McMansions, be gone

Forward-looking architects team up to make modern home designs affordable

The husband-and-wife team of Lee Moreau and Ana Miljacki, who run the Boston firm Project_, are among the Hometta architects. The husband-and-wife team of Lee Moreau and Ana Miljacki, who run the Boston firm Project_, are among the Hometta architects. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
By Jaci Conry
Globe Correspondent / October 22, 2009

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Mark Johnson, a Houston-based builder and developer, found himself discouraged by the lack of affordable modern home plans for people looking to build a house. The residential architecture market was instead awash with plans for McMansions, each more predictable than the last.

“The home plan market is huge. If you are looking for a traditional, standard cookie cutter house: a Victorian, a Georgian, you can find literally thousands of variations,’’ Johnson says. “But if you wanted to find architectural plans for a modern home with high design quality, there was virtually nothing out there.’’

He decided to do something about it. Last summer, with architect Andrew McFarland, he launched Hometta, a company that offers blueprints for contemporary homes at a fraction of what it would cost to commission an original design. The goal? To improve the quality of American home design, which Johnson believes is wrought with unoriginal and oversize homes.

The house plans, created by 24 design firms from around the world - including three from Boston - are now on view through Nov. 6 in the exhibit “Welcome Hometta’’ at Pinkcomma gallery in the South End. They emphasize affordability, sustainability, and style. Pinkcomma gallery is co-directed by Chris Grimley, a principal of local design firm over,under, which created an edgy Hometta home plan known as the Crank House.

“Hometta’s concept is valuable,’’ says Grimley, “because it’s getting more good design out there. The residential landscape is very much in need of that.’’

Also among the Hometta architects are Lee Moreau, who runs the Boston firm Project_ with his wife, Ana Miljacki, an assistant professor of architecture at MIT.

“The architectural community really has little impact on what gets built on the domestic landscape,’’ Moreau says. “As architects, we spend time considering how we can reach the broadest market, that basic subject of architecture. Hometta provides a way to do that.’’

The contemporary designs feature flat roofs, industrial products, walls of glass, and are capped at 2,500 square feet. The homes use fewer materials because they’re compact, but plans also call for the use of sustainable products and affordable design strategies to boost energy efficiency, incorporating features such as hydronic heating and cooling, passive ventilation, solar panels, and green roofs. Most of the designs emphasize integration with the landscape and include outdoor living areas like terraces and decks.

While some of the 24 designs have been built, most were created exclusively for the company. Architects are given a lot of autonomy in their designs, Johnson said. “Aside from adhering to the square footage and keeping sustainability in mind, we really give them free rein; we want them to design for what they believe are unmet needs in the residential market.’’

For example, San Francisco-based Studio Terpeluk’s Food and Water House focuses on the concept of homeowners growing their own food. Other plans incorporate materials not typically associated with home construction such as the shipping containers used in Stacked House, designed by Boston architect Kiel Moe, a professor at Northeastern University. The living level of Moe’s design is raised above the ground on a series of shipping containers. The containers form the structure for the house, create covered parking, and provide storage.

While the Hometta plans are interesting to look at as architectural exercises, “Welcome Hometta’’ is also, at root, a commercial venture. The plans are available for purchase, most for about $3,195. But that’s relatively inexpensive, considering that designs drawn up by an architect can eat up 10 to 20 percent of the construction budget for someone building a home. Johnson thinks that if solid contemporary designs are available at a good price, people will buy them, avoiding the clichéd homes that pop up in new developments.

“We feel that smart modern home design should be attainable even if you can’t afford the architect,’’ Johnson says.

Still, some of those involved consider the project a bit of a noble experiment. Several of the designs are captivating but would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine in neighborhoods with small lots. (No matter how lovely or inventive it was, a tented home or Moe’s shipping container residence would make for an unusual residential streetscape.) But the designers contend that just getting people thinking about creative, sustainable design is a step in the right direction.

“This is not merely an issue of taste,’’ says Moe. “So many of the cookie-cutter houses that constitute the kicked-over garbage can of suburban sprawl come from unconsidered house plans. Hometta provides an alternative that combines the technical and aesthetic research of good designers.’’

Soon, the company will launch Hometta etc., which will feature blueprints from participating studios for carports, sheds, and furniture. While construction loans remain hard to obtain, Johnson’s optimistic that now is a good time for Hometta’s debut.

“Before the recession, the country was involved in this horrible trend of 8,000-square-foot McMansions. The quality of construction, the quality of design was just not there,’’ he says. “Now it seems that people are more interested in smaller, more modest, lower-maintenance and lower-utility-cost homes.’’

Pinkcomma Gallery, 81B Wareham St., Visit Hometta at