- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

Designing homes for the convenience of the people who will live in them seems like a fairly obvious and simple concept, but it is actually somewhat new. For decades, buyers chose homes for their glamour factor, thinking they wanted to live in the style of people they had seen on television or in magazines.

"How many people saw Alexis Carrington on 'Dynasty' in that giant bubble bath sipping champagne and then decided they needed a giant soaking tub just like hers?" asks Randy Creaser, president of Creaser/O'Brien Architects in Gaithersburg.

"The buying public was influenced by that show, but now that oversized soaking tubs have become standard features and everyone has had one, they realize they don't use them very much," he says. "In custom homes, which is often where the ideas are generated for production homes, buyers are starting to ask for a very nice shower instead of a soaking tub. Now we're starting to put the soaking tub into floor plans as an option, with the standard luxury bath having a large, multihead shower and plenty of separate his-and-hers spaces."

Some other features that homeowners have discovered are less fun to live with include two-story family rooms and those two-story foyers with no real function. Besides modifying designs for all types of homes, architects today are allowing buyers greater flexibility in how they use certain spaces.

"Flexible spaces in homes are meant to be available to buyers to fit their lifestyle," Mr. Creaser says. "For instance, some of the homes we designed for Miller and Smith include a great room and a large kitchen in the back of the house with a room up front, which could be used as a large dining room, a living room or a home office. Flexible designs let people customize their homes at the production level."

According to architect Mark Leahy, president of Pinnacle Design and Consulting in Fairfax, "In the larger single-family homes, especially, we're designing lots of bonus spaces, flex spaces and 'buddy studies' for the kids to use upstairs.

"With very open first-floor spaces, where do the kids go with their toys and things?" he asks.

Carlyn Guarnieri, chief executive officer of Carlyn and Co. Interior Design in Great Falls, Va., specializes in designing model homes for new residential construction projects and sees flexible spaces as important in all price ranges and all areas of the house.

"On the second floor, buyers like the option of opening one bedroom up to the hallway to use as a home office or as a kids' homework space," she says. "Sometimes there are bonus rooms over the garage or even with a separate staircase for extra privacy that can be used for these purposes. Even in small homes and apartments, we're putting in a 'pocket office' or desk space tucked into a transition area, a corner or an upstairs hallway. This type of flexible use of space transcends all different price ranges."

Besides upper-level homework centers, builders are designing more functionality into what used to be a drab hallway between a garage and a kitchen. Recognizing that more people enter their home through their garage than through the front door, designers have created "family foyers" where residents can leave their belongings.

"The convenience of everyday living becomes even more important when life becomes as busy as it is for people today," Mr. Creaser says. "People are looking for ways to make their lives more organized and convenient. They need places to put sports equipment, backpacks, mail, coats and all the extra stuff they buy when they buy in bulk.

"Family foyers with built-in storage bins and shelves serve this function, and so do secondary pantries built inside or adjacent to the garage," he says.

Ms. Guarnieri adds that "finally people are getting real about how they live and recognizing that a space off the garage with lockers and hooks and a place to recharge the cell phone makes sense."

This translates into homes with fewer two-story spaces.

"Most homes now have 9- or 10-foot-high ceilings on the main level and upstairs, too, so people don't feel the need as much for volume ceilings," Mr. Leahy says. "People don't like the noise and the lack of coziness in two-story spaces, although two-story foyers are still around in a lot of designs.

"People are also choosing to close off the two-story family room because they want the function of a computer room or a playroom upstairs, or a media room. In the upper price points, buyers often want more bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs, too," Mr. Leahy says.

While most buyers recognize that the room they use least in the home is the formal living room, only a few models are available without a living room at all. Rather, builders are making the living room smaller and allowing buyers to choose to convert the space for other uses, if desired.

"People want to be able to adapt their home to changes for their entire life," Mr. Creaser says. "So some people are creating a game room or family activity room out of the living room so that they use the space more.

