Contemporary American House

By:  | January - 11 - 2011

The contemporary American house is experiencing a deepening crisis of identity in this era of growing environmentalism. This identity crisis began nearly fifty years ago with the end of the Case Study House program and the rapid acceleration of suburbanization. The discipline of architecture never regained its footing in the context of American housing as housing became a product, subject to the efficiencies and economics of mass manufacture. The impact of suburban sprawl on energy, water and transportation infrastructure was largely overlooked until its geographic consequences were already firmly entrenched. The widespread growth of environmentalism has begun to address this problem, but even the corresponding aesthetic of the environmental movement has done little to assert a new identity for the American house.

However, an appreciable shift is underway as a new audience of environmentally concerned citizens gathers. While this audience has embraced environmentally friendly product and equipment upgrades, the approach thus far is insufficient, as its impact on sustainable development is minor and its rate of change too slow. We believe growing environmentalism should be met with design ingenuity, not product specification. A lasting contribution to sustainable development or the quality of the built environment is impossible when underperforming architectural and urban organizations are simply reproduced using products branded as “green.”

By way of example, The Succulent House designed by Los Angeles-based practice Murmur addresses the pressing global issue of freshwater quality and supply as but one possible force to drive design ingenuity and improve environmental performance. This approach allows us to speculate on the organizational, spatial and atmospheric potential of water collection on the American house. Organizationally, the roof area of the house is divided in two, and its area is maximized for water collection, storage and distribution. The inverted roof planes direct rainwater to storage cores around which program is distributed. Roofscape collection is experienced from the interior as the space rises and falls to meet the ceiling. The collected water is stored in bladders that respond to changes in seasonal rainfall. Like its namesake plant, the bladders exhibit succulence in times of increased water supply. In times of low supply, the bladders are loose and drapery like.

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