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Green Building Curmudgeon

The Problem With Modern Architecture

Even though I’m not a fan, I went in with an open mind

My favorite project on the tour. This combination home and office for the architects was comfortable, well detailed, and carefully constructed.
Image Credit: TAC Studios
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My favorite project on the tour. This combination home and office for the architects was comfortable, well detailed, and carefully constructed.
Image Credit: TAC Studios
The top floor covered outdoor room was my favorite place on the entire tour. Flush trim details are hard. That's why builders have been using reveals and other trick to obscure the inevitable movement of materials for centuries. Exterior miters are difficult in furniture; to hope that they will remain closed on stained exterior applications is wishful thinking at best. This was one of the few weak points in an otherwise nicely detailed home. I appreciated this gapped rain screen detail. I have seen it before, but it always makes me wonder, what happens when bugs and other little creatures start living in there? One section of a three-story-high set of windows that angle outward. On the tour they were quite dusty; apparently they are not easy to clean. I admit to being guilty of this in the past - not leaving adequate room for ducts in a house. I know better now, and I'm waiting for others to catch on. The underlit kitchen counter in the big, oddly decorated house on the tour. Where were the bartenders and dancers? After smacking my head on this 5'6" opening to a tiny interior balcony, I wondered, who thought up this detail? Looking down into the dining area from the stair landing. Scale and finishes are quite different than most mere mortals are used to.

Over my now decades-long career in construction and renovation, I have rarely attended any home tours, but I recently went on a tour of modern homes in Atlanta sponsored by a group called, quote appropriately, Modern Atlanta. The tour included ten single-family homes (I saw eight of them) and one commercial building, the new Atlanta offices of Perkins + Will, a LEED Platinum renovation, which I did not visit.

Now I tend to not prefer modernist architecture – most of which features flat roofs, few if any overhangs, and (usually) lots of glass. I did, however, keep an open mind when touring the homes, but this didn’t keep me from being critical of the projects where appropriate.

The good

My favorite home on the tour was the combination home/office by TAC Studios. For starters, the size was modest, the spaces comfortable, the views great, and, what made me the happiest, the details were well designed and executed. On top of that, the location is exceptional.

At the end of a dead-end street in a formerly seriously scary neighborhood (where I had an office many years ago, so I know), this house is adjacent to two walking and bike paths, one current and one in development, and is very accessible to all sorts of retail and commercial amenities. I am looking forward to an invitation to drinks and/or dinner on their top-level covered patio soon. (Are you listening, Cara?).

Another home that was understated and well-crafted was a simple home in the suburb of Roswell. Although it has a flat roof, the designers managed to include reasonable overhangs to protect the building from the rainy climate and provide some shading. The exterior detailing was refreshingly traditional: corner boards and lap siding. These details are sure to be durable with minimal maintenance. The house was conditioned with minisplit heat pumps, a nice touch that is rarely seen around these parts.

The bad

Most of the rest of the homes on tour didn’t do much for me. Each had some nice spaces as well as uncomfortable or marginally useful ones. There was lots of talk of spray foam insulation and geothermal heat pumps, but I saw little real house-as-a-system thinking.

What I found bothered me the most were the furniture-like exterior details that weren’t going to last, many of which were already beginning to fail. For example, V-joint tongue-and-groove siding with flush trim or exterior miter joints were showing significant movement on these fairly new homes. I appreciated the gapped siding rainscreen details, although I always wonder how often they need to clean out the spider webs from the cracks.

One home had a long wall of floor-to-ceiling storefront glass, facing south, minimally shaded, lighting a hallway with wood floors and drywall walls and ceilings. This feature was incorrectly labeled “Passive Solar Design.”

The ugly

On entering the largest house on the tour, one of the guides/guards at the door smiled at me. When I asked her why, she said she liked seeing the expressions on visitors’ faces when they came in.

Within a few minutes, I understood why. This house was immense, complicated, and had possibly the most bizarre interior finishes I have ever seen in my life. Someone described it as having been decorated by Austin Powers. The home is listed as being EarthCraft-certified, and like most of the homes on tour, it used spray foam insulation and was fairly well built, but man, was it big and strange.

The most personally irritating detail was the 5’6” doorway to an interior balcony. I learned the opening height after a close encounter with my forehead. And then there was the indoor shooting range!

But are they green?

In general, all the homes I saw were a big step up from the typical builder-grade home in terms of insulation, air sealing, weatherproofing, and general attention to detail. Several of them are or will be certified under one or more green building programs — better than if they weren’t.

