Lately it seems that every time I pick up a magazine about residential design or construction, someone is talking about 'green' design. Phrases such as 'rapidly renewable', 'eco-friendly' and 'prefab' are quickly becoming a part of the general public's vocabulary. Recently, I started seeing recycled glass tiles and zero VOC paints at the big box stores. And while all of this is definitely good for the planet, I can't help but wonder how it REALLY affects the architecture of our day. Are these new products really changing the general consciousness about Design, or is it just a marketing necessity to offer a sustainable option?
Consider this: In 1913, Sears Roebuck and Company offered 'kit houses' as part of their general catalog. For under $2,000 you could get an entire house in numbered pieces including Millwork, Plumbing Fixtures, Rough Lumber, Roofing, and Finishes. You had the option of putting it together yourself with an enclosed instruction manual, or hiring a local crew to do it. Now the interesting thing about these homes, was not the progressive method of distribution (decades ahead of IKEA), but rather the Design of each residence. With regards to millwork, exteriors, and planning, no detail was overlooked. In order to attract the would be buyers, each model had to be comparable in both price AND aesthetics.
Just for fun, do an image search for 'Sears Modern Home' and you will likely see a collection of modest but very charming homes. If you do a little more digging, you can probably find images of actual homes still in existence from the first part of the twentieth century. Now compare these homes with the current 2009 offerings for affordable 'pre-fab' or 'modular' homes. The results from this search will be dramatically different. Now don't get me wrong, there are plenty of companies that make beautiful modern pre-fab homes. But in my experience, they are not affordable to the average American. Take the Kithaus offered by Design Within Reach. Although visually elegant, it will cost you around $400 per SF for a single 9x13 or 11x17 room. Ouch.
So my challenge to everyone out there is this: If Sears could design and produce elegant and affordable homes made from high quality honest materials in the 1920's, then why can't we do it today? In all this dialogue about Environmental Design and Sustainable Building, perhaps people ought to look at the past before we miss a great opportunity in the future.