Looking for a Clue to the Future? Ask an Architect.

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, December 22, 2007

Because they work at the front end of the development process, architects are bellwethers of the building industry, signaling changing trends in design, the real estate market and the economy. These days, they're giving mixed signals.

According to the American Institute of Architects' "Home Design Trends" survey of 500 residential architectural firms conducted this fall, there is good news and bad.

The good news is that "homeowners are looking for neighborhoods and communities designed to include greater access to public transportation, recreation, commercial and entertainment options."

Architects also report rising demand for infill housing, "where smaller land parcels closer to urban centers are targeted for development."

These positive trends are not surprising given the escalating energy and transportation costs, worsening traffic congestion and long commuting times experienced by millions of suburbanites.

Significant demographic shifts -- millions of baby boomers becoming empty nesters, a population growing older, more diverse household types than ever before -- likewise provide impetus for mixed-use, higher-density development close to cities.

Further, as people become more health- and exercise-conscious, they increasingly will be drawn to residential environments in which they can safely and conveniently walk or ride bikes with children in tow.

The other positive news voiced by the residential architects surveyed is continuing demand for additions, kitchen and bath remodeling, and other renovations.

This, too, is not surprising. For many homeowners, staying put and improving their current dwelling, rather than moving, may be the most prudent economic option, despite the discomfort of living in a building disrupted by demolition and construction. If the home is part of a community to which the homeowner is emotionally attached, it also may be the best social and psychological choice.

What's the bad news yielded by the AIA survey?

The architects reported weakening demand for townhouses, condominium apartments and vacation homes. Even more negative were their market observations and forecasts for move-up homes and affordable homes for first-time buyers.

These signals clearly reflect the foreclosure and credit problems with which middle-class home buyers and production home builders are struggling.

But they also spell trouble on a broader front because negative market and financing conditions in the home-building sector adversely affect the national economy.

Of course, architects are experiencing little change in the market for custom-designed luxury homes: Such projects are designed for clients whose financial resources insulate them from the stresses and strains of the credit world.

As 2007 comes to an end, a number of public- and private-sector remedies are being proposed to address some of the difficulties facing consumers and the building industry. If and when these remedies are implemented, there will be an easy and early way to measure their effectiveness: Ask architects whether their work is picking up.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company