The term “contemporary” refers to the architecture of today, of the moment. If that definition sounds broad, it is. Contemporary is a fluid, constantly morphing architectural style. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn a contemporary home could include a mix of aesthetics, including elements of traditional, transitional, and, yes, modern architecture.

This design flexibility reflects varied design preferences. The fact is, not every aspect of contemporary architecture needs to have a purpose or observe a set of aesthetic rules. If a crown molding is desired in the dining room, why not? Contemporary style reflects the times and buyer tastes. Chicago residential architect Scott Rappe, principal of Kuklinski+Rappe Architects, says “… Contemporary means anything that’s being done in the present.”

In general, contemporary architecture today is characterized by:

  • Non-symmetrical shapes, mixed materials, open spaces, curves, and/or sweeping lines
  • Sustainable, eco-friendly, energy efficient
  • Abundant natural light
  • Reduced indoor-outdoor separation with alfresco kitchens, outdoor rooms with fireplaces, a feeling of spaciousness
  • Mixed-use space: a guestroom that doubles as an office, or a craft and homework space combined
  • Aspects of the regional character


Principles of modern design, which flourished in America through the first half of the 20th century and continues to enjoy popularity today, includes clean, straight lines with limited detail. This differs from contemporary design, which uses curves and/or sweeping lines versus the crisper, sharper, and very spare lines of modern. Windows and doors encompass broad horizontal spaces and are often designed as a ribbon of glass.

“Modern design is a more honest look at what a building is—load-bearing columns, beams that transfer the weight, and not putting things in for decoration,” said Rebecca Comeaux, AIA, LEED AP, Associate at Lake | Flato Architects in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s still beautiful, but there’s kind of a level of honesty and simplicity in the design.”

Other characteristics:

  • Rectangular exteriors with flat roofs and a distinct linear framework
  • Clean, straight lines with limited detail – crisp, sharp, very spare
  • Open floor plans and large spaces that connect to outdoor living spaces and/or nature
  • Changes in elevation (split-level spaces)
  • Indoor/outdoor space
  • Monochromatic color palette
  • Spaces with minimal ornamentation and clutter