by Michael Buck
When you’re looking at contemporary or modern house designs, you may notice these two terms are often used interchangeably. While the words are listed in the thesaurus as synonyms, the associated styles are not the same thing and differ in meaningful ways.
Contemporary and modern house architecture have rich histories and both styles can be used to produce incredible homes. However, if you want a contemporary house, but ask for a modern house (or vice versa), it might not be what you had in mind. Here’s everything you need to know about modern and contemporary design for your new home or renovation.
Modern vs. Contemporary House Design
Modern design refers to an architectural style from the early- to mid-20th century. Designers and architects, like Mies van der Rohe, pioneered it during the pre-World War II years and it exploded in popularity in North America during the 1950s. That’s when modern exteriors were widely adopted in the residential space.
On the other hand, contemporary design is what’s emerging right now. The style is constantly evolving and hasn’t been done before.
Think about it this way: During its beginning, modern design would have been considered contemporary.
Modern House Design Elements
Many people will recognize modern design because of its popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. The style shows up in television shows, movies, and in real life (many structures built in this era are still in use today).
How do you know if a home design is modern? The style can be characterized by a few common elements, including:
- Utilitarian materials such as glass, steel, reinforced concrete, wood, along with their modern equivalents, like fiber cement materials.
- Flat and expansive, or dramatically angled roofs.
- A minimalist philosophy, famously defined by van der Rohe as “less is more.”
For modern house exteriors that means geometric proportions, large windows, and little to no interior or exterior ornamentation. Today, a home is “modern” if the design closely follows these principles of the original modernist style.
Modern House Design Examples
Images above from Carp's Complete Exteriors in Omaha, Nebraska; Drake Homes in West Des Moines, Iowa; and Bright Exterior LLC in Seattle, Washington.
Contemporary House Design Elements
The constantly evolving nature of contemporary design means the style can include many elements and take many different forms. This type of design is not locked into any particular style or shape – it’s pure creation. However, it can still borrow elements from traditional architecture.
Contemporary home design — whatever it may be in this moment — is all about what’s happening now. As a homeowner, embracing contemporary design means you and your design team have near-infinite room to experiment.
Contemporary Design Examples
Why are Modern and Contemporary Used Interchangeably?
Most designs styles are built from past eras and stem from classic architectural forms. Those rules, including commonly agreed upon principles of proportion and scale, have stood the test of time because they lead to spaces that feel good to be in.
Modern design — with its wide, open, light-filled rooms — results in homes many people feel great living in. It’s why the style remains popular today, and why contemporary designers frequently rely upon modern design principles to create something new.
The modern farmhouse style is a recent, and widely embraced, example. It’s popular because it blends comforting feelings with freshness and modern architecture. This is known in the design community as “transitional style.”
How to Achieve a Modern or Contemporary Exterior
Using a variety of exterior materials is a great way to incorporate modern or contemporary design into your home. This practice adds definition and visual texture, without being over the top or too futuristic.
James Hardie® fiber cement siding products are perfect for these styles – particularly in the smooth texture. HardiePanel® vertical siding can be applied in a minimalist fashion, which is a hallmark of modern (and some contemporary) designs.
You might also consider any of the premium products in the Aspyre Collection by James Hardie®. Artisan® lap siding can be applied with mitered corners, which results in a sleek finished look. And, the Reveal® panel system offers a variety of style and orientation options.
Get inspired to design your own modern or contemporary home by viewing homes in these styles in our house siding ideas gallery.