In a mere decade, the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey has seen it all: a glut of luxury and vacation homes, a staggering housing collapse, and a protracted recovery.
But looking forward, the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey shows continued reason for optimism. Business continues its rise to levels not seen since before the housing collapse, the sector has enjoyed 13 straight quarters with billings and inquiries on the uptick, and the demand for larger homes is growing once again.
A sibling of the monthly Architecture Billings Index, the survey, conducted quarterly among a panel of about 500 firms, tracks broad trends in key areas such as size and layout, features and systems, and communities, while touching on business conditions among residential architecture design firms across the country.
“Each quarter we’re looking at a different set of features. Even now we’ve found that, annually, many of these trends don’t change a lot, particularly since a good chunk of those years we’ve looked at over the last decade have been recessionary,” says AIA chief economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, who has steered the survey since it began collecting data in 2005. “Those are not times you see a lot of innovation or a lot of new and exciting ideas. It’s a period of entrenchment.”
While innovation may have stalled in those tumultuous 10 years, trends have shifted quite a bit when it comes to what features homeowners want in the extra square footage they seek. More opulent specialty spaces like home theaters and gyms, doomed by smaller home sizes resulting from the recession era, have fallen by the wayside, says Baker. As remodeling continues to greatly outpace new construction, homeowners are looking for accessible environments—indoors and out—as they hope to enter the next chapter of their lives in their homes and maintain the lifestyle they’ve cultivated.
“I’m quite sure aging in place will become a big deal because we’ve got a huge generation of folks that are moving into that stage of their life with the money to make it happen,” Baker says. “Baby Boomers did come through this last housing downturn in pretty good shape.”
The desire to age in place is holding true in the Detroit suburbs, hit particularly hard by the recession, says sole practitioner Dawn Zuber, AIA, of Studio Z Architecture in Canton, Mich. Zuber, who is a regular survey respondent, reports that business is nearly back to 2005 levels. She recently engaged two draftspeople as consultants, and is fielding an increased number of inquiries from potential clients who are getting on in years or preparing to welcome their elderly parents into their homes.
But as a one-person operation whose work is mostly completed within a 30- to 45-minute drive from her home and office, Zuber says plotting design trends can be a fickle matter. Her projects (which have ranged from small kitchen remodels to $500,000 additions) may not always align with the survey’s findings. For instance, while sustainability has appeared as an emerging trend for several years, and her clients enjoy the cost savings of energy efficiency built into her process, they’ve yet to buy in completely.
“I’ve never really had clients ask for sustainable features,” Zuber says. “It’s something that I push, but it’s not something I have people coming and asking me for—which is disappointing.”
While Zuber’s feedback may not fall in line with what many other residential architects are reporting, it’s still valuable input, according to James Walbridge, AIA, president of the San Francisco–based design/build firm Tekton Architecture. He says he uses the survey to get a holistic view of what’s important to clients across the country.
Practicing in difficult and expensive San Francisco—what he calls “49 square miles surrounded by reality”—Walbridge is in a situation similar to Zuber’s since the results of the survey aren’t necessarily commensurate with what his firm experiences.
Different Generation, Different Preferences
While the upper end of the market was the first to bounce back, and largely included the Baby Boomers with the equity to weather the housing crisis, Tekton’s clients skew toward the late 20s and 30s and are more interested in less formal, open floor plans and a midcentury modern aesthetic. While they’re keen on California’s stringent energy efficiency requirements and low-VOC healthy home components, they might not be ready to pull the trigger on an 8-kilowatt solar panel array. And, Walbridge adds, as a consequence of the rise of maker culture, his clients have an eye for craftsmanship.
“The notion of and respect toward craft has really surfaced, most importantly with our younger clientele,” he says. “We find that very appealing. Because for us, as both architects and builders, to be able to execute at a high level, have appreciation for it, and have clients that are willing to pay for that is a highly unique situation that is probably not present in a lot of other markets.”
But as the Bay Area welcomes so many potential clients who move there from other markets, Walbridge says it’s important for him to keep the survey in his back pocket in order to better anticipate their desires.
The value of that information presented in the survey extends beyond architects, too, says the AIA’s Baker. When it was envisioned, the Home Design Trends Survey was meant to be a tool for AIA members, but it’s become a valuable tool for journalists whose pieces primarily focus on housing trends. The survey—and, as a corollary, architects—have been featured in the hallowed pages of The Wall Street Journal and in Associated Press dispatches. It even landed Baker a spot as a talking head on CNBC’s morning market program Squawk Box in February.
“It’s an amazing tool for a public relations professional who is trying to get publicity for the AIA and architects,” says Matthew Tinder, the AIA’s senior manager of media relations. “There’s really nothing else quite like it out there in terms of data.”
When reporters call and want to discuss the changing dynamic of the family home, Tinder says, the survey allows him to provide accurate, data-backed information that confirms that many families working with an architect are indeed investigating multigenerational accommodations. When the recession hit in 2008, the media was quick to pick up on the decrease in the square footage of homes, he notes, but the survey was the only place with quantifiable information that proved that home sizes were getting smaller.
“From a media perspective, what’s going on in the market
is really never a huge surprise,” Tinder notes, “but we have the data that
coincides with it and really backs it.”