Do You Live in a Contemporary House?

Written by Doug Bonderud
Updated September 28, 2015
contemporary house
Describing a contemporary house can be tricky to do, but you almost always recognize one when you see it. (Photo by Matt Cowan)

The architectural design of a contemporary house includes sustainable materials, large windows and making use of natural space and light.

The contemporary home is hard to pin down — this term is often used in reference to whatever style is "new" or "trendy" in home design. There are several enduring elements, however, including the use of eco-friendly materials, creating harmony with natural space and including large, open windows whenever possible.

Although this style is often confused with "modern" architecture, the two types are stylistically distinct. Contemporary houses can be found across the United Stated in a wide variety of shapes and styles.

What is a contemporary house?

Contemporary houses trace their roots to the modern architecture revolution of the 1920s and 1930s.

This revolution focused on technology, meaning the function of elements in a home was more important than their form — in other words, appearance was dictated by action. This style also favored clean horizontal and vertical lines as opposed to ornamental designs.

In many respects, the modern style drew its influence from the Industrial Revolution and the impact of machinery — as a result, triumphs of engineering like the cantilevered homes of Frank Lloyd Wright became popular. The groundwork for contemporary homes came out of this modern evolution, and the two terms are often used interchangeably.

In fact, "modern" refers to a specific period in time and particular design elements, whereas "contemporary" refers to home styles which are currently trending or popular. While this makes the definition of the contemporary home somewhat fluid, there are several trends popular enough over the last few decades that they are commonly referred to as part of the contemporary style.

One trend is the use of strong geometric shapes and asymmetrical facades to create a unique outside look. Another trend is contemporary homes often feature L, T, H, or U-shaped floor plans which are open concept, in other words using as few walls as possible to make the home seem more a part of outdoor space.

Contractors who specialize in building these homes will typically use sustainable materials such as granite for kitchen counter tops or bamboo for flooring. If possible, local building materials are sourced, such as stone from a nearby quarry or local lumber.

Windows are also a critical feature in contemporary homes — large, unbroken expanses of glass are popular, as are odd shapes such as trapezoids or circles.

Finally, there's a focus on energy consumption through the use of things like geothermal heating systems or green roofs. Some contemporary house designers aim for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification, which indicates their plan is sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Problems with contemporary houses

If you're buying a contemporary home, your biggest problem is often uncertainty. Unlike Colonial or Cape Cod homes, these houses don't follow a particular set of architectural guidelines, meaning they could have a host of structural and electrical issues or be completely up to code.

Start by hiring a knowledgeable home inspector to do a thorough examination of the house; make sure the inspector tests things like how much hot water is generated by the heater and how quickly it heats up. Have him check the roof, especially if the home features a unique roofing style or material, since replacing a sod roof isn't anything like re-shingling asphalt. 

Some common problems: Air loss around large windows if they're not properly insulated or installed. Also, some open concept rooms may be "over span," especially if the home was previously renovated. This term refers to vertical support posts carrying too much ceiling load. To correct the issue, more posts must be installed or the ceiling beams must be replaced by steel or engineered wood.

Renovation is the more popular choice for contemporary homeowners, since restoring the house may not be feasible. Contemporary homes are notable for their lack of unified style; while there are general guidelines, none are hard and fast.

As a result, the original owner's intent may be unclear. Renovating a contemporary house, meanwhile, gives you the freedom to work with existing design choices and add your own style.

The open concept nature and of these homes and emphasis on natural light make them excellent choices if you're looking for a blank canvas for your vision.

Before starting work, however, make sure to have a clear idea of your end goal in mind and hire a professional contractor who shares and understands your aim. Although contemporary homes are relatively simple to renovate and refurbish, they're also tempting targets for unscrupulous contractors; always make sure to seek out trusted advice both online and from local sources.