Subway tiles, powder rooms and clothes closets — all basic design elements found in many homes today — are design influences that linger more than a century after the 1918 flu pandemic changed attitudes about sanitation and health. Understanding the historical significance of the coronavirus pandemic will take decades of research, but its impact is already being felt on home designs.
“We know that interest in healthy living has been a trend for some time that was accelerated by the covid-19 pandemic,” says Nancy Keenan, president and CEO of Dahlin Group Architecture Planning in Pleasanton, Calif.
“I started researching previous pandemics to see if there were design trends that stuck around after the pandemics ended and found out that the powder room was invented during the [1918 flu pandemic] to provide a place to clean up before interacting with everyone in the house.”
Other 1918 flu-era design changes include using subway tiles in bathrooms for easier cleanup and built-in closets to confine clothes away from people and eliminate dust-catching armoires. Carpet and draperies were removed from bathrooms to reduce germs, Keenan says.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, the initial focus was on how to keep people apart and how stores, restaurants, schools and workplaces would adapt.
“Ninety percent of the country was sheltering in place, but at first no one was talking about the impact on our relationship with our homes and our communities,” says marketing expert Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki, principal of TST Ink in San Diego. “I wanted to know how living and working at home would change the way people think about home and how that might impact home designs in the future.”
Keenan and Slavik-Tsuyuki teamed with Belinda Sward, founder and chief strategist with Strategic Solutions Alliance in Carlsbad, Calif., for in-depth research and surveys of more than 6,000 consumers called the “America at Home” study to gather insight into the future of home design. The research team recently collaborated with Garman Homes, a Raleigh, N.C.-based home builder, to design and build a “concept home” in the Chatham Park community in Pittsboro, N.C., that reflects their research on how Americans want to live today.
“During the pandemic we wanted to understand how people are living in their homes and how we could design for the way they’re living,” says Alaina Money-Garman, co-founder and CEO of Garman Homes. “We also wanted to know how homes were performing. The pandemic was stress-testing homes for consumers.”
Now complete, the 2,600-square-foot demonstration house has four bedrooms and four bathrooms. The house will be a model home and study tool for approximately one year. The eventual sales price, which could change based on market conditions, is estimated to be $650,000 to $700,000.
“It was important to us that the concept house not be huge because this is meant to be a house that would fit in with the median price of a house in any location where it’s built,” Slavik-Tsuyuki says.
“No matter what size a home is, the spaces need to work hard and respond to who lives there. It’s a different mind-set for builders to think about what’s important to consumers and what they need instead of how big a house they can build on a particular lot. Not every house needs a huge home office and a huge outdoor space.”
The house is designed with an older millennial family with growing kids in mind, Money-Garman says.
The 'family bathroom'
When every family member is home at the same time for an extended period, a home needs to work hard to fulfill every need.
“You need to make sure that every inch of space is used for its maximum potential and that nothing unnecessary is added,” Money-Garman says. “A home should be like a James Bond car with all the tools to help people within the house so they can cope with anything.”
One new floor plan innovation is the “family bathroom” on the second level. Often, a four-bedroom home will have a connecting bathroom shared by the children.
“Those bathrooms are often narrow and awkward for parents or caregivers when they need to bathe their children,” Money-Garman says. “The parents end up using their larger bathroom for the kids, which means when the adults want to use their bathroom for self-care it’s full of toys and kid’s shampoo.”
The family bathroom in the concept house has more space than most hall bathrooms, with lower counters, a large separate tub and shower, and a trough-style sink.
The quarantine room
The America at Home study and the pandemic inform other design innovations in the house.
For example, the first-floor guest bedroom in the concept house is designed to function as a quarantine room if needed, with its own entry to the front porch for fresh air and outdoor access; pocket doors to link it to the rest of the house; and an adjacent private bathroom.
The concept house team also wanted to adapt the open floor plan for greater efficiency.
“We wanted to make the kitchen do more, so we designed the cabinets to work like a Swiss Army knife in terms of functionality,” Keenan says.
The kitchen island has an attached dining table that also can be a homework space.
“We reoriented the kitchen sink for a view into the family-living space and added kid-height shelving to the L-shaped island to make it easier for the kids to be more independent and help themselves,” Slavik-Tsuyuki says.
Money-Garman says the kitchen is “high performance” because it is highly organized, with open shelving on the ends of the island and easy-to-clean quartz counters and a quartz backsplash.
Respondents to the study expressed the desire for their home to feel like a safe and secure place, Slavik-Tsuyuki says. That emphasis on safety drove several design elements of the concept house, such as spaces that make it easier to keep the home secure and residents clean.
“People were using their home as a safe space to socialize with friends and family, especially outside,” Slavik-Tsuyuki says. “The house has an oversized front porch and a large, covered space in back to get fresh air.”
