How will the future of architecture change the way we live?

Smaller Is Better
The University of Maryland's WaterShed house.
The University of Maryland's WaterShed house.
University of Maryland WaterShed Team

I lived in apartments for a long time, so while I love the idea of being able to walk everywhere, I don't relish the notion of returning to the pod. Owning a single-family home will still be a goal for many of us in the future. But according to the National Association of Home Builders, those houses are going to be smaller, and features like formal living rooms will disappear. The trend is toward more multi-purpose, open living spaces.

In 2006, the average home size in the United States was about 2,400 square feet (223 square meters). A survey published in September 2011 revealed that about 32 percent of the respondents preferred a home that's 1,400 to 2,000 square feet (130 to 186 square meters) [source: Atlantic Magazine]. The heyday of McMansions appears to be over. Can smaller be better? In this age of flat-screen TVs and Kindles, how much room do we really need for all of our stuff?

Contests like the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon provide a possible glimpse at these homes of the future. College teams design and build homes that are energy-efficient, solar-powered and affordable. The 2011 winning team, from the University of Maryland, was inspired by the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay. Their house, known as WaterShed, is modular and has the lines and angles we've come to expect from a "future house." But its split, butterfly-winged roof is designed to collect rainwater in a central core, and it features a garden of native plants, a composting system and an edible wall. What about the technology? WaterShed also has solar thermal arrays on its roof and an automated system to regulate the house's thermostat and lighting. It also blends very nicely into its environment.

Sweet, you may be thinking, but I want my house to look all futuristic! No worries. There's no one set "architecture of the future." For example, a company called Alchemy Architects is already selling prefabricated homes called weeHouses. They comprise modules that look like shipping containers, and the houses can be as small as one container (435 square feet or 40 square meters) or as large as four (1,765 square feet or 164 square meters). You work with the company to design the right one for you, buy your home site and get it ready with a foundation and utilities, and Alchemy ships out your house. Appliances and green features like bamboo flooring and alternative energy sources are all available, and the company claims that because it's prefab, its houses are less expensive than conventional homes.

While those highly creative, futuristic architectural designs are fun to check out, the real future of architecture -- especially for us non-millionaires -- will probably be more subtle and practical. Smaller, more affordable, greener, and yes, with even more advances in technology.