- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2000

Once, a center-island kitchen, a two-story foyer, a soaking tub in the master bath and 9-foot ceilings were enough to make a new-home buyer gasp. Today's consumers have higher expectations, and builders are striving to meet their needs and desires with new designs and improvements on the old designs.

"Builders are constantly trying to come up with something different, something that will catch the buyer's eye," says Debbie Rosenstein, president of Rosenstein, Baker Associates of McLean.

"What's new these days is that both kitchens and bathrooms are becoming even more dramatic, with new configurations, more upscale materials and more high-tech appliances."

Whether people are actually cooking more is unknown, but clearly buyers are acknowledging that the kitchen is not only the center of family life, but it is also where lots of casual entertaining takes place.

"Kitchens are becoming a place to live more than a place to cook," Miss Rosenstein says. "Fireplaces are turning up more often in kitchens. And the rooms are starting to look like movie sets, with granite counters, beautiful tile backsplashes, built-in warming trays, refrigerators just for wine storage, two dishwashers and high-tech lighting.

"The desk functions are expanding into little command centers with room for a computer and space that can be utilized as a catering center when entertaining.

"A lot of buyers are choosing commercial-grade appliances and then softening the look with lighter cabinets and islands," she says.

At Equity Homes, Bob Fitton II, executive vice president, explains, "Kitchens are becoming more of a functional gathering place, so the focus is more on looks and aesthetics. Center islands are becoming huge, and, instead of functioning as an old-fashioned chopping block, they are being used as a gathering space for family and friends to sit around. Kitchen cabinets are looking more and more like furniture, with higher quality wood."

Jim Pohlhaus, design manager for the Custom Design Program of Winchester Homes, works with buyers every day to customize their homes.

"People are choosing more decorative features for their kitchens, including putting turned legs and posts on the center island, putting in maple cabinets, hardwood flooring and granite counter tops," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "Lots of buyers are spending as much as $15,000 to $16,000 for granite counters.

"Custom-designed kitchen islands are the focal point of the kitchen, and about 70 percent of people choose to put granite on the island even if they don't put it anywhere else."

Winchester Homes recently introduced its "Extra Touches" program, which will be included as standard features. Each Winchester Homes community will have its own "Extra Touches" package, which will include some or all of the available features.

The Kitchen Convenience Package includes a tilt-out sponge tray, a hideaway garbage can, sliding cabinet trays, a kitchen towel bar and a spice organizer.

The Laundry Convenience Package features a laundry sink, utility shelf and a backpack rack.

Miss Rosenstein says buyers want larger laundry rooms with more space to work in and more storage space. Mr. Pohlhaus has also noticed this trend.

"Over the past six months, I've had more and more people pay attention to the details in the laundry room. People really want big laundry rooms, with a separate cabinet and counter-top section where they can store things and fold clothes, and part of a wall used for a fold-out ironing board or at least space to set one up," he says. "People want a closet within the laundry room and they always want a large window, too."

Master bedrooms and baths

Besides kitchens and laundry rooms, master bathrooms and master bedrooms are another focus of today's buyers. Separate showers and soaking tubs are becoming standard features in most upscale homes built these days, and are an optional feature on nearly every home, including many condominiums and town homes.

"Master baths are becoming even more dramatic these days, with the added component of his-and-hers sections, in addition to shared space," Miss Rosenstein says.

"Builders are adding a niche for a TV in the bath and even fireplaces are now placed there. Master bedroom suites are getting bigger, and more and more often you see the sitting room separated from the bedroom, rather than just an alcove off the main room. Decks off the master bedroom or the hall are becoming more popular too, so people can enjoy outdoor space on the upper level."

Miller & Smith has designed floor plans at several locations, including the Regents Collection at Lakelands in Montgomery County, with the master suite covering an entire level of the home.

"We've dropped the ceiling about 3-inches on the edges of the master suite so we could add elaborate moldings for a more dramatic effect," says Rhonda Ellisor, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Miller & Smith.

Equity Homes is building a model home with a master bath that includes his-and-hers showers with a soaking tub in the middle.

"We're also using a lot of glass-block walls as shower partitions" and even as bathroom walls, Mr. Fitton says, because that "lets in a lot of filtered light and yet allows for privacy. We're offering many homes now with three bathrooms as a standard feature, and in most of our new home designs, we offer a second powder room off the kitchen or laundry room in addition to a more formal powder room for guests."

