In marked contrast to the boom years, homeowners no longer regard their house as an “investment” that will quickly grow in value, enabling them to sell at a profit and move onto something bigger and better. Instead, Dickinson said, they see their house as a “static asset,” whose value will remain more or less the same for the foreseeable future. They’re “staying put,” (the title of Dickinson’s latest book, Taunton, 2011) and pouring their energies into making their houses more livable, not more salable. And their budgets are tight: “They think about every square foot and every dollar,” Dickinson said.
Yet homeowners are becoming more radical in the changes that they want in their houses — “walls that are completely transparent with so much glass mass that visually you feel like you’re directly outside,” Dickinson said. After a long work day in front of a glowing computer screen, owners “from the boomers on down” want to immerse themselves in nature and create their own version of Thoreau’s idyllic Walden Pond.
The challenge that these two trends create for an architect can be daunting. Dickinson is asked to address a litany of complaints about a house that brought its owners to his doorstep in the first place, while creating a strong visual connection to the outdoors and remaining within the existing footprint of the house to keep costs down.
It’s a tall order, but strategic moving of interior walls and increasing the size of some but not all the windows can transform almost any plan configuration, even one that seems as iconic and immutable as a traditional center hall Colonial that’s been a fixture in suburbia for more than 100 years, Dickinson said.
The No. 1 complaint of homeowners who seek Dickinson’s help is their kitchen, the center of family life in most households but small and isolated in older houses. In a center hall configuration, the easiest fix, and one that Dickinson has done many times, is simply removing the wall between the kitchen and dining area to create a large country kitchen with a dining table, island seating and plenty of counter space. The latest wrinkle here is the desire for comfortable cushioned seating within three to five feet of the cooking area, so that the person who is cooking does not have to yell to be heard by family members who prefer lounging on a sofa to an island bar stool after a hard day at the office.
Once the kitchen is integrated into the living area, many homeowners want it to look like a living area, and they elect to remove the wall cabinets. Taking out storage here means adding it in somewhere else, and Dickinson’s favored solution is creating a large walk-in pantry within the new kitchen and dining area that’s big enough to accommodate the 30-serving-size, bulk purchases that are now routine in many households.