Home Trends Move From Lavish to Practical

A traditional dining area with wooden floors, full of wooden furniture and other rich-colored items.

This award-winning dining room by Buffington Homes in Kiawah Island, S.C. exemplifies two trends in new home design: lighting that actually lights up a room and gorgeous ceiling detail.

The Best in American Living Awards honor excellence in new home design. What trends did this year's expert panel of judges spy?

If the houses we build are some kind of barometer of our attitudes, then hooray for us – we seem to be moving toward a mindset that’s becoming more practical, more grounded in reality.

That cultural pat on the back comes from the Best in American Living Awards (BALA), an annual competition whose design-professional judges sifted through photos and floor plans of hundreds of homes, condos and entire neighborhoods to single out the 65 best home designs of 2012.

The judging team found certain consistencies running through the contest entries that represent seven trends
 that will show up in mainstream design over the next few years. Leading the pack was a whole new attitude toward just how much space is “enough.” 

“In the McMansion era, we had square footage for the sake of square footage,” said contest judge Barry Glantz, president of Glantz & Associates Architects in St. Louis, Mo. “We’re seeing a strong trend away from that. People want warm, homey, comfortable.”

Consumers didn’t especially express a craving for spaces that are small, rather, they are asking for spaces that are smaller than what they might have asked for just a few years ago, they said. “I call it right-sized luxury,” agreed architect Wayne Visbeen of Grand Rapids, Mich., a BALA regional prize-winner who addressed a press gathering devoted to the awards at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas in January. His winning design (built by Insignia Homes of Grand Rapids), managed to lop 500 square feet off the original plan through careful attention to the roof lines and other specs, giving the client more money to devote to details that added vintage character – important in a house that was surrounded by others built in the 1920s and 1930s, he said. 

Not an isolated event, making better use of space is indicative of a shift in consumer preferences in all house sizes, the judges said.

“Square footage is less important than the details,” Glantz said.

Which brings us to:

Trend No. 1: High-quality detailing.

Architectural detailing is high on buyers’ wish lists – regardless of home size – and contest entries showed detailing that focused on appropriate scale and proportion, according to Glantz and fellow judge Karen Kassik-Michelsohn, owner of Home Accessibilities, a residential design firm in Anchorage, Alaska.

That was particularly evident in the BALA Home of the Year, built by Buffington Homes and designed by architect Wayne Windham of Kiawah Island, S.C. The house, called English Angel, is 4,900 square feet and is filled with English-influenced Arts & Crafts styling and richly stained woodwork, timber trusses and stained glass. “Many of our clients say they may not want a home of this size, but they don’t want to give up nice detailing and beautiful trim and windows,” said Cathy Buffington, co-owner of Buffington Homes in Johns Island, S.C.

Trend No. 2: Come-to-your-senses bathrooms.

The BALA judges noticed that bathrooms, while far from Spartan, are getting smaller and simpler. “They’re not vast, like they were (during the housing boom), said Glantz. “They’re not so gaudy, but highly functional.” He said 
designers seem comfortable doing more with less – removing extra partitions and space between fixtures and using clear glass shower doors and wall panels to visually expand the space.

Trend No. 3: Kitchens are still king.

Kitchens sell houses and many design use them as the starting point for the rest of the house, the judges said. Watch for “mega islands” to dominate kitchen design in the coming years. “We saw some that were massive,” and doubled as food-prep and gathering spaces and seating for guests, said Kassik-Michelsohn.

And expect to see more white cabinetry. “White is everything – we’re back to white,” she said, adding that it’s not just the cabinets – judges noticed a veritable sea of highly polished white Carrera marble countertops. 

Trend No. 4: Specialty rooms.

“Outdoor rooms” for barbecuing and entertaining have been growing in popularity for the past few years and they were a big presence among the BALA entrants, the judges said. Joining the specialty list: an emphasis on pet-friendly spaces. “Pet amenities were everywhere – spaces for dog crates and dog-washing,” said Kassik-Michelsohn. 

Glantz agreed. “Pets have become an integral part of house design.”

Another prominent specialty space: Wine rooms, for everyone from the modest enthusiast to the extreme collector, Kassik-Michelsohn said. In addition, the judges saw plenty of bars in entertainment areas of the homes.

Trend No. 5: Lighting that actually lights up the room.

“In past years, lighting was almost an afterthought,” Glantz said. “Now we’re seeing more thought about integrating it into the house.”

It’s showing up in the form of double chandeliers over those big kitchen islands, Kassik-Michelsohn said. And she described pendant lighting as almost ubiquitous, citing one bedroom that suspended them over the nightstands instead of using table lamps.

Trend No. 6: Look up, please.

Raise your hand if you spend an awful lot of time looking down into a small, electronic display screen. We thought so. Although it’s only a supposition, Kassik-Michelsohn said she wondered if designers are trying to give people something to see if they would just gaze skyward: The judges noticed an emphasis on elaborate ceiling detail. “We’re seeing it even in homes with lowered ceilings and in condominiums.”

It’s just human nature, builder Buffington added. “When you walk into a space, where do your eyes go first? They go straight,” said Buffington, whose BALA winner features a massive and detailed ceiling truss over the hearth. “But the natural thing is you want to evaluate where you are – you look out and then you look up.”

Trend No. 7: Room for the whole (extended) family.

Multi-generational living is more than a demographic flash in the pan, the judges said, adding that even when homeowners aren’t accommodating an aged parent, they’re thinking about their own needs down the road. “We’ve moved from ‘Leave It to Beaver’ to ‘The Waltons,’ ” said Glantz. “And people are thinking about where they want to live 10 years on.” 

It shows up not only in multiple master suites, but in thoughtful design choices, such as lowering the microwave so that it might be opened more easily by someone with limited mobility or raising the dishwasher for the same reason.

Or they’re leaving space to add an elevator eventually, architect Visbeen said. “It gives some peace of mind.”

He also said that in his practice, homeowners are looking beyond their four walls for extended-family accommodations: Consider a detached garage as a starting point for a separate apartment. “We’re seeing tons of apartments over garages,” Visbeen said, explaining that even when family members didn’t move in right away, the separate suites were used as guest spaces.

Freelance writer Mary Umberger has covered real estate and home-related products for publications such as The Chicago Tribune, Inman News and other leading print and online publications.

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