Inspired Moments

by Michael Buck

Inspired Moments

The Essential Elements of Contemporary and Modern House Design

by Michael Buck

Modern Contemporary House Showcasing sleek lines and large windows

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

Modern home design with a clean and minimalist exterior, featuring sleek lines, large windows, and a mix of materials including wood siding and stone accents.   
Modern home exterior featuring white and grey color scheme with black accents, flat rooflines, large windows, and clean geometric shapes

Modern home exterior featuring a combination of white, black and wood-colored cladding, flat rooflines, large windows, and clean geometric shapes

Images above from Carp's Complete Exteriors; Drake Homes; and Bright Exterior LLC.

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

Contemporary Home Design featuring a mix of materials such as wood siding, stone accents, and metal roofing
Contemporary house with modern design and wood paneling

Contemporary design with minimalist style and neutral color palette.

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.

Hardie® fiber cement siding products are perfect for these styles. You can use new Hardie® Textured Panels on nearly any style of home for a modern and contemporary twists on classic house styles.

Get inspired to design your own modern or contemporary home by viewing homes in these styles in our house siding ideas gallery.