The homes in our future

Where do we live? These houses that we live in — these Minnesota homes of ours: why are they the way they are?

I wonder about such things. It seems to me that here in our part of the country, well into the 21st century, our homes should look and feel different than those in other parts of the country. For the most part, however, they really don’t. 

Why is this? What should a modern Minnesota home be like? 

There can be no single, right answer to that, of course. Still, I believe that a new home built today should reflect our time and place in an honest way — and to anticipate the future. As an architect living and practicing in Minneapolis, I have my own ideas about what this means.

Recently in Southwest Minneapolis, we’ve witnessed a burst of demolition and new construction activity, prompting a temporary moratorium as additional building requirements were put in place to protect affected neighbors. Much of this new construction was speculative — done by developers and builders with profit as the main goal. 

To my eyes, most of these new and often over scaled homes look the same. Why? Because they are meant to appeal to a certain set of expectations for the most possible buyers: Hence the general sameness. These homes may perform better than what they replaced (thanks to tighter building codes) but they don’t point the way to the future.

A home’s most essential role is to provide shelter for its occupants. The home’s envelope — its outer jacket — plays the biggest role in providing shelter, and gives the home its image. We live in a cold climate (check your monthly fuel bills for proof) and we need warm jackets, hats and gloves when we go outdoors on cold days. Same for our homes, and they’re outside all the time. 

Very old homes often have very thin jackets and scant insulation. Modern building codes mean that we can’t build that way any longer.  Codes, like other laws, are products of reactions and incremental acceptance. Sometimes, however, it feels like incremental change is not enough, and that it’s necessary to leap far beyond current requirements and attempt to build the future today.

Building “to code” is the same as building to the minimum allowed by law. Despite code changes, our houses are still net energy users, have no cap on allowable water consumption, nor on the types or amounts of chemicals applied to our lawns. 

As I look at the world and think about the future, I see a world that will require resilience in the face of increasingly extreme weather conditions, volatile energy prices, and economic upheavals.  Future homes will inevitably need to be significantly different than what is allowed today.  On a planet with finite resources that already has a population of more than 7.3 billion and that added 82 million in 2015 alone, the homes we build tomorrow will need to use far less than they do now: less energy, less water, less imported materials transported in from great distances.  They’ll use more indigenous landscape materials, provide more habitat for desirable local fauna, and — through the allowance of accessory dwelling units — allow higher density. The homes we build tomorrow should not hide the fact that they are robust, displaying their heavy coats. 

And, our neighborhoods will be friendlier and safer when more homes include generous front porches that encourage community interaction (in good weather, at least). Despite the many unpredictable, scary things that may pop up in the future, I believe in ways that good design and smart planning can improve where we live.

Leap ahead: What will tomorrow’s homes be like?  In 2016, here in southwest Minneapolis, my wife and I hope to provide one answer to that question as we consider building a new home for the future.

Scott J. Newland, AIA, is a longtime resident of the Lynnhurst neighborhood.  He has run a small architecture firm, Newland Architecture, Inc., since 1999, focusing mainly on residential design.