well-designed structures with character and personality.
But these new home clients aren’t asking for space-age design. They’re seeking the comfort of familiar forms, of gables and double-hung windows, of brick, stone, and wood, of cozy porches and sidewalks, and they’re looking at older neighborhoods for design inspiration.
Back To The Future
Where then here in the year 2001 are the” futuristic” homes? In many ways they’re already here and rapidly becoming more high-tech. In one form or another, many of the technological gizmos in George Jetson’s cartoon house are available to us today. The microwave oven and home automation systems were “predicted” by the Jetsons’ creators. And George kept in touch with Jane and Mr. Spacely via a real-time audio/video link – something that the Internet has made a reality.
But the majority of the technological changes in today’s homes are “invisible”; hidden within the walls, tucked away in the basement, or disguised as man-made products designed to mimic natural materials.
While many foundation walls are still built with concrete block or poured concrete, other technologies are gaining acceptance. Foundation walls can now be built of precast pieces or assembled from Styrofoam blocks that are then filled with concrete. And although our homes are still built mostly of wood, more of that wood is manufactured from smaller pieces – “engineered” lumber — or cut from genetically enhanced trees grown in managed forests. High-quality “wood” siding and trim products can be made from a slurry of wood fibers and resin or specialized lightweight concrete. Even window glass is treated with a microscopic energy-saving coating and the space between panes filled with Argon gas. And that attractive stone exterior next door? It may be “cultured stone” instead. It’s almost impossible to tell the difference.
Some of these technological improvements give architects more design freedom. Engineered lumber with its greater structural capacity allows us to remove some interior walls and open rooms to each other. The increased energy efficiency of window glass means more and larger windows, better views to the outside and more daylight inside.
Heating and cooling systems are working harder too, becoming more efficient every year as engineers find new ways to grab every last calorie of heat energy from our limited fossil-fuel resources. New furnace systems can extract more than 95% of the available heat energy in a fuel.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) pipe has largely replaced cast iron in plumbing drain systems, and plastic water lines are challenging the dominance of copper.
And while only the highest-end custom homes have complete home automation systems controlling lighting, heating, and entertainment media, nearly every home is pre-wired for cable-TV and security alarms.
There’s No Place Like Home
Inside and out, our homes are rapidly approaching the technological level of the Jetsons. But while George and his family lived in a circular, glass-walled space needle, the look of many of today’s homes still recognizes the comfortable and familiar forms of our architectural heritage.
There’s plenty of room in our communities for non-traditional design. But we work hard and play hard and even in contemporary homes, we want to find comfort and peace. Regardless of the architectural style, comfortable homes are ones that relate to our human scale, that surround us with warmth and light, and that bring our family members closer together. We like spaces that support our patterns of living, and that can adapt to our changing needs. High-tech has its place in bringing comfort and convenience to our lives, but houses that acknowledge our heritage are familiar and intimate.
Most of us aren’t interested in homes that look like the Jetsons’, but we all like the convenience of their gadgets. I think that robot housekeepers are going to be very popular someday.