I would have liked to have seen more consideration of solar orientation, material durability, and simpler volumes to keep construction and energy costs in check. I think there is a place for climate-appropriate, high-performance modernist homes. I saw a couple on this tour and look forward to seeing more in the future.


  1. GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #1

    But, Carl, you haven't answered the biggest question of all: Do we have any hope of rescuing the word 'modern' since it's tied so strongly to the early and mid twentieth century in the fields of physics and architecture?!

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Allison Bailes
    Since the art world has moved beyond post-modern to post-post-modern, I'm not sure what kind of rescue mission you hope to launch.

  3. user-1051743 | | #3

    The problem is bad design
    You're spot on with the issue of bad design: too many "green" buildings suffer from lousy design that overshadows otherwise good elements.

    Still, I'd argue that modern architecture (regardless of the definition of modern) isn't the issue here, it's bad design. And bad design isn't limited to modern architecture. Useless rooms, poor solar orientation, fussy systems, and short-lived materials show up in traditional buildings as well.

    Since the tour was billed as one of modern architecture, perhaps there's an elevated expectation that "modern" means more than just style, but also represents evolution beyond obvious design flaws. And I assume we can both agree that modern design should embody this evolution, even if it often does not.

  4. user-1045979 | | #4

    Good points Travis.

    Good points Travis.

    Modernism is, at it's best, a means of simplification and clarification. Although that commonly -- and correctly -- leads to 'clean lines' and a lack of ornamentation (although this depends on how you define ornamentation) there's nothing that says modernism should be convoluted boxes without regard to it's context. If anything, the maxim, "form follows function," would (should) lead to environmentally responsive design.

    It seems that the ideas of modernism have been largely usurped by an aesthetic of modernism that results in your (accurate and deserved) criticisms. I would just argue that nothing about modern design has to, or even should be, at odds with thoughtful, responsive, sustainable design.

    You can find good examples in regional and vernacular modernism. The pacific northwest has some good examples of this. I do think that architectural design is well behind cutting-edge building science, and has a lot to learn from that, but I wholeheartedly believe that good design is itself a sustainable attribute where it creates an environment the users can be proud of and feel a sense of ownership in.

    What aspects of sustainable design could not be fully integrated into modern design if you look at the ideas behind the system of thought rather than the facade of the STYLE (said pejoratively) it has become?

  5. user-1005168 | | #5

    Details, Details, Details
    It's all in the details—literally. So few properly know how to create great details; so many slap materials together for the sake of cost. Creating an object that from the outside looks very simple is an exceeding hard task to accomplish and do it correctly. But in the defense of those who produce and understand great details there are far too many contractors who do not share the same level of expertise and knowing/unknowingly cut corners to improperly achieve something completely different.

  6. 5C8rvfuWev | | #6

    ... and architects, too
    Perhaps Wright's legacy includes not only beauty but a lowered priority for the achievement of "sustainable" and "durable" and what "works." I'm thinking of the legend -- which all of you probably know much better than me -- that begins with one of his clients calling to complain that his roof design was leaking all over her dining room table. As you recall, he is supposed to have offered an unsympathetic bit of advice: "Move your table."

    Perhaps, just as architecture continues to be inspired by his vision, perhaps his attitude toward durable design has come down to us too ... and not only via builders.

  7. wjrobinson | | #7

    Builders, riiiiiiggghhhht.

    Have built mostly from plans. The buyers have wants and a budget. The buyer buys shingles that don't last due to price/budget/wants. Same for most every lesser product or spec. Twice I was told adamently, "30 year roof??!!, NO, I am not gonna own or live that long!!! etc..."

    Large, long lasting, custom Dream homes are very very expensive to build. And most Americans want the look of rich on a rather lesser budget.

    Builders can build great homes, and we do but not for the average budget driven buyer.

  8. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #8

    Good points all around
    There are plenty of poorly built traditional homes, and as I said, most of these homes were built better and more efficiently than the typical house. My frustration with most modern, or modernist, architecture is that there are so many lost opportunities in terms of efficiency, durability, and general livability in the name of the design. I recently tested out a new modern home for LEED certification and on a lovely 65 degree day they needed to run the air conditioning because of the abundance of unshaded windows. Can't imagine how it will fare in an Atlanta summer. And this house was quite well built with very good waterproofing and rain screen details. They just sacrificed huge energy performance and comfort for the sake of design.

