- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

New home designs reflect the lifestyle of the buyers they are trying to attract, and the new floor plans recently introduced by Washington-area builders tell observers several things about local residents.

Washingtonians want spaces that work for the way people live. They want family foyers to have space for backpacks, school and soccer schedules, sports equipment and everyday shoes.

They also want places to store supplies bought in bulk, and many are looking for practical ways to store containers for recycling and even to accommodate pet needs.

While upscale homes often have had a study at the front of the house that functioned as an additional formal room, such rooms are being placed more often in the center of the house or in a back corner so they can be used for real home office work.

Recognizing that children need a homework center and parents need a place to pay bills and keep current on paperwork, some builders are adding a family office or a home center near the kitchen that can be customized with built-in desks and shelves along with computer and Internet hook-ups.

Besides looking for functionality of work spaces, more and more Washingtonians are choosing homes with first-floor master suites, a trend that is predominant in the South and on the West Coast.

Whether this is in anticipation of the needs of an aging population or simply a lifestyle preference, first-floor master suites are being offered in at least one floor plan in an increasing number of communities. Previously, these were provided mostly in large upscale homes or in active-adult communities.

Homeowners always have looked to their lower level for flexible space to finish to suit the family lifestyle, but builders are recognizing that many families appreciate flexible space on the second level or a loft on the third level that can be finished for casual living space.

Creative outdoor living spaces also are a reflection of consumers looking for new ways to enjoy their homes.

“Historically, residential architecture on the West Coast is always a little bit ahead in new ideas, which take some time to migrate east,” says Mark Leahy, president of Pinnacle Design and Consulting. “What has happened out there is now happening here, which is that people need to be more creative with their use of space when challenged with a land design problem or the rising price of land.

“Some of the changes being made in terms of developing more usable outdoor space and adding more functionality to rooms are a result of solving a land-planning issue,” he says. “Plus, in this area we have model homes built from the lowest to the highest price point, which makes for a free flow of ideas. Consumers and architects can look at a $1.5 million model home and a $200,000 condo in the same day, and you get a cross-pollination of the ideas incorporated into both those places.”

First-floor master suites have long been popular in custom homes, but until recently, they were slow to catch on in the Washington area.

“First-floor master suites are designed into 80 [percent] to 90 percent of our custom homes, but now people are asking for them even in homes that have 3,000 square feet, which is new for this area,” Mr. Leahy says. “This is partially driven by aging baby boomers, but also by buyers with extended families who are looking for a home with two master suites on two different levels.”

Renaissance Homes’ Charles Dickens model, an attached manor home at Kensington Square in Fair Oaks, has a first-floor master suite with a deep bay-window alcove, two walk-in closets and an expansive bath. This model also includes a great room and formal living space in the dining room and living room.

The upper level includes a loft for flexible use, a study and two more bedroom suites. More space is available on the lower level for finishing.

Rocky Gorge Homes is offering a Manor Home at Fairwood in Prince George’s County with a first-floor master suite. This home, known as the Windsor model, includes a great room and dining room on the first floor along with the bedroom suite and center-island kitchen. Upstairs are two more bedrooms, two more full baths, a den or hobby room and a loft overlooking the great room. The finished lower level includes a recreation room, a media room, an exercise room and a full bath.

An advantage of homes with first-floor master suites is that they often create available space on the second level that can be adapted to the family lifestyle.

“In our Arista Collection of homes, we have a plan with a first-floor master suite, which leaves space on the second floor for a children’s retreat, an upstairs family room where the kids can hang out with their friends,” says Janet Howell, vice president of sales and marketing for Brookfield Homes.

“This second level bonus space can be a teenager’s retreat with games, or it can be turned into a nice library or work space with computer equipment.”

Master baths, while nearly always including a tub or whirlpool tub, are evolving into “spa spaces.”

“We’re starting to include as a standard feature oversized showers in the master bath with two shower heads and two entrance doors, like a walk-through shower,” says Roger Rockhill, director of purchasing for Rocky Gorge Homes.

“Buyers can choose to add the optional vertical spa to this shower, which has jets coming out of the walls to spray the whole person at once,” Mr. Rockhill says.

According to Mr. Leahy, “We’re seeing some of the traditional luxury features migrating to less-expensive homes, including such items as juice bars in the master suite, furniture-quality vanities in the master bath, larger showers with seats and his-and-hers vanities, which are part of a drive to his-and-hers bathrooms which we’re seeing in luxury homes.

