Tried and True House Configurations Hold Appeal Over Time

Southern Living's Tideland Haven floor plan, a popular 2008 design. Generally, people want slightly bigger houses than they did 10 years ago. Empty-nesters who buy a new house tend to want all the size, but on one floor.
Southern Living's Tideland Haven floor plan, a popular 2008 design. Generally, people want slightly bigger houses than they did 10 years ago. Empty-nesters who buy a new house tend to want all the size, but on one floor. (Southern Living Magazine)
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By Katherine Salant
Saturday, October 18, 2008

Despite incessant media attention on the next big thing in new homes, many plan configurations have enduring appeal.

I recently asked four home-plan services to compare this year's best-selling plans with their winners in 1998. I also interviewed executives with four other firms.

The bestsellers 10 years ago are still selling well, even if they no longer hold the top slots. Linda Reimer of Design Basics in Omaha said her firm's all-time best-selling plan debuted 15 years ago. Donovan Davis of Danze & Davis Architects in Austin, whose firm sells home plans, said some of his most popular plans are older than that.

My sample shows that plan buyers wants houses that are bigger, but not hugely so. Ten years ago, only one of the top sellers had more than 2,000 square feet; today, only one has less. The biggest ones hover around 3,000 square feet, but most are about 2,400, close to the national average.

For aging baby boomers, downsizing does not appear to mean a smaller house. Judging by the plans that were designed to appeal to this group, the empty-nester couple moving out of their two-story, four-bedroom house wants the same square footage, but on one floor and with fewer, bigger rooms.

The first-floor master suite, a trend that I associate with newer houses, was well established 10 years ago -- every top seller in 1998 had it -- but the rationale has changed.

Once touted for older couples having trouble with stairs, the first-floor master is now a desirable feature in almost every segment of the market when it is paired with a second bedroom and bathroom nearby. The young couple wants it as a nursery, the middle-aged couple needs it for their aging parents, and the older couple who might have trouble with stairs needs it because their diverging sleep patterns make sharing a bedroom impossible.

Ten years ago, the home office was optional. Today, it's a necessity, but the specifics vary. Wireless-network users who like to curl up with a laptop and cellphone anywhere in the house are happy with a small workstation tucked away in a corner. Some folks want the pretty, paneled library off the entry foyer. But most people who work at home want a private space that can be routinely left untidy, and some want a complete separation between their living and work spaces. To meet this requirement, Eric Moser of Moser Design Group in Beaufort, S.C., has designed office "cottages" connected by a breezeway to the side or back of the main house.

The latest trend in home offices is a second, smaller office exclusively for household business, said David Rook of Builder Magazine's Builder House Plans. It is usually next to the kitchen because in most households the person who cooks also pays the bills, he said. Some designers have incorporated the second-office function into a larger laundry room, which is next to the kitchen in many plans. They have added a charging station for cellphones and BlackBerrys and call it a "home maintenance center."

In public areas, informality has become the rule. The largest houses in my best-seller sample -- more than 3,000 square feet -- have a formal dining room, but only two of the smaller ones retained it. In the others, the area occasionally used for formal dining has been given over to the home office. The dining table and chairs are in a much larger breakfast area where the household regularly dines and entertains.

The kitchen, the center of family life for most households, is at the center of the house, open to the expanded breakfast room on one side and to the family room on the other. The kitchen also has shrunk, and its functions have shifted. Underused countertop has given way to a larger island that functions as a table with room for food preparation and a built-in cooktop or sink. The island has a generous overhang to accommodate seating, but its 36-inch height requires a stool rather than a dining chair. For most people, it's not very comfortable, but it's the perfect setup for a quick breakfast or lunch.

As the main living areas have become more informal, the ambience has become more intimate. The large, two-story family room, which was often an enormous, charmless box if the owners could not afford to make a huge investment in interior treatments, has given way to a smaller space with a lower ceiling.

Aesthetically, the vast majority of home-plan buyers still prefer a traditionally styled house, but most are forgoing the glitz and glamour of the 1990s and "their need for golden panthers to impress their friends," as Moser characterized it. Ten years ago, he said, his custom-home clients wanted huge houses with four or five eating places: the breakfast nook, the formal dining room, the breakfast bar and the café in the sunroom. Today, he said, these clients are asking for much smaller houses with only one eating area.

Another extravagance that was the "next big thing" 10 years ago but has now faded is the home theater, Rook said. The main problem was not the expense but the mismatch between household television watching habits and the nature of the home theater itself. The big screen and fancy acoustics required sequestering it from the rest of the house, but television watching for most people is a casual, informal activity. They watch while they're doing something else, such as fixing a meal, getting ready for work, or, to the consternation of their parents, doing homework.

Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site,

Copyright 2008 Katherine Salant

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