Home designs target non-traditional families


The unusual shape of the island allows for easy conversation between four or five people seated there as well as between the sitters and the cook, who also enjoys a terrific view out the back. (Courtesy of James F. Wilson for Builder Magazine)
March 2, 2012

Beginning in 1998, Builder magazine has presented a Concept House at the annual International Builders Show, each one based on a theme intended to shake the home builders out of their “same old, same old” risk-averse complacency and try something new.

For the past three years, as home builders faced massive competition from far less costly resales and foreclosures, Builder’s Concept Houses have emphasized what those older houses did not offer — extreme energy efficiency, “home-produced” electricity and green building materials with recycled content.

The theme for this year’s Concept House, shown at last month’s International Builder’s Show in Orlando, was the changing demographics of the marketplace. The houses that appealed to the home builders’ bread and butter clientele for 50 years — mom, dad and two kids — may suit the 20 percent of households who still fit this description, but the other 80 percent, including single adults, married couples with no kids, families headed by single parents, step families and multi-generation households, are looking for something different.

The builder who succeeds on this playing field will have to offer houses with flexible spaces that can serve multiple purposes and appeal to a broad range of buyer profiles.

Recognizing this reality, Builder’s 2012 Concept House is not one house but three, each targeted at a specific subset of conventional buyer groupings: Gen B (the baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (the population born between 1965 and 1980) and Generation Y (the population born between 1981 and 1999, only a small fraction of whom will be buying houses now).

The magazine engaged Centerline Homes of Coral Springs, Fla., to build its Concept Houses. The market-savvy firm has done well despite the downturn, and its CEO, Craig Perry, was remarkably candid about the sales prospects of Builder’s shake-’em prototypes: “If we build 50 of these houses, it would be a lot. These are definitely unique.” He was willing to take a risk in building the pricey sales models (he’ll have to eat their cost if they don’t eventually sell) because the building site is unusually attractive. It overlooks a small lake and a golf course and that, Perry said, “gives you 100 percent flexibility to do something different.”

Will these houses appeal to their target audience? I am doubtful, but other subgroups of home buyers may find them a good fit.

The highly unusual floor plan and features of the $900,000 Gen B house will capture the attention of every visitor. The 2,866-square-foot house wraps around a central courtyard replete with fire pit, fountain and lounging area. The front door, located on the far side of the courtyard, opens onto a 28-foot-long glass walled gallery that overlooks a shaded lanai and a gorgeous outdoor pool with a swim-up bar. The lake and the golf course hover in the distance.

The 57 linear feet of glass walls in the gallery, dining area and the breakfast nook are actually sliding glass doors; when they are fully opened, the line between inside and outside dissolves, and one can freely move from the courtyard through the house to the pool area. The combined space could accommodate large gatherings of 50 to 75 people.

In the cold light of day, however, Builder’s “retired boomer couple from Philly” may have second thoughts. Although the house has four bedrooms, only two are attached to the main living space and one of them is furnished as a “man cave.” Where is her cave? A third bedroom is entered from the courtyard but completely excluded from the other living areas, as is a fourth bedroom on a second level, also accessed from the courtyard. This might work for a recently divorced boomer Dad who loves to party and whose grown children have little desire to interact with the household, but not boomers envisioning house parties with visiting friends and relatives.

On the other hand, this house is perfect for a childless professional couple of any age who work at home and want their offices to be completely separated from the living quarters.

Few Gen Yers can afford the $800,000 Gen Y house, but retired boomers eager to have their adult children and grandchildren visit will love it. In this smaller, 2,163-square-foot-iteration of a four-bedroom, single-storied house, the floor plan conveys a sense of inclusion, with the master suite and secondary bedrooms on opposite sides of a central living area that overlooks another gorgeous pool. When the visitors have left, each spouse can regain use of a secondary bedroom as a home office or “project room.” A small satellite fourth bedroom with a kitchenette is adjacent to a front courtyard. This house has a smaller disappearing glass-slider walls feature (only 27 linear feet) and was designed by the same architect, Michael Woodley of Littleton, Colo.

The Gen B and Gen Y houses exude a boisterous informality, while the much larger, $1.3 million, two-story, 4,732-square-foot-Gen X house, conveys restraint, with a floor plan that’s been stripped down to life’s essentials — there’s no formal living and dining rooms, just four bedrooms, a retreat, a bonus room and a granny flat.

The designer, Tony Weremeichik of Canin Associates in Orlando, created well-proportioned spaces, but the scale is more palatial than cozy. The “Everyday Living Area” for dining, kitchen and lounging is 16 feet wide by 39 feet long with 10-feet ceilings and the first-floor “Family Office Flex Room” is 13 feet wide by 21 feet long (on the big side for a family room). The target buyers of this house — a married, dual professional couple with two or three kids and a grandparent — may find this house too big and impersonal.

James Chung of Reach Advisors, a research firm that studies national housing trends, agreed with me on the size, if not the aesthetics of the Gen X house. Though it may sell in the Orlando market, where Centerline has been very successful, Chung said that nationally “the audience for 4,000 square feet is remarkably slim.”

One prospect: A newly formed step family with his and her kids, a sizable but underserved segment of the housing market. Such households need plenty of room to spread out as step parents, step children and step siblings slowly forge new relationships.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

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