  9. user-659915 | | #9


    They just sacrificed huge energy performance and comfort for the sake of design.

    Let's not perpetuate the common confusion of design and style. Style is how it looks. Design, to quote the late Steve Jobs (and many others), is how it works. Modernist thinking when it emerged in the 1920s went back to basics on design and was all about performance in the fullest sense of the word. Modernist style as it has come down to us ninety years later is mostly, sadly, just about surfaces.

    By the way Wright detested the modernists and would be appalled to be associated with them. Despite a few gleefully documented failures (out of a huge body of much-loved work) we still have much to gain from his concept of an organic (i.e. integrated) architecture. If he were working today with all our insulation and roofing technologies at his disposal he'd be at the leading edge of green building.

  10. JPGunshinan | | #10

    great discussion
    I marked as "helpful" every comment up to this one, because I found this to be a great discussion.

    When a house's design is too abstract—think surfaces—I think of it as having a head but no heart. When a house is built quickly and cheaply or piecemeal and without any integrity I think of it as all heart. Only mature architects/designers/builders/contractors who have talent, training, and lots of experience, can create together a house with head and heart—a beautiful, comfortable, healthy, and efficient space that supports rest, relaxation, privacy, and community, when chosen.

    I only wish Wright were here to defend himself—the older, wiser version.

  11. user-1087436 | | #11

    Modernism etc.
    What I loved about this article was its attention to details, and the difficulties thereof. The outside miters were quite impressive. Early in the 1980s I went to an open house for a modern duplex in Seattle with a view of (a) the Olympic Range, (b) Lake Union, and (c, virtually at the back door), Interstate 5. There was glass, of course; lots of it, from floor to ten foot ceiling on the view (west) side, which is where Seattle weather always blows in. And there on the bottom of window frame, facing INTO the room, were the weep holes. Had I not worked at a south Seattle glass company two years earlier (a two-month assignment for Manpower), I would not have known the difference.

    I mention this because this has always seemed to be the curse of modernism: a concern for a sleek aesthetic at the expense of decent ordinary humanity. Decency requires that windows not be installed inside out. Decency requires that one should first pay attention to the age-old enemy of buildings, i.e., water. Decency requires that, as Mr. Seville points out, one should not require air-conditioning on a 65-degree day. But one cannot be 'modernist' if one's roof is pitched (symmetrically, at least); nor can one be modernist without an acreage of glass. No one chooses a modernist house because he wants to grow old in it, or raise a family, or build memories there. Modernist houses are made to impress people, girlfriends, or clients, or all of the above.

    The modern view duplex by I-5, by the way, suffered an appropriate fate. Eighteen months after I went through the building, in January, the Seattle rains took their vengeance. Builders who could not install a window correctly could not be expected to pay attention to soil structure. (As it turned out, neither did the Building Department.) The top layer, saturated, slipped on the banana peel of clay that lurked beneath. Down came the duplex, with a badly installed window now the least of its problems. The lawyers, as always, had a field day.

  12. David_Gregory_CZ3_CA | | #12

    As I've recommended here before quite likely, those interested in the relationship between modernism and building performance should find Reyner Banham's 'The Architecture of the Well Tempered Environment' enlightening.

    Among other treasures, there's a discussion (and section) of one of FLW's details for recessed lighting, where the waste heat from the incandescent lamp intentionally creates a flow of air from the room past the lamp into an open soffit/chase and exhausts it through the roof (a 'modern' version of the older invention of placing a grille above centrally-mounted candle chandeliers to draw off their 'bad air' - and other bad air of the house as well), and of the London House of Parliament firing gas burners in the roof plenum to draw in fresh air below. These details may make most readers here cringe; but remember, these buildings were 'naturally ventilated'...they didn't have AC (or CFL's, LED's, HRVs/ERV's). FLW (as a 'proto' modernist, perhaps), and many later 'true' (or 'High') Modernist architects (Int'l Style), were thinking about the relationship between buildings, energy, and technology, and working with what they had, and knew, at the time. Some did better than others on the performance measure. LeCorbu's work evolved from the single-pane glass 'curtain wall' to Le Mur Neutralisant (double-facade) to the brise-soliel and finally punched mass of Ronchamp. And his - and Kahn's, and other's - work with light could be wonderful.