“We’re designing bathrooms to include larger multihead showers, including some which are so large they don’t even need an enclosure, which we call ‘walk-in’ showers,” he says.

Besides master suites on the first floor, many architects and builders are redesigning the first floor to accommodate the needs of a changing family.

“We’ve designed the family office so that families have a place to keep all those things that used to clutter up the kitchen,” Ms. Howell says.

“The family office is not the same as a study, and it’s not meant to be filled with office furniture. It is designed first of all to be close to the kitchen for convenience and to function as a place to keep everyday things such as bills, soccer schedules, lunch menus and even a baby chair,” she says. “It can function as a work area for the kids. We’re finding that the family office is one option everyone wants to take if they can, at all price points.”

According to Mr. Rockhill, “A big innovation in our new Manor Homes at Fairwood is the concept of a living space we call a home center located off the kitchen. It’s a great place for kids to do homework near where their parents are, plus we’ve shown it with a game area with shelving and cabinetry and a built-in desk which is pre-organized and ready for a computer to be installed.”

Several of the Rocky Gorge Homes floor plans and Brookfield Homes plans include space on the second level for a computer room or loft where built-in desks can be installed and the necessary wiring is already in place.

While family offices and computer spaces are being added to homes, they are not a replacement for a traditional study.

“Studies and libraries are now used as home offices, where in the past they were almost a checklist item, a formal space that every home above a certain price range had to have,” Mr. Leahy says. “Now that this is a more functional space, we’re moving them to the back of the house where they fit in with the less formal living spaces.

“In some larger homes we put them near a driveway or garage so a separate entrance can be added for someone who wants to run a business from home,” he says.

Besides family offices, many builders are improving on the traditional mudroom with a family foyer, often accessible from the outside of the house in addition to a garage entrance.

“In our Chadwick model at Silverbrook Farms, we designed the family foyer to be accessible from the front porch as well as the garage, recognizing that kids coming home from school won’t usually come through the garage,” Ms. Howell says.

“The family foyer functions as a place to drop off backpacks, umbrellas, jackets, soccer balls, shoes and all the stuff that you don’t want cluttering a formal foyer,” she says.

According to Mr. Leahy, “Before, most people had a cramped mudroom combined with a laundry room which was also the entrance from the garage to the house. Now people realize that they can use this space every day for closets and storage and move the laundry room to the second level.

“At the higher-end homes, we are custom-building banks of lockers and cubbies for sports equipment and shoes and developing storage systems for the owners,” Mr. Leahy says.

Equity Homes’ new Newport model, to be available at many of the company’s Washington area locations, includes a rear foyer entrance with access from the outside and the garage.

Besides a standard closet, this area has a separate mudroom with plenty of space for built-in cabinets.

At Rocky Gorge Homes, the architects have designed something they call a “Costco closet” off the garage.

“We’re looking into bigger closets between the garage and the kitchen for storing the bulk products people like to buy,” Mr. Rockhill says. “It’s not a space to work in like the home center, but a practical space for extra storage.”

Brookfield Homes has added recycling centers to some of its model homes to accommodate this practical necessity.

“We call them ‘clean-and-green spaces,’” Ms. Howell says. “In our Arista Series homes, we have three different places to recycle, including cabinet areas with built-in bins.”

Brookfield Homes offers an optional “doggie center” in the firm’s single-family homes that can be customized for a place to wash the family pets and feed them, too.

Brookfield Homes occasionally uses focus groups to help the company make decisions about including options such as pet centers, and it also listens to buyers in the design center who share what they like most about their new home and what they would like to change.

“We try to bring down to midpriced homes more options that are traditionally only available on larger homes,” Ms. Howell says. “In our Arista collection homes, which are about 2,600 to 3,200 square feet, we are trying to have some separation of the rooms and to keep some formal rooms in the plan.

“We made the homes shallow in the front and H-shaped in the back so the family room can be expanded,” she says. “There’s only room for one staircase, but we designed it pushed back so it can function as a rear staircase as well as the formal staircase. The challenge then is to make sure you still have some glamour in the foyer, which we do by adding trim and … symmetry or, sometimes, [by] taking away the symmetry.”

According to Mr. Leahy, “The level of attention to details and quality in the fit-and-finish of all aspects of the home is definitely a trend, and we’re noticing many builders devoting more attention to the architectural detailing and historic accuracy of some of their designs. It’s all part of figuring out how to take a Manila envelope and turn it into something more exciting.”

