Style guide: Five design trends will dominate production housing in the year ahead

IT’S NO SECRET THAT INVESTING in good design makes good business sense. The popularity of the streamlined new Volkswagen Beetle, the hip discount department store Target, and the snazzy Virgin Atlantic airplanes clued us in during the 1990s, and the design and business worlds have been inseparable ever since.

Home building, as much as any industry, is in a position to benefit financially from high-quality design–even in low-end houses. Buyers, ever savvier, aren’t looking only at floor plans and square footage anymore. "The level of design quality that home buyers seem to be expecting is so much higher than it’s ever been in production housing," says architect Rick Emsiek, a partner at the California firm McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, in Irvine. "The high-end stuff competes with custom homes–even in entry-level housing."

The more you stay on top of the newest and boldest trends in home design, the more your product will appeal to this design-conscious market, which extends from the youngest Gen-Xer to the oldest boomer. To help you out a bit, we’ve talked with leading architects and market analysts to come up with the design trends that will drive production housing next year.

SMALLER, MORE PRACTICAL SPACES

Architect Sarah Susanka’s best-selling book The Not-So-Big House, which touts quality of space over quantity, was written for the custom home market. But production architects have mined the book for ideas about how to improve their own designs, and many of them believe they’ve struck gold.

"In production housing, we’re never going to get quite the level of detail that Susanka advocates," says Bob White, director of design at Scheurer Architects in Newport Beach, Calif., "but we can impact the allocation of square footage, like she suggests." To that end, industry leaders are throwing out the airy, two-story volumes that have dominated the past two decades in favor of more practical spaces.

"In the last 15 to 20 years, we put a lot of money into the foyer of the home," says Memphis, Tenn., architect Carson Looney, of Looney Ricks Kiss. "Now, the space that’s getting more attention is that space between the kitchen or breakfast room and the garage–I call it the ‘liver’ of the house. It’s where you put all your organizational stuff– your jackets, briefcases, the kids’ backpacks. That’s where we’re concentrating our efforts now, in both our custom and production designs."

Changing demographics also signal an end to the days of the formulaic, big-box production house. "The number of non-traditional households–singles, for example, or couples without children, living in this country came as a bolt from the blue," says Todd Zimmerman, of Zimmerman Volk Associates, a new urbanist consulting firm in Clinton, NJ. "It’s given builders the idea of multiple niches, of creating houses that aren’t so narrowly targeted to two-parent families. The calculation of measuring quality by size no longer makes sense.

With more market segments to appeal to, architects are tailoring their plans more specifically to certain buyer groups. For example, White and Emsiek both say they’ve been isolating the home office in a detached casita in some of their recent projects, an item that appeals to buyers who work from home.

And universal design is gaining more prominence as baby boomers age. "Universal design principles can be incorporated very subtly," says Looney. "We’re doing things like making the rise-and-run relationship of a staircase more gradual, or installing a wall oven with a side hinge instead of a bottom one." For the boomer market, especially, first-floor master bedrooms and laundry rooms promise to be more popular than ever. These configurations are certain to win out over single-story structures, primarily because of land costs. Moreover, the average lot size will shrink by 1,000 square feet in the next 10 years, according to NAHB research.

"Here in California, massive volumes have given way to nine- and 10-foot ceilings, as opposed to the extremely high volumes that we had been doing," says Aram Bassenian of Newport Beach-based Bassenian Lagoni.

It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the country catches up to the trend-setting West Coast in terms of trading size for design quality. "House sizes are still getting larger," says Gopal Ahluwalia, NAHB’s research director. "The average American house size went up 30 square feet in the first quarter of 2001, to 2,305 square feet. But I think it will stabilize soon–we’ll reach a saturation point."

EMPHASIS ON COMMUNITY

It’s not enough to design an efficient floor plan and an attractive elevation anymore. More than ever, home shoppers are looking closely at the overall community before they buy. "The quality of a community is hugely important and will continue to be so," says Emsiek. "The layout of the project, the pedestrian friendliness of it, the social attitude; it’s one of those things you can’t just check off on a list. It’s more of a perceived quality."