A key floor plan feature is the way residents and guests arrive at the home, which is more intentional than in many previously designed homes, Keenan says.
“The front door has a vestibule with a glass door into the rest of the house that can be locked off, so it feels like people arrive in stages,” Keenan says. “The vestibule can be used to drop off packages and protect someone from the weather without needing to bring them all the way into the house. It feels safer, too.”
Homes today often have a wide-open hallway inside the front door, which Slavik-Tsuyuki says is wasted space.
“You can pinch that space down and use it more thoughtfully,” she says. “Every space needs to work harder and respond to the changing needs of homeowners.”
Many single-family homes have a special “family entrance” from the garage or driveway with hooks for backpacks. The concept house takes this entrance to a new level, with more storage, a powder room and the option of placing the laundry room in that space.
“The family entry can be entered from the garage or the courtyard and is designed in a purpose-driven way so people can sanitize before they enter the rest of the house,” Money-Garman says.
An upstairs laundry room seemed desirable to many people for decades, since that’s where most of the laundry is generated, but the America at Home researchers found that most people now want a first-floor laundry room for convenience since they spend more time downstairs.
The outdoor living spaces for the concept house are also designed for residents to feel safe and healthy.
“Outdoor space is sometimes designed as an afterthought, so we were very intentional to design covered outdoor space next to the guest bedroom and to the family room so people can work and socialize outside yet feel protected,” Keenan says.
The concept house has multiple flexible spaces and two home offices, neither of which is a bedroom, Slavik-Tsuyuki says.
“It’s important not to think of the secondary bedrooms as a default for everything,” she says. “A bedroom isn’t relaxing if it’s used for everything.”
The floor plan includes a large flexible space for a home office near the front door and the guest bedroom.
“That room can be a traditional home office, or it can be used as a playroom, a schoolroom or even as a living space for an expanded guest bedroom,” Keenan says. “Buyers can add a door into the vestibule if they want to use it for clients or guests.”
This first-floor flex room has a Dutch door to separate the space from the foyer to provide an “arrival cue” for children when the room is being used for school, Money-Garman says. The space is large enough to work for two private offices if needed.
“Another first-floor office is a nook off the kitchen with a window for natural light above a built-in desk and shelves,” Slavik-Tsuyuki says. “We added sound attenuation to the room and a door that closes for Zoom calls, but you’re right off the kitchen so you can be part of the family when you want to be.”
Another pocket office is located on the second floor in a space that buyers could choose for a laundry room if they prefer an upstairs location.
A 'place to unplug'
As part of the study, homeowners were asked about how their routines and rituals changed during the pandemic, Slavik-Tsuyuki says.
“People realized they needed a place to unplug and to be alone,” she says. “They need a separate space to decompress at home, a place they could use for an at-home date night, a meditation space or a ‘crying room’ to just let out emotions alone.”
The concept house includes a “secret room” behind a bookcase in the primary suite.
“One guy told us he made calls from his car because he had nowhere in his house to make quiet work calls,” Slavik-Tsuyuki says. “The concept house has both the nook off the kitchen and the secret room for private calls.”
In the concept house, the secret room functions as a place to read or to play music alone, Money-Garman says.
“We wanted that bonus room to be whimsical, kind of a cheeky surprise, so that’s why it has a hidden entrance off the bedroom,” she says.
Experiencing the concept house
While local builders and consumers in North Carolina can visit the concept house in person and share their thoughts on the design, the house can also be visited online.
Within weeks after the pandemic began, real estate agents and home builders began relying on virtual tours, video chats and online resources to continue searching for and buying homes. While the America at Home study found that most people still prefer an in-person tour, many people are far more comfortable than they were in the past with shopping for everything online — including a home.
“We know that many people, especially millennials, are more likely to research every purchase online before they buy anything,” says John Cecilian Jr., CEO and founding partner of Cecilian Partners in Philadelphia, who designed the website and virtual tour for the concept home.
“Millennials will spend time understanding something online before they go to see it, so we created an immersive experience of the concept home based on the way they interact with a home rather than on individual rooms.”
The concept home website has sections labeled arrive, recharge, eat, work and breathe that have a 3-D image to digitally explore that aspect of the home, Cecilian says.
“We’re using mobile devices, tablets and desktops to tell the story of the house and what it would be like to live there,” Cecilian says.
“We think every builder will eventually do something like this to help buyers understand the flexible spaces of a home before they see it. Visiting a model home can be overwhelming at first, and the complexity of all the choices buyers can make can be too much. This digital experience provides them with a way to ease into the process.”
The interactions of visitors to the online site can be tracked to inform future design projects, including a look at how long someone spends in different spaces of the home and the places where they click for more information.
“A big lesson for us and for all builders is to listen to the consumer first,” Money-Garman says. “We need to focus on what consumers need for space and affordability, and then add something to surprise and delight them.”