At Winchester Homes, many buyers are choosing to expand the master suite with not only a sitting room, but a separate dressing room between the bedroom and the bathroom.

"People like to have an extra vanity in the dressing room, and we usually add a mirrored closet so people can see themselves in a two-way mirror," Mr. Pohlhaus says.

"People also want coffee bars these days in the master bedroom, with a cabinet and counter top similar to an upscale hotel. That way they don't have to go downstairs first thing in the morning."

Extra styling in homes

Hotel-style luxury is found on the main level of homes these days, too, where traditional crown moldings and windows are becoming even more elaborate and upscale.

"Designer elements are coming off the counter tops and floors and onto the walls and ceilings," says Sue Martinez, director of sales and marketing for Edgemoore Homes. "We're doing unique wall and ceiling treatments that go beyond the traditional moldings and coffered ceilings, and putting decorative wood trim along the walls, which creates an almost baronial look. Wainscoting and medallions are being used to add interest to the walls, and we're using more wood trim and beams on the ceilings, too."

Edgemoore Homes also has created new window designs to let in more light in interesting ways, such as a circular pattern of windows on the Briarcliff model, a home priced from the mid-$700,000s at Carrington in Tysons Corner.

Ten-foot ceilings on the main level are becoming more common in upscale homes, and many builders, such as Equity Homes at Lloyds Estates in Alexandria, are putting in 9-foot ceilings on the lower level.

While ceilings are being raised to create an upward expansion, builders are also offering buyers outward expansion and flexible spaces that can be used in a variety of ways.

"I'm getting a lot of requests for accommodations for in-laws for both full-time use and weekend visits," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "In one house, we took a solarium, a powder room and a study and converted the space to a full bath, bedroom and living area for the in-laws on the weekends. During the week, the living area could still be used as a sun room. This kind of flexible space can be used later on for kids who are away at college and need a place for vacations."

Flexibility is key

Flexibility is the appeal of the "Greg Brady" loft option offered by Miller & Smith at Belmont Greene in Loudoun County.

"We'll be offering buyers space on the third level that they can use for a bedroom, a media room or anything in these new town homes," Ms. Ellisor says. "In these same homes, which are 32-foot-wide town homes with a two-car garage at the rear, buyers can convert one part of the garage to a first-floor master suite."

Miller & Smith offers a flexible third-floor space in its 18-foot wide town homes, as well, including the Regents Series at Lakelands in Montgomery County and at Cameron Station in Alexandria.

"Lots of people are adding to their family rooms and breakfast rooms," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "It seems like they can't ever be too big. I had one family insist the family room had to be at least 20-feet by 20-feet to accommodate their furniture and to have space for entertaining. Breakfast rooms are now being made large enough for space for desks and other furniture, such as a hutch or an antique item to blend with the kitchen and family room furniture. Bump-outs of 4-feet or so are becoming popular to add on all three levels. One of our customers was able to add a fifth bedroom by using a bump-out on one of our designs. I've seen some requests for art studios and woodworking shops or pottery studios to be placed in flexible space in the lower level."

Workshops and home offices often require special wiring, another area where builders are accommodating their customer's needs.

"With all the high-tech buyers in our area, builders are getting more and more requests for special wiring, including having music piped in every room along with Internet access," Miss Rosenstein says.

Brookfield Homes has installed state-of-the art "Category 5" wiring in its two new neighborhoods at the Lakes at Red Rock in Loudoun. Homeowners will be able to enjoy studio-quality television throughout the home, static-free telephone service, up to four incoming telephone numbers and high-speed Internet access. Infrastructure will be in place for future services, and the entire community can be interactive with the Lakes at Red Rock Community Network.

Equity Homes includes its "Home Safe Home" program in every home it builds, which includes fire escape ladders, wired-in smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, safety lights that come on if the power fails, fire extinguishers, rounded corners on all cabinets and counters, and a flush hearth to avoid a tripping hazard.

While all of these interior design changes make life more comfortable for homeowners, changes are also taking place on the outside of homes.

