Builders, Architects Weigh in on Emerging Home Features

Energy-efficient systems, sustainable products and materials, and home-automation options are still priorities for new-home buyers.

Orange, white and gray-themed living room, beautifully done to bring out richness of color, warmth and feel.

A stylish great room opens wide to an inviting outdoor space with a stacked stone fireplace. The Josie plan built by Richmond American Homes. The Sanctuary at San Elijo Hills. San Marcos, Calif.

As the housing market rebounds, the popularity of outdoor living spaces, home offices and mudrooms is continuing unabated.

Energy-efficient systems, sustainable products and materials, and home-automation options are still priorities for new-home buyers. In addition, many buyers want their new homes to be accessible and a healthy percentage are looking for features that enable multigenerational living.

Members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) were surveyed about these topics in the 
AIA Home Design Trends Survey for the second quarter of 2015. The results were compared to responses to the same questions in a survey conducted in the second quarter of 2014. 

Outdoor Living Areas are Still Hot 

The popularity of outdoor living has increased slightly over the last year, says AIA chief economist Kermit Baker. “This sort of blended indoor/outdoor lifestyle has been very strong for probably 15 years now,” Baker says. In fact, outdoor living space was named the most popular special-function room (28 percent), followed by the home office (22 percent) and the mudroom (21 percent). 

Outdoor “rooms” can be quite elaborate in places like California and Florida where the weather is moderate most of the time. It’s not unusual for these rooms to be equipped with full kitchens, wet bars, dining areas and flat-screen TVs. But even in colder climates, builders are extending interior space outside with larger covered porches and outdoor fireplaces, says Philadelphia architect Jim Wentling. 

KGA Studio Architects in Louisville, Colo., typically includes outdoor living spaces that are covered, but in lower-priced homes they have fewer bells and whistles, says Principal Jerry Gloss. The exception is in higher-density communities with rooftop decks, confined back yards or front courtyards where having those spaces completed before occupancy is integral to the look of the project.

The desirability of home offices isn’t surprising given that so many Americans are telecommuting. “More folks are [being employed] on a contract basis and, therefore, working out of their homes,” says Baker. Since dedicated space for a home office is not feasible for every buyer, many new homes include a flex room that can serve as a den, office or extra bedroom.

Earning its “drop zone” nickname, the mudroom is used for everything from charging electronic devices to organizing the children’s school supplies and corralling wet, muddy clothes and shoes. In some homes, the mudroom is also a laundry room and a dog-washing area. 

Nine percent of respondents said homebuyers are still interested in au pair/in-law suites. Baker says they appeal to younger families who desire in-home child care, as well as boomers whose parents or older relatives have moved in. 

Higher Tech and More Accessible 

AIA has also been tracking the popularity of home-automation systems and technologies. The popularity of docking stations for electric cars jumped from 35 to 42 percent since the 2014 survey and Baker expects them to show considerable year-over-year growth.

Interest in air-purification systems is also up, from 15 percent in the second quarter of 2014 to 23 percent at the same time in 2015 — a sign that homebuyers are more concerned about indoor air quality and healthy-home issues. 

A new feature, the home automation management/mechanical room, was added to the 2015 survey. Baker thinks AIA members may have identified an emerging trend, with 19 percent saying buyers were interested in carving out space for that purpose.

Extra insulation in the attic remains the top feature related to energy efficiency, although it has declined slightly in popularity since last year. “It seems like something that was a little bit hotter when [energy] prices were spiking, but I think probably less so now,” says Baker.

Aside from insulation, the most popular features are accessibility related, such as first-floor master bedrooms (51 percent) and ramps or elevators (45 percent). Again, this is indicative of large numbers of Boomers who want to age in place and/or have an aging relative living with them. The survey reported that on-grade entries (37 percent) and easy-to-use features (32 percent), such as doors and faucets with lever handles, are also gaining popularity.

“We’re seeing wider doorways in all single-level floor plans, as well as in multi-level plans that have first-floor bedrooms,” says Philadelphia architect Jim Wentling. Some builders offer options such as barrier-free showers and the elimination of level changes throughout the house. For example, there’s a ramp from the garage to and from the house, instead of steps.

CalAtlantic Group, a national homebuilding company created by the merger of the 
Ryland Group and Standard Pacific Corp. in August 2015, has invested heavily in housing for the 50-plus market, says Gloss. CalAtlantic’s new offerings include duplexes that range from 1,400 to 1,800 square feet. “We are doing much of their housing now with an easy-living approach,” Gloss says. “One of the most popular features is a sliding door set in a trimmed-out opening.”

Wanted: More Multigenerational Designs

While Gloss perceives strong demand for multigenerational housing, it seems that buyers are a little dissatisfied with what’s available. “In one study, 48 percent said they were initially looking for a multigenerational [design], but found the offerings a bit underwhelming. We believe that a main-floor bedroom suite is necessary for at least one floor plan in a series,” Gloss says. For CalAtlantic’s homes, KGA is creating a living alcove, as well as a sleeping alcove, in the main-floor suite. 

An optional kitchenette may be added to a standard bedroom suite to make it more appealing, Wentling says. Larger homes may have in-law suites with laundry rooms, expanded kitchens and larger baths with wider door openings and clearances between fixtures along with grab bars, flexible shower heads and seating in the tub or shower. 

Homes on smaller lots may also incorporate an in-law suite on the second floor with a sitting room that is separate from the bedroom, he says. A stair lift can be added at a later date if mobility becomes an issue.

Energy Efficiency Shouldn’t Come at a Premium

Denver-based Thrive Home Builders, formerly known as 
New Town Builders, differentiates its homes from the competition by offering a higher level of energy efficiency. All Thrive homes are Energy Star rated and the company recently began offering dwellings that comply with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) program.

“ZERH is too new to have widespread customer awareness,” says company founder Gene Myers. “Nevertheless, when explained to our customers, it is an important selling feature. They often equate energy efficiency with quality.”

Solar panels are offered as standard because Thrive customers rarely select optional energy-efficiency features. In ZERH homes, tankless water heaters are also standard. Yet in the AIA survey, tankless water heaters showed a big decline in popularity, dropping from 48 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2015.

“They’re expensive and [home buyers need to decide] to what extent lower energy costs — and the perception of future energy costs — may [influence] that decision,” says Baker. The likelihood that energy costs will continue to be volatile going forward makes it difficult for buyers to rationalize such an investment.

As far as sustainability, the AIA survey shows that Americans have embraced features like LED lighting and low-maintenance materials. Synthetic materials, reclaimed or salvaged materials and water-saving products ranked somewhat lower, but are still on the radar for many homebuyers.

Susan Bady has been writing about the housing industry for 25 years. A contributing editor to Professional Builder, Custom Builder and HousingZone.com, she has also contributed to Better Homes and Gardens’ Home Plan Ideas. You can find her on Google+

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