Drive by a new-home development today, and you may not see a dramatic difference from one built five years ago. But interiors—and even exteriors to some extent—reflect a changing consumer dynamic.
If there’s one overarching trend in new-home construction, it’s a shift away from large, nondescript spaces that offer size for size’s sake. Builders say demand continues for rooms that flow together—combining food preparation and entertainment, for example—but with a greater emphasis on quality, luxury, and refuge.
The movement is as much sociological as architectural, an outgrowth of the “nesting” phenomenon. The home as castle is being replaced by the home as personal retreat, says Darcy Garneau, principal with EDI Architecture Inc. in Houston.
Homebuilding and design trends, like the rooms themselves, often overlap and flow into one another. Still, some distinct categories can be discerned—a greater attention to unity of design with a melding of indoor and outdoor space, greater architectural styling, the creation of sanctuary and flexible entertaining environments, and a combination of functionality and personality.
Although specific features and upgrades might add to the price of a new home, by some estimates as much as 20 percent, observers say cost isn’t the main point. “What we’re talking about is a higher level of design. That doesn’t necessarily have to cost a fortune,” says Barry Glantz, president of Glantz & Associates Architects Inc. in St. Louis. “Buyers who are looking strictly at square footage and cost are probably not going to appreciate this higher level of design.”
The Great Outdoors
Say goodbye to rows of houses with the same safe facade. “People are tired of cookie-cutter,” says EDI’s Garneau. “They’re looking for individuality.” Today’s new homes have more dynamic exteriors, thanks to the use of bold colors and a mixture of materials, such as stone, stucco, and timber, that add a sense of texture.
The attention to a home’s exterior goes beyond mere aesthetics. The outside is being transformed into an extension of the living space, with the addition of elaborate gardens, patios and decks, balconies, and even fully furnished rooms for outdoor reading or dining.
“Every inch is so precious to us now as a society,” says Chris Barrett, president of Chris Barrett Design Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif. “Even in small gardens, people are trying to gain functionality.” The cost can range from a couple hundred dollars for a garden bench to tens of thousands of dollars for a fully furnished outdoor room.
To break down barriers between interior and exterior living spaces, owners are opting for doorways that integrate indoor and outdoor spaces and windows that offer a view of a garden or other pleasant vista. “There’s a transparency between the inside and the outside,” says Stephen Francis Jones, principal of SFJones Architects Inc. in Marina del Rey, Calif.
A one-sided approach to residential architecture, where the facade includes distinctive design elements while the sides and rear are left unadorned, has given way to what some observers are calling “architecture in the round.” Details such as balusters, brackets, shutters, balconies, and trellises continue all around the home.
And the approach doesn’t stop with the exterior. “The whole style and feel, the use of natural materials, is coming inside and being used in ceiling details, countertops, and fireplace mantels,” says Cheryl O’Brien, president of C. O’Brien Architects Inc. in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. O’Brien says she sees this approach being incorporated at all price points, not just in luxury homes.
Attention to materials in many cases makes up for size; rooms today tend to be built on a more human scale than the “big box” rooms of the 1980s, says architect Glantz. “What we’re seeing is that bigger isn’t always better.”
To retain an open feel, designers are layering, creating floor plans in which rooms flow into one another without harsh divisions or entranceways. Instead, “there’s a transitioning of spaces,” says Glantz. “We’re paying better attention to the home environment that we’re trying to create.”
We’re seeing sanctuary spaces being designed into newer homes,” says Alex Anamos, studio director and project architect at KAA Design Group in Los Angeles. Those spaces are appearing throughout the interior as people seek escapes from the stress of their daily lives. In addition to master suites, Anamos says, smaller spaces such as dedicated meditation or yoga rooms are becoming more common. “The sanctuary theme is becoming part of the whole house,” agrees EDI’s Garneau.
At the 2005 International Builders’ Show in Orlando in January, Raleigh, N.C.-based Sarah Susanka, architect and author of the “Not So Big” series of best-selling books, used the term “a place of one’s own” in describing the small rooms and alcoves being designed into newer homes. Examples: a window seat for quiet reading or a small alcove or office space where people can sort mail, drop keys, and recharge cell phones. “These are rooms that America desperately needs,” Susanka says.
Homes today are centers of social activity, with spaces crafted for various forms of entertainment from high-tech audiovisual theaters to rooms that can accommodate large gatherings.
Often rooms will serve more than one purpose, handling both formal and informal functions with a simple change in light setting. “Spaces that overlap function and decor represent a break from traditional house layouts,” says architect Jones. “People are working with the space they have and trying to get the biggest bang for their buck.”
Even kitchens—already the hub for social activity in many homes—are getting a make over. Architects and designers are facilitating people’s natural propensity to gather in kitchens with features such as large chairs, ottomans, and fireplaces.
Overall, “there’s more of an emphasis on homes that have all the bells and whistles you could possibly want” for gracious entertaining, says designer Barrett.
With all the attention being paid to designing homes with distinctive character, it’s no surprise that everyday items are taking on a creative flair.
Sheri Carmon, a broker-associate with Keller Williams Realty in Fort Collins, Colo., who has worked on design issues with builders on 20 model homes, says the little things, such as light fixtures and tiling, are taking on greater design significance. “That’s what makes a difference between a new house and a new home,” she says.
Whatever the function—storage, food preparation, or personal hygiene—no item is too common to be unworthy of design embellishments. Some of the more popular features in newer homes are freestanding bathtubs, professional-grade appliances, furniture-quality kitchen islands, and stand-alone hutches for storage.
“One of my mantras is, know where you’re spending your money, and spend it where people can see it, touch it, and feel it,” says architect O’Brien.