A variety of elements–from landscaping buffers to exterior styles–will help create a sense of neighborhood. Architect Rick New, director of residential architecture at Downing Thorpe & James, says his Boulder, Cob., firm is mixing different lot sizes and garage configurations to give streetscapes more visual interest and to keep them from appearing garage-dominated. This trend of getting the garage off the street stems from the new urbanism, the neo-traditional, pedestrian-oriented planning movement that got its start in the early 1980s and has been picking up steam ever since. While conventional master planned communities still outnumber true new urbanist ones, the movement’s influence is definitely contributing to the trend of putting a home’s entrance front and center.

Next year, forward-thinking architects will stress heterogeneity among elevations and floor plans. "It’s the first time on the West Coast that we haven’t been hung up on one style," says architectural colorist Miriam Tate, of Miriam Tate Co., in Costa Mesa, Calif. "We were stuck in the Mediterranean centrifuge for 12 years! The new diversity is not just a trend, it’s a permanent circumstance."

"There’s a real variety to the streetscapes now," seconds White. And, he adds, that’s true even before you apply architectural details and styles. "It’s not just taking two boxes and calling one French and one Spanish because they have different detailing. The thing now is to have one house be completely different from the next–like the old neighborhoods of the 1920s."

Architect Art Danielian, head of Danielian Associates in Irvine, Calif., advises developers to encourage diversity by pre-matching elevations, plans, and color schemes to individual lots. "The communities that exercise the maximum amount of control over what goes where will be the most successful ones," he says.

HIGH DEMAND FOR LOW-MAINTENANCE MATERIALS

This much is certain: Time-deprived homeowners won’t be asking for more to do in the way of home upkeep. Increasingly, they’ll want low- or no-maintenance features, making easy-clean faux materials indispensable.

"All of the faux materials are getting much more refined in quality," says Don Jacobs, principal of JBZ Architecture & Planning in Newport Beach, Calif. "Some years ago you’d only want to use foam-based details up high, where you couldn’t really see them. Now, with the stucco coatings, they’re much better. Cement board siding is very popular–we’re using less and less wood." Cultured stone also gets high marks from architects for improved looks and durability.

Another reason for the increased use of faux materials, besides their low-maintenance appeal, is the cost effectiveness they lend to intricate historic styles, like Victorian or Craftsman. Baby boomers love period details, and most architects are betting that Gen-Xers, the generation that made vintage clothing and retro jazz records cool, won’t be much different in that regard. Faux materials will help make historically appropriate exteriors and interiors easier to achieve on limited budgets.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY A MUST

Sam Raskin bestowed the Energy Star label on as many homes last year as he did in the entire five-year period before.

Raskin, national director of the Department of Energy-EPA Energy Star for Homes program in Washington, D.C., estimates that he’ll have certified twice as many homes in 2001 as he did in 2000, a total of 24,000 this year. It only makes sense: Builders are pushing farther and farther out into the deserts of the Southwestern states, and their buyers don’t want to pay exorbitant air conditioning bills. Spurred by California’s energy crisis, more builders—notably Shea Homes and Morrison Homes–will step up use of solar panels and appliances next year.

Health concerns will undoubtedly lead buyers to look to new homes for the latest in air filtration systems, particularly in warm metro areas such as Atlanta and Phoenix, where climatologists have documented upward trends in asthma and other ozone-related ailments.

Sky-high land prices in many parts of the country are causing many developers to rethink the ways in which they use land. High-density, mixed-use, and infill projects, which make more efficient use of land and resources, should make up a greater chunk of the housing market in the years ahead. Developer-friendly brownfields legislation, which slipped off Congress’ agenda this past fall, would accelerate this trend.

STILL SMARTER HOMES

Smart home options, high-speed Internet access, and community intranets are standard on the West Coast, even in entry-level communities. And while broadband Internet access and computerized security, lighting, audio-video, and HVAC systems haven’t taken over the market yet, they will.

"The comfort level with home technology is not yet there for many buyers," says Ahluwalia. "But as the Gen-X segment moves into the marketplace, that will change. The demand will explode in the next three to five years." Kurt Scherf, vice president of research for Parks Associates, a Dallas-based home technology market research firm, says. "Broadband Internet access will be standard at some point–we’re seeing early adopter communities that are being wired with it now."

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