The Biggest Innovations in Housing: Past, Present, & Future

From the homely brick to Henry Ford, discover the pivotal moments in the history of housing, plus some futurecasting on where we’re headed next.

 


 

brick past housing innovation
1839 print of the Pyramid of Giza from the New York Public Library

INNOVATION #1: The Brick (c. 7500 BC)

Somewhere along the upper Tigris, someone had the brilliant idea to bake some mud into uniform blocks that could be stacked and made into walls. Bricks, as they later became known, opened up a whole new world of architectural possibilities. Prior to this, folks had to rely on packed earth, stones, thatch, hay, caves and holes to provide shelter. With bricks, buildings could take on funky shapes, provide insulation from the elements and protect from dangerous marauders. Needless to say, this was a big deal.

 

high rise building innovation
The Home Insurance Building, tallest building in the world from 1884 to 1889.

INNOVATION #2: The High Rise (1885)

With the support of its internal steel superstructure, the Home Insurance Building rose to the unprecedented height of ten stories in downtown Chicago. Prior to the HIB, buildings used load bearing walls, typically made of timber or brick. This strategy limited building height to around six stories. With the steel superstructure you could build almost as high as an elevator supported. The extra height meant that two to three times as many people and businesses could occupy the same area as traditional structures. Cities started to grow up rather than out. It was a game changer.

 

innovation in housing automobile
Vintage show car

INNOVATION #3: The Car (1908 – Present)

Prior to widespread car ownership, housing construction was geographically restricted. Homes had to be built within a reasonable distance of markets and workplaces because transit options ranged from walking to whatever public transit happened to be available in the area (streetcar, trolley, etc). The car freed housing from this constraint, expanding development locations to anywhere accessible by a road —which was basically anywhere.

In the early 20th century, poor roads and rickety, unreliable cars made housing development not too dissimilar from late 19th century housing development. But after WWII, everything changed. The war left a wake of new technologies, an enormous industrial capacity and a highly trained workforce —resources marshaled toward cranking out reliable, affordable automobiles that could speed along a new interstate network of highways. In 1930, there were 217 cars per every 1000 US citizens. By 1950, the number jumped to 323, and as of 2014 there were 797. Suddenly people could live 10, 20 or even 50 miles away from their places of employment.

The car decoupled the home from the villages and cities they had been bound to for millennia. Developers could create housing landscapes from nothing—calling these magical environments “suburbs.” Why go through the trouble of playing Tetris with urban housing when you can build huge new houses in the middle of nowhere?

 

aerial view urban sprawl
Aerial view of suburbs

WHY WE NEED ANOTHER MAJOR INNOVATION

Though the advent of the car radically changed the housing landscape, the case against suburban sprawl has steadily grown. Public transportation and walkability are limited, home design is often bland, residents begin and end each day in traffic, and dependence on the car has driven carbon consumption through the roof (pun intended).

Home sizes have also nearly tripled since WWII . The average new home has grown from a modest 983-square-feet in 1950 to north of 2,600-square-feet today. And we don’t even need all that space: the number of people per home continues to shrink while most of the available space in a home tends to go unused.

Meanwhile, in cities, high-density, transit friendly, small footprint housing has become difficult to build. According to the Washington Post’s Emily Badger, America experienced a mass halt on urban construction following the stock market crash of 1929. When the economy rebounded after WWII, housing development skewed strongly toward suburbs due to cheap money through VA loans and the advances in automotive technology. The dearth of corresponding urban development has led to the major housing shortages currently springing up in our most economically vital cities.

We’re at a crossroads: we’ve witnessed the failure of sprawl, yet we continue to push further out because: 1. We need more housing, 2. Our cities have become inhospitable places to develop. If ever there was a time for an innovative leap on the scale of bricks and cars, it’s now.

kasita porch
Early rendering of KASITA

INNOVATION #4: The Everywhere Home

French anthropologist Marc Augé’s said that people in the modern world “are always, and never, at home.” Augé’s remark was a charge and caution against the homogenizing effects of globalization, but his words can also be interpreted another way. Technology gives us the ability to be at home—or at work, or with friends—no matter where we are in space. Similarly, technology allows us on-demand access to cars, sports equipment, music libraries, clothes, and food—all the stuff we used to store at home. We might not be at “home” in the sense of a particular address, but we have access to the resources our homes provide.

The next major innovation in housing will be designed around this new technological reality.


Conventional housing, particularly suburban housing, is designed around fixed space that requires its own transportation system, large caches of stuff, and rooms for each occupant. To have a complete home in this system is to have a complete life. But this approach to housing can’t adapt to the rapidly changing ways in which we live. The conventional home is a lot like a smartphone that doesn’t have access to data and must store all its information locally.

In contrast, many of our future homes will be fully connected with smartphone-levels of sophistication. Like smart devices, they will be designed with user experience at the top of mind. Many dwellings will be smaller because they don’t need to store as much stuff. Floorplans will also be downsized because they’ll be designed without unnecessary, unused spaces like foyers and formal dining rooms (Jony Ives wouldn’t put a rarely used, hard to maintain button on an iPhone, would he?). And just as you wouldn’t make a one-off smartphone, future homes will be mass produced, enjoying engineering efficiencies, increased quality, short construction time and low production costs.

Of course there will be more than small, smart, efficient urban homes in the future. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But smart micro-homes are a solution that fits many. Single urban households make up anywhere from 30-50 percent of households in most major cities. In the future, we’re going to see a lot more housing that’s compact and adaptable—houses that allow people to be at home wherever they are.