If the American Dream is owning a gorgeous home, the American Fantasy would be building it by yourself. Decades of home improvement television shows and flattering renovation pictorials have made it seem like getting your hands dirty and building a home (or hiring someone else to do it for you), while challenging, is truly within your reach. The reality—difficulties, delays and escalating budgets—are why the practice is often best left to professionals, and a vast majority of homebuyers don't consult architects. But the idea still has an almost primal pull in a nation founded on the myth of westward expansion, staking a claim and making your own way. This DIY undercurrent explains why the Life magazine Dream House feature, which started in 1994, made such an impact. An editorial series that invited top architects to submit plans for a beautiful and affordable home priced for the American public, it certainly didn't suggest anybody strap on a tool belt and start hammering together two-by-fours by themselves. But by providing floor plans for a home that promised everything a middle-class homeowner could hope for—the first cover offered a residence "classic on the outside and remarkable on the inside—it tapped into an all-too-familiar desire, and put a more comfortable way of living within reach for more Americans.
"Architects get a bad name for working only with the elite," said Michael Graves, who designed the 1996 version of the home, in an interview with The New York Times.
Beginning in 1994, LIFE asked a series of top architects to sketch their idea of what a modern residence could and should look like. A succession of designers, starting with Robert A.M. Stern in 1994 and including Dennis Wedlick (1995), Michael Graves (1996), John Rattenbury (1997), Hugh Newell Jacobsen (1998) and Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners (later SALA Architects, 1999) set out to create a more thoughtful version of the standard American home. In the first installment, Stern summed up the prevailing attitude and aim of the series by noting that American's often "buy the house they hate the least." After being featured in the magazine, plans for each home were available for purchase, costing up to $600 for blueprints.
LIFE editors asked for a roughly 2,100-square-foot, four-bedroom house for a family of four which cost an average of $200,000 to build (based on regional price differences). The home would need to be suitable for small children or teenagers and include room to work at home, entertain and socialize, as well as an eat-in kitchen. While a traditionalist bent underlined most of the submitted designs, the final portfolio showcased an array of styles. Graves offered up a more flexible space, describing the path through the main vestibule, past the rotunda, kitchen and living room, as "a kind of yellow brick road." Rattenbury, a Principal at Taliesin Architects, utilized a Prairie-style layout with an open main room and plenty of clerestories to pull in natural light. Jacobsen's flexible, H-style design was influenced in part by the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens of England.
The floor plan for the Rattenbury design, which emphasized horizontal rather than vertical construction.
While the articles and plans in LIFE captured a specific vision, they weren't able to take a specific site or circumstance into account. The answers to this particular design challenge could also just suggest materials; the required pieces needed to be sourced from anywhere in the country, but builders were at liberty to utilize whatever their clients picked. Many of the accompanying descriptions list options builders and homeowners could take to customize their own homes (Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners even went so far as to build two versions, the Back to Basics and Whole Nine Yards houses, to show how seemingly minor changes in materials and layout could make a big difference when it came time to tally expenses).
An adaptation of the Wedlick design, built in the '90s, that flips the home's layout.
While plans and blueprints weren't directly applicable to every aspiring homeowner, the Dream Homes inspired many to take a leap and start construction. According to a 1998 New York Times article, the homes helped fuel a wave of DIY construction and gave a boost to the small home plan-publishing business. Homeowners would pick up plans by mail for a few hundred dollars, and then spend six figures on materials and construction cost, often investing their own sweat equity. For instance, Stern's plan, according to some who tried to replicate it, cost significantly more than advertised; in some cases, double the promised $150,000 price tag. Between construction issues and budget inflation, the reality didn't always live up to the plans. Many homebuilders built online websites to share information and answer questions (the Jacobsen home, which was built more than 500 times, attracted a particularly active community).
A drawing of 1996 Michael Graves home. As befitting the postmodernist, classical flourishes, such as slender columns and a protective portico, animate the exterior.
This wasn't the first time Life published the plans of famous architects. The publication's "Eight Houses for Modern Living" feature in 1938 included the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, among others, all meant for middle-class families with annual incomes ranging from $2,000 to $10,000. But, like the Wright plans, these homes showcased just why a such a great gap remains between most modest American homes and those designed by famous architects. Many high-end architects become anxious by the thought of leaving so many design decisions up to the whims of builders and homeowners, and the corresponding lack of oversight. Many who purchased the LIFE plans made extensive adaptations.
The Cove House, an adaptation of the Hugh Newell Jacobsen 1998 Dream House design.
LIFE discontinued the series after the 1999 installment, and the company sold the rights to the plans when the then-monthly folded in 2002. While the plans never became mass market in terms of impact, and may bear the stamp of '90s design, in some ways, they anticipate trends toward smaller, more open-plan dwellings. After the McMansion boom of the last decade, the idea of stately homes with a more modern, flexible interior seems like a fitting match for Americans looking to downsize. While they're still not completely custom, the LIFE Dream Homes still offer an affordable amount of flexibility and high-design, an aspirational concept that resonates with the American search for the perfect home.