Homes With a Bit of the Homeland

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Chuck Langpaul Jr. has been in the custom home business for more than a decade, so he thought he knew a thing or two about groundbreaking ceremonies: Hoist a shovel, snap a picture and it's done.

Then, a Hindu family in Great Falls asked him to build its home on ancient principles of Indian design. The groundbreaking occurred on a warm day decreed as auspicious by an astrological chart. A priest poured milk and honey on the ground and chanted mantras, asking the earth's forgiveness for the construction disturbance to come. Dozens of friends and relatives gathered and, when it was over, ate curry and rice from a buffet set up on card tables in the bare lot.

Langpaul was surprised, honored and a bit flustered by the two-hour-long ceremony. "I think they invited everyone they knew," he said. "It was culture shock for me."

As the Washington region's population of foreign-born residents tops 1 million, the influx is changing the way homes and subdivisions are built. Custom home builders are planning prayer rooms for Indian families and using feng shui, the Chinese art of home design, for Asian customers. They're fielding requests for white brick and mortar, rather than bricks made from Virginia clay, from customers who want to evoke the sun-baked dwellings of their Middle Eastern homelands.

Ram Balasubramanian, who immigrated to the United States in 1989, bought a home in a new South Riding subdivision in Loudoun County three years ago and spent $220,000 on extras to modify it to traditional Indian design, including a prayer room.

"The architecture might be looking like the local American style of architecture, but the ambiance and friendliness, that is pretty much the way it is back home. It's what keeps us going," Balasubramanian said.

Even in the housing downturn, the trend is flourishing locally because home buyers now have the luxury of asking for special accommodations from builders or the leisure to look at several homes before selecting one that can fulfill their cultural needs, experts say.

"It's becoming more diverse, so there are a lot of options we're putting in homes we never had to think of before," said Gregg Hughes, general sales manager for Keswick Homes, a custom builder.

Foreign-born residents make up a growing share of U.S. homeowners at all income levels, but particularly first-time buyers, according to Zhu Xiao Di, a senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Locally, foreign-born residents make up about 16 percent of recent home buyers in Maryland, 15 percent in Virginia and 12 percent in the District, according to the center's analysis of U.S. Census data.

Nationally, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry G. Cisneros is spearheading a movement to design homes and communities that will appeal to the Latino consumer, the fastest-growing segment of the population.

Last year, he edited a book on the subject, "Casa y Comunidad," for the National Association of Home Builders. The book advocates residential construction that meets the Latino community's needs, adding space for in-law suites for elderly parents and larger kitchens with roomier pantries and gas stoves. ("Only a gas oven works well for tortillas," the book says.)

"This is really critical because it will be one of the driving forces of the home-building industry going forward," Cisneros said. "The numbers are so powerful. A large percentage of the home buyers of the future are going to be minorities or persons that came as immigrants."

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