"One custom home we've designed recently doesn't have a living room, at all, but instead has a very large library with walls of bookcases and display cases, a high ceiling and lots of dramatic big windows," he says. "The room functions as a place to visit with friends in small groupings of seating arrangements, yet it works as a home office, too."

Ms. Guarnieri often decorates living rooms in model homes with a wet bar and game table along with the more traditional seating arrangements. While the living room is shrinking and morphing into other forms, the dining room is the one formal room in the home that is least likely to change.

"The dining room is important and will stay that way," Ms. Guarnieri says. "It's the last formal room for traditional communal activity and is actually getting a little larger."

While formal entertaining is the exclusive domain of the dining room, kitchens are being designed to accommodate their true function as a gathering place for everyday life and informal entertaining.

"People like to entertain in their kitchens, and they want drama," Mr. Creaser says. "We're designing more kitchens with vaulted ceilings, overlooks and dormer windows, and transom windows placed above cabinets or between the cabinets and the counters.

"There's more of a variety in kitchen cabinets now, too, with European-style sleek cabinets, painted cabinets, and even some 'distressed'-look cabinets. These are becoming showpieces in themselves and not just holders for dishes and glasses anymore," he says.

Ms. Guarnieri says the emphasis on the kitchen as a social area is growing.

"Kitchens are getting warmer in terms of wood tones, which are more often textured or distressed," she says. "We're not seeing as much white or clear maple but more glazed and textured woods. Stainless steel appliances are very popular, too, along with professional grade appliances in the higher-end homes."

The emphasis in single-family homes remains on the back of the house, where most of the day-to-day living takes place. While open kitchens, breakfast areas and family rooms are still popular, some floor plans offer a little more definition or even separation of these rooms.

"We're breaking up the space on some homes by creating a corner breakfast area which can be more of a morning room," Mr. Leahy says.

Mr. Creaser points out that "the kitchen and family room are less open in some homes today. Recognizing the way people like to live, entertainment centers and media equipment are being put in the family room. This means the room needs to be a little quieter and more separate from the kitchen.

"In some larger homes, we're making the family room slightly smaller than it used to be, but it becomes more of a media room with lots of comfortable seating. Then a great room is put in near the kitchen with a fireplace, for a space for talking and entertaining," Mr. Creaser says.

Mr. Leahy notes that "the most popular options buyers are choosing right now include 'blowing out the back' of the house to add even more space, with sunroom additions and even just room extensions. This part of the house is where people live and spend most of their time, so that's where they choose to expand the space."

While single-family homes offer the most opportunities for expanding the back of the house, town homes also are evolving.

A three-level sunroom addition is a commonly available option, and town homes generally are beginning to have expanded living space similar to a single-family home.

"Nine- and 10-foot-high ceilings on the lower two levels and vaulted ceilings upstairs are more and more common in town homes," Mr. Leahy says. "In order to maximize the space, the main level will be almost totally open with almost no walls, and a three-level extension will enlarge the recreation room and the kitchen area and offer the possibility of a master suite sitting area or a larger luxury bath.

"The town homes that Craftmark and Craftstar are building have a finished fourth-level master suite, and other town homes often have a fourth-level loft as an option," he says.

Master bedrooms and bathrooms are the second area in the home, after the kitchen and family room, where buyers want to spend their time and money.

"The big, vacuous bedrooms we've seen in the past are starting to get a little smaller," Mr. Creaser says. "People don't always feel they have to have a sitting room if they have a library or a home office on the upper level. A lot of people would rather have a bedroom with space for furniture in it but not a half-mile hike to the bathroom.

"People want spaciousness yet intimacy, expansiveness yet comfort, so designers need to make a careful balance of functionality and visual expansiveness," he says.

Mr. Leahy notes that "master bedroom suites and master baths seem to be getting more and more elaborate, with his-and-hers walk-in closets and his-and-hers bathrooms. Even though people are turning away from the giant soaking tubs and now want more dramatic large showers, people are still keeping the soaking tubs because they are worried about the resale value of their house.

