The Future Comes Home

This year’s New American Home is high-tech, luxurious and very expensive—but in many ways, it may show the way forward for the rest of us.

Photo by Trent Bell

Photo by Trent Bell

For an architect, there are few better testing grounds for fresh ideas than the raw Southwestern desert. So there’s a wonderful air of possibility to this year’s New American Home at Sky Terrace in Henderson. The home—designed by Jeffrey Berkus Architect and built by Element Building Company, with interiors by Marc-Michaels Interior Design—represents not only an attempt to help the Valley emerge from the after-effects of the Great Recession, but also an effort to push the boundaries of the modern home.

The New American Home is an annual project organized by the National Association of Home Builders to showcase advances in home design and construction; the homes alternate between Orlando, Florida, and the Las Vegas Valley, the rotating hosts of the NAHB convention. The program hopes to inspire the industry through the use of the latest products, materials and sustainable design practices. It’s a showcase for long-term vision and go-for-broke ambition.

This year’s New American Home aims particularly high—and it should. It doesn’t seek to teach a lesson that is instantly transferrable to the average homeowner in America. Much like couture fashion, the home employs an incredible attention to detail and luxury. Nonetheless, as an architect I believe there are important lessons here for those interested in the “everyday” kind of home.

Architecture may be the slowest art. Music, fashion, graphic design and other creative fields generally set the cultural course well in advance of the often-lengthy process of design and construction. But when change does reach architecture, the impact can be sweeping, and it affects our lives deeply (think of architecture’s adjustment to the automobile in the second quarter of the 20th century). We’re in the midst of such a leap now. As technology fuses with our everyday lives, we see the inclusion of devices and the control they offer as integral aspects of the buildings in which we live and work.

Today, the entire house can be programmed via mobile phone to create a particular setting or mood. Security, environmental sustainability and pure comfort are all immediately and interactively at the homeowner’s fingertips. More importantly, technology has changed the dynamic of the family—and it’s the responsibility of architects and interior designers to understand those shifts and find creative ways to integrate them. The designers of the New American Home have done so in a very discreet way. One’s first impression is not that this is some tech-driven austere museum of digital flexibility. Instead, the designers have allowed the house’s “controllability” to live quietly in the background—a smart choice.

The home’s dramatic perch gives it incredible views to the north, west and east, including the Strip. The siting also allows for a strategy of opening up the home to the views while creating a more solid face toward the south and west exposures—a good move, given the summer heat.

An entry courtyard transports the visitor from the street into a meditative space featuring reflecting pools intermixed with masonry steps and landscaping; if you think of the house as a musical composition, the courtyard is a rest between notes.

Beyond the nicely crafted front door, the attention to detail and experiential design is remarkable. The home’s organization is clear; the rooms gracefully align around a light-filled rectangular atrium. The main living space is a beautiful sequence from kitchen to work counter, to a communal counter and onward to the nicely scaled living room, of course with views outward to the Strip across the swimming pool and fire feature. To the east of the atrium is a small but luxurious guest suite, also suffused in natural light.

The house strikes a perfect balance of open versus enclosed spaces, using furnishings and well-placed lighting and interior features to define different enclaves. It’s a communal series of spaces with a balanced palette, decidedly modern without being unapproachable, as many hyper-modern homes can be.

Almost the entire north façade is a series of operating doors, extending to a series of terraces that expand the living space. Large overhangs help provide shade to reduce or eliminate direct sun.

The second level features a spectacular master suite that is a carefully arranged sequence of spaces, from closet to bath to sleeping area and outdoor terrace. There is a multifunctional family room with a small bar area and large-screen TV. There’s also an apartment, accessible via an elevator or separate exterior entry, with a small kitchenette, dedicated laundry, living area and bedroom. The notion is that this space can accommodate in-laws or grown children visiting home; it affords privacy while still being integrated into the home.

At 6,700 square feet, this house is enormous, more than three times the  size of the average U.S. home. It also has a price tag of $3.85 million. Nonetheless there are some critical lessons learned here: There’s value in setting the stage with architecture to create intimacy, community and connection with family. These goals can be achieved on the most modest budget; the design elements they encourage can be found in centuries-old homes. But we also must employ today’s tools: programmable thermostats, high-efficient lighting and appliances, and sustainable materials. And the most important aspect of any home design is the siting of the house itself, to ensure that solar orientation and acknowledgement of the larger site context are considered.

In the age of rapid digital technology, we still crave community, personal interaction, places that inspire us and put us at peace. Amid the exquisite furnishings and high-tech appliances, one of the home’s most memorable elements is a wall detail made of random length stacked hemlock wood, reminding us that hand-made things can still very much have a place in our lives. While we push forward on more efficient and environmentally sustainable ideas and building practices, we cannot forget about creating a sense of place. Place is the vessel in which memories are forged—and that’s what great design is all about.

Brett Robillard is an associate at the Las Vegas office of the global design firm Gensler.

Brett Robillard talks “The Future Comes Home” on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.

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