Experimentation with “houses of the future” dates back over 120 years to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 in which ideas on this subject were exposed to public view in “model homes.” They contained plumbing, electricity, water and sewer services from a modern city as well as pre-fabricated walls, windows and cabinetry from the Sears Roebuck catalog that would be shipped to your site (material costs of under $1,000)—reportedly a profitable business for Sears for many years.
Housing neighborhoods were subjects of creative improvement in the early part of this century with concepts owing their origin to England’s Ebeneezer Howard who, in the 19th Century created the plan for “The Garden City of Tomorrow”— an ideal community in circular fashion with a greenbelt separating the residential area from employment areas. It served as a model for many community plans over subsequent years. Radburn, New Jersey introduced the “Super Block” in the 1920s which featured housing in cul de sacs around internal parkland, limiting vehicular streets to the periphery. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration sponsored “Greenbelt Communities”— Greenbelt, Maryland outside Washington and Greendale, Wisconsin in Milwaukee — which contained carefully planned “green” neighborhoods with small attached and detached dwellings subsidized by the federal government for rent to low-income families for under $50 per month. These neighborhoods continue today as popular communities with the former rental homes converted to relatively expensive for-sale housing.
In the 1940s, after World War II, Levitt and Sons carried out two great experiments in mass-produced housing: Levittown, New York on Long Island and Levittown, Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia—small cottages on small lots produced at 30 completions per day planned around schools, parks and shopping centers—targeted to returning war veterans. Both continue as popular suburbs for first-time buyers today.
At the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, a multi-family housing exhibit called “Habitat” received world-wide attention for its multi-level modular design concept, and efficient construction cost and livable planning. It provided the model for a variety of new housing solutions, although many so-called copies ended up as stereotype block construction that degenerated into slum housing. However, it is still considered to be the prototype for modular housing that continues to be built economically in many cities.
Perhaps the most lasting home of the future is the so-called “mobile home” that emerged from the vacation trailer designed for mass-production following World War II. The idea of a dwelling that could be built in a factory, constructed of light-weight materials to a width of highway vehicles for ready transport to inexpensive lots carved from road frontage along rural roads, and then to “mobile home parks” with community recreation amenities in village settings that generated a novel type of financing (leased dwelling pads with purchased homes) as well as economical shelter for an increasing number of Americans. Although often criticized as generating projected future slum housing, the creative manufacturers of mobile and modular single-family homes now provide one- and two-story suburban homes for variable sizes and designs for suburban neighborhoods that are indistinguishable from “stick-built” dwellings, and arguably of better construction at lower cost.
The continuing quest for the perfect home of the future continues in several developed nations including experimentation by U.S. production home-builders with solar heating, robotic controls for appliances, lighting and security, environmentally energy-saving “green” improvements to the external envelope and internal efficiencies. Even construction techniques using structures of steel and reinforced concrete are evolving to beat the threats of deadly tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. Increasing numbers of these options are becoming standard features, as they are selected by increasing numbers of sophisticated consumers every year. Additional experimentation increases with building structure to further environmental savings with glass, plastic and even a new “cellophane wrap” created in the seemingly endless quest to achieve the optimum goal of improved livability and environmental support at the lowest possible cost.
Thus, the quest for the home of the future continues to produce incremental changes in new dwellings and their environs; changes that add improvements without drastic revisions. For homebuilders, like car manufacturers, recognize that consumers are wary of dramatically different external designs. They feel safer purchasing modern improvements within exteriors that still retain the image of homes from their childhood. New homes and their neighborhoods have evolved through countless changes over the past century, but at a modest pace subject to consumer preferences, a trend that is likely to continue through the century ahead.
Dr. David F. Parker