"Another trend is that secondary baths are getting more square footage. People want larger vanities and more floor space in these bathrooms," he says.

"I think we're finally seeing the end of the '80s," Ms. Guarnieri says. "People are being more practical and value-driven, so they're starting to take out these huge tubs and putting in these 'drive-through' showers with multiple shower heads instead."

First-floor master suites are being offered in at least one model in more and more communities, the designers say.

"Definitely, there are a lot of people in their third or fourth move-up who want a first-floor master suite," Mr. Creaser says, "but there are other buyers who are sort of defiant and want to keep it upstairs. You need to make the master suite feel as if it's not just a door off the foyer, and it needs to feel private. Putting the master suite around a corner or accessed through a sequence of doors makes it feel as if it's not in a public part of the house.

"The problem is that in order to do this, you need to increase the footprint of the house, which makes it more expensive per square foot," he says.

One way to expand the living space on a homesite is to finish the attic.

"Attics are making a resurgence because people are trying to maximize the square-footage of the lot," Mr. Leahy says. "Usually, it's designed as a bedroom, bathroom and loft space for teenagers or as a guest suite."

"The William L. Berry Co. built what they called 'The Town House Alternative' at Ashburn and River Creek without basements, and instead made walk-in attic levels," Mr. Creaser says. "They were extremely popular because people were thrilled with the flexibility. The attic could serve as storage space with a cedar closet, or as an activities room for the family."

Living space also can be maximized by finishing the lower level, a space that continues to offer plenty of possibilities.

"Lower levels are gaining a higher level of finish, with 9- and 10-foot ceilings and more windows and transoms to maximize the glass," Mr. Leahy says. "The high ceilings and the windows make the rooms feel less like a basement. Home theaters and media rooms are still popular, and people are making the bar areas more elaborate. People like to put in an exercise room, a game room, and a bedroom and full bath."

While media rooms may be a modern innovation, today's buyers are also revealing a trace of nostalgia for old-fashioned elements in their homes.

"Architectural details like window seats, porches, and a more gracious transition from one space to the next, such as a breezeway between the house and the garage, are all part of people's memories of how home used to feel," Ms. Guarnieri says. "There's an emphasis on comfort and convenience, with all the built-in bookcases, entertainment centers and media niches."

Another trend identified by Ms. Guarnieri is an interest in lighting packages.

"A lot of the lighting available is getting better and people are recognizing what lighting can do to enhance a home," she says. "Builders are offering more upgraded lighting packages as an option and including things like pendant lighting in the kitchen, wall sconces in the foyer and the dining room, and special lighting in the bathroom."

In addition to making lighting improvements, builders are doing a better job of integrating technology into the home, Ms. Guarnieri says.

"Builders are finally creating spaces to accommodate recharging a cell phone or a laptop, putting computer desks near the kitchen and designing media niches to make it easier to plug in the entertainment systems everyone has," she says.

While designers and builders are modifying homes to reflect the needs and desires of buyers for media niches, family foyers and sybaritic showers, their designs are also influenced by land planning needs.

"The land planning aspect driving architecture is becoming more and more important as no-growth sentiments increase and put pressure on the developers," Mr. Leahy says. "We've recently designed a duplex product for Brookfield Homes at Braemar which is attached only at the garage, so it looks like a single-family home from the street.

"A major focus is the garage placement, especially now that three-car garages are more common. We're moving the garage to the side or the back of the house with a rear entry or alley entry, and sometimes even moving it to the front of the house to create a courtyard effect and to make the streetscape less regimented," he says.

Streetscapes and curb appeal are important elements to home designs, but buyers often focus even more on the inside of their home.

"People are really looking for houses to be more comfortable," Mr. Creaser says. "There may be a little bit of pretentiousness still on the outside of the house, but not inside anymore."

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