"In response to the high cost of land, Miller & Smith is designing new products that are narrower and deeper," Ms. Ellisor says. "At the same time, as the population gets older, we're designing homes both detached and attached that appeal to empty nesters. For example, at Belmont Bay in Prince William County, we are building attached homes with interior courtyards so that at least two of the walls of the house are glass, and we've created a huge master suite that takes up most of the second floor."

Miller & Smith and other builders are also designing wider town homes that offer town home convenience and low maintenance, along with the feel of a single-family home.

At Belmont Greene in Loudoun, Miller & Smith has designed 32-foot-wide town homes with a two-car garage in the rear. The exterior resembles a single-family home, and the tandem-style garages create privacy for the rear of the house.

Larger and wider garages are being offered by Equity Homes, in part to accommodate the popularity of suburban utility vehicles.

"We're expanding our two-car garage so that people can use the space for storage or for a larger car," Mr. Fitton says. "Sometimes we are deepening the garage to create a tandem effect on at least one section so it becomes a three-car garage without requiring as much land as a standard, side-loading, three-car garage."

Location, location, location

The cost and location of land for building homes have a major impact on all builders.

Eakin/Youngentob Associates has been innovative in transforming small parcels of land in both the District and in close-in suburban Virginia into distinctive housing developments.

"Our company focus has been to build homes in urban locations to provide people with the ability to walk to Metro, to restaurants and even to work, sometimes," says Julie Dillon, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Eakin/ Youngentob.

"We've tried to take existing neighborhoods and revitalize them with new housing, such as at 13th and V Streets, Northwest, where we're selling town homes at Harrison Square. We've already sold 45 of these homes, which were first priced in the $240,000s and have already gone up to the $280,000s."

Eakin/Youngentob is also building brick town houses at Capitol Square on the waterfront in Southwest, where prices have quickly risen from the $240,000s to the $300,000s and 60 homes have already been sold.

"We don't take the product off the shelf, but instead, our company builds homes that suit the surrounding area," Ms. Dillon says. "We take time with the architecture and make sure it blends into the existing neighborhood, and that it will also suit the buyer in that neighborhood. We try to offer buyers homes that have everything available in a suburban home, and, at least for the location, is reasonably priced."

While Eakin/Youngentob is designing homes to fit an existing neighborhood, several developers in the area are creating entirely new communities with a distinctive style.

At King Farm in Rockville, Lakelands in Gaithersburg and Belmont Greene in Loudoun County, builders are creating "neotraditional" communities based on the "new urbanism" theory that old-fashioned street scapes bring people closer together.

"People are often buying a neighborhood as much as a house," Ms. Ellisor says. "They want a 'homey' look and so many builders are putting homes closer to the street and making the streets themselves narrower."

At King Farm, all single-family homes and town homes feature rear-entry garages so that the homes can be built closer to the street, and many feature front porches. Single-family homes are mixed with town homes, condominiums, apartments, retail spaces and offices, all intermingled with parks and jogging trails. This old-fashioned neighborhood is within walking distance of shops, restaurants and the Rockville Metro station.

Home prices at King Farm start in the $300,000s for single-family homes, from $200,000 for town homes and from $150,000 for condominiums.

At Lakelands in Gaithersburg, Natelli Communities has arranged narrow streets with sidewalks in a traditional grid pattern to minimize the effects of traffic and allow residents to walk to the shops and restaurants of Market Square. Single-family homes here are base priced from $285,900 to $329,990. Town homes are priced from $224,900 to $246,900. Single-family "Downtown Cottages," offered by Main Street Homes, are priced from $167,900. Condominiums are priced from $156,990.

At Belmont Greene, the first neotraditional neighborhood planned for Loudoun, five builders are offering homes priced from the low-to-mid $100,000s to the $310,000s, including condominiums, town houses and single-family homes.

"We are proud to announce a stellar lineup of builders who will create new home designs reflecting Belmont Greene's 'new urbanism' concept," says Jan A. Zachariasse, president of Waterford Development Inc. "With rear-entry garages and spacious front porches close to the street, homes in TND [traditional neighborhood design] communities are designed to facilitate interaction among neighbors and create a true sense of place that is reminiscent of the small towns of yesteryear."

Belmont Greene's mix of uses (including office and retail development), pedestrian walkways and trails, and village-style land plan is designed to reduce dependency on the automobile while providing an enhanced quality of life for people living and working in the Dulles high-tech corridor.

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