If Field of Dreams was remade for today's audience, the protagonist wouldn't be urged to build a baseball diamond but rather a structure equally as precise—and just as irresistible to its fans: a shimmering tower of glass and steel, with 90-degree angles, clean lines, and expansive views.

Liz Dunn would play the lead. It was the Seattle-based developer's gutsy if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality that inspired just such a building in the city's historic-turned-hip Pike-Pine neighborhood in 2001. The 1310 East Union Lofts project housed eight open-plan, live/work units plus street-level retail space. Confident that others who shared her passion for modern aesthetics lurked in the Northwest, Dunn put the building on the market and waited.

The eight units in the award-winning 1310 East Union Lofts in Seattle feature commercial storefront-style windows and concrete floors.
The eight units in the award-winning 1310 East Union Lofts in Seattle feature commercial storefront-style windows and concrete floors.

The response came a few months later and was greater than she'd anticipated. “The buyers all found me,” says the principal of Dunn + Hobbes. “They had to [bypass] their agents, who were telling them, ‘It's just not a safe investment to buy something that modern.'” Now, not only has the real estate community embraced her work, but so has the American Institute of Architects, which bestowed the project with numerous local and national awards. Encouraged by the response, Dunn actively pursued other infill and adaptive reuse sites, each with a contemporary flair, and each as successful as her first. “It just took [a while] to percolate into the public's consciousness,” she says. “Now, developers who might not have considered doing a modern project are going out and finding really good architects because they know they have to be competitive in design.”

Dunn is right. In recent years, multifamily developers, brokers, and bankers nationwide have discovered that modernism is hip again. As consumers become more design-savvy, thanks to influences from baby boomers to Target, they are looking for housing options that reflect their tastes, personality, and lifestyle. “Design sells,” Dunn says. “Consumers demand it. There's a built-in expectation on the part of buyers that more effort be put into the design of these projects.”

DEFINING A MOVEMENT But the modern movement already came and went—didn't it? True, if you're talking about the blocky concrete towers of the post-World War II era. Many of the high-rises built during that time weren't of the highest quality, giving modernism a bad rap. Today's consumers desire a less sterile, more livable look tailored to their contemporary lifestyles.

“Modernism is more than minimalism,” says David Miller, principal of The Miller/Hull Partnership and the architect on Dunn's East Union project. Miller/Hull has done similar multifamily projects in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Chicago. “People are looking for a powerful image that has a simplicity and rational order. Our buildings are not tricked up; they're clean and ordered, and very transparent, which lets the life of the building really come out.”

Industry professionals like Dunn, Miller, and their ilk attribute the change to consumers who understand design, are surrounded by it, and demand it in every facet of their lives. As stores like Design Within Reach proliferate, and magazines like Wallpaper and Dwell take high-concept design into the mainstream, savvy consumers have made it clear that, as Dunn discovered, good design does sell.

As such, the buildings are more often new construction, urban infill, toned down a notch from adaptive reuse projects that bear the raw stamp of former industrial space. The look is sleek and refined, with clean lines, natural materials, and a simple, flexible floor plan. Residents decide for themselves how to use the space. “It gives them a lot of freedom,” Miller says. “We try to be efficient about bedrooms, bathrooms, and storage so we can maximize the public spaces where people really live.”

Characteristic of the less-is-more aesthetic is that basic elements become much more important. “It used to be that no one would spend money to put hardwood flooring in an apartment. Now people are willing to pay a higher rent for places that have it,” Dunn says. “Even the quality of kitchen appliances and plumbing fixtures is way more important than a bunch of fussy trim.”