    I, for one, am glad for the break with history that modernism provided; it was a necessary corrective. I mean, Rococo...really??? I side with Loos. And 'traditional' buildings can be very expensive to keep up well (hence the worker's slums of the Victorian era), and flat roofs are a great way to get semi-private oudoor space, with a piece of the sky, in dense urban situations. And there is no reason you can't block excess heat gain in a modern way.

    Finally, Mr. Taylor; let's be clear that a mass wasting event has nothing to do with the 'style' of the building it takes out. A neo-tudor McMansion would have suffered the same fate; and they're built all the time to impress people too. So why was that particular building's fate - and that of its occupants, an other contents - 'appropriate'? Because it destroyed a house where a window was installed backwards?

    In short: don't throw out the baby with the bathwater...! ;)


  13. user-1087436 | | #13

    True enough
    Well said, Mr Gregory. In Modernism's house, truly, there are many mansions. And I detest rococo as much as anyone. Still, you'll have to forgive me when I imagine the late Philip Johnson ensconced for all eternity in his Glass House--with the air-conditioning turned off.

  14. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #14

    Good points, David
    I completely agree that modernist buildings are capable of being high performance. My problem is that they are only barely ahead of the traditional builders in this area, and in some cases fall behind. I have no problem with contemporary architecture that deals with solar orientation, durable details, and moisture management appropriately. The fact that there are more traditional buildings built badly is mostly a function of the quantity of them as compared to modernist structures. I think the problems are a combination of budget and ego, neither which are limited to contemporary architecture. People want things cheap and architects want them to fit their vision. And often the end user gets caught in the crossfire of poorly executed details.

    And excellent visual of Philip Johnson. I can see his Corbu glasses steaming up already.

  15. user-659915 | | #15

    LeCorbu's work evolved from

    LeCorbu's work evolved from the single-pane glass 'curtain wall' to Le Mur Neutralisant (double-facade) to the brise-soliel and finally punched mass of Ronchamp. And his - and Kahn's, and other's - work with light could be wonderful.

    Corbu certainly knew how to talk the talk: "L'architecture est le jeu, savant, correct et magnifique des volumes sous la lumière." - 'architecture is the considered, correct and magnificent interplay of spaces in light' - but his buildings seldom lived up to that standard. Certainly not in the shoebox apartments of the various Unités d'Habitation which along with neo-brutalism are probably his most enduring legacy. And the 'Mur Neutralisant' was possibly the most insanely stupid idea in the entire history of building energy management. But I'll give him credit for the brise-soleil, without which many modernist buildings would have been an even greater environmental disaster than they were - he may not have invented the concept but he gave it a name and was largely influential in getting it into the general architectural vocabulary.

  16. Bredian | | #16

    Excellent article and comments. Exterior details shown in photos 2 & 3 and ducts in photo 6 could cause future liability for both the contractor and the architect or designer....nothing "green" or sustainable about that. Does the siding manufacturer know the material was used for exterior? Were proper fasteners used (looks like finish nails)? is the underlayment protected from sun exposure (per mfg specs)? Can you find these combinations recommended or approved in building, code, association or manufacturers publications? Doubtful.

    This kind of architecture takes more skill and knowledge to execute properly, but often gets built by the lowest bidder, who may be less skilled and experienced. The advantage to most traditional architecture, is that the details are easier to execute, are well known and overhangs add protection and margins for error.

    Daily, I drive by two modern architecture homes under construction. One is working with contractor #2, year #3, an accomplished architect in this area. The other, approx 7,000 sf, owner-builder, just about to the end of year #2, the architect I am unaware. It will be interesting to observe these two homes age.

  17. cdj74PeSxq | | #17

    Let's not kid ourselves that
    Let's not kid ourselves that the problems, and even the taste issues, are problems solely of modernism. They're the same problems of applying a style and being rigid about its real or imagined rules. Spanish Haciendas, Colonials, Craftsman, are all styles and so is "modern", but a true modern is simply the ability to look beyond the style and build free of convention with the best possible design for the building's and owner's needs. There are a few buildings here in the Northwest that do this well. Overhangs for the rainy and sunny parts of the year, good use of local materials, attention to our climate needs, etc. They may not even qualify as "modernist" or whatever label you might want to apply, but they're modern, they're designed well, and they're a much better home than the stucco hacienda down the street, just as these houses wouldn't be right in New Mexico. No matter how well built that hacienda is, it's just never going to be a good design for Seattle weather. Build for your climate, build for your clients, and if that means building a hacienda or something that looks vaguely like a bungalow, then great. Just don't stick to the style conventions at the expense of good design.

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