The level of finish is particularly changing in the lower level, a space many owners in the past have chosen to leave unfinished or simply finished with one large recreation room.

“Builders and consumers are now doing more elaborate things with their lower levels, adding billiard rooms and executive clubrooms, wine cellars and saunas,” Mr. Leahy says. “Wet bars used to be a cabinet and sink stuck in a corner, but now they are becoming almost half the size of kitchens, with furniture-quality cabinets and upscale appliances, including ice makers and microwaves.”

At Rocky Gorge Homes, Mr. Rockhill says, “We have a contractor who designs and installs specialized home theater and audio equipment and does structured wiring for our lower-level media rooms, and we find a lot of our clients are choosing to build this equipment into their homes either in the recreation room or a separate media room.”

Mr. Leahy says he believes lower-level media rooms are on the wane.

“Although some people are choosing to put in media rooms on the lower level, as the technology changes, more consumers are choosing to put big-screen televisions in the recreation room or even in the main-level family room. It used to be that you needed a dark room and space for projection equipment, but now you can have a sound system and flat-screen television almost anywhere.

“People are realizing they don’t want to be isolated from the rest of the house in a separate media room,” he says.

Lower levels have often been the traditional location for an in-law or nanny suite, but some builders are designing flexible spaces for these suites on other levels. For example, Brookfield Homes’ Chadwick model, available at Silverbrook Farms, has a versatile bonus space that can be built over the garage.

“We try to design what we call ‘rooms for life,’ which work for whatever stage a family is in,” Ms. Howell says. “We designed the Chadwick model with a staircase leading from the family foyer directly into this bonus bedroom suite, which can work well for a nanny when the children are small, a teenager, an in-law suite, or even a boomerang space for adult children who need to live at home again. This room can also function as a secluded home office if a family needs that. It’s located a few steps below the main upper level, has a walk-in closet and a full bath, and even has space for adding a kitchenette.”

The Chadwick model with this bonus room has four other bedrooms on the upper level, three other full baths and an open playroom with a closet that also functions as flexible space for the different stages in a family’s life.

Some of Brookfield Homes’ customers have chosen to take advantage of the company’s optional package of universal design features that can make life easier during the later stages of life.

“We’ve incorporated a number of features which make life easier for people with arthritis and back problems and some which could make adjustments easier for a wheelchair-bound family member,” Ms. Howell says.

“A lot of these things also are convenient for families with young children, too, though,” she says. “For instance, we can install light switches a little lower and the low outlets a little higher and add rocker panels for all the light switches. Things like making the bathroom counters a little higher can help people with back problems, and so can elevating the washer and dryer. Nothing about these adjustments would be objectionable to anyone else in the household, but it can make life a little easier, especially for elderly family members. A house with these modifications could work at any stage of life.”

People at every stage of life enjoy spending time outdoors in pleasant weather, and while lot sizes may be shrinking because of land shortages and higher prices, builders are finding innovative ways to increase livable outdoor spaces.

“We’re adding verandas more often off master suites, plus covered porches and screened porches below them on the main level,” Ms. Howell says. “People can often use these spaces eight months of the year, especially in the Washington area where the winters are usually short. We’re often adding outdoor space on all three levels, making it part of the architecture of the house.”

According to Mr. Leahy, “Some of the ideas we are incorporating into our homes here started on the West Coast, where the high land prices encouraged architects to find ways to create inviting outdoor living space even on a small lot.

“We’ve designed courtyards into the homes instead of back yards, designed back yards or side yards to hold resistance swimming pools or lap pools instead of full-size pools; plus, we are putting porches, balconies and even rooftop terraces on our homes,” he says. “Some places have two-level terraces off the master suite and family room, and we’ve even started putting French balconies, almost a New Orleans-style narrow space with a railing, on some of our new homes.”

Equity Homes’ Ashleigh model, to be offered at many of the company’s Washington area communities, features an optional covered veranda off the master-suite sitting room, with a rear sunroom addition off the breakfast area below.

The search for more living space also has encouraged builders to offer optional finished attics and lofts that can be used for bedroom and bath space or just as flexible living space that can change as the family lifestyle adjusts.

Flexible spaces that can function for work or play are becoming checklist items in themselves as consumers visit more model homes and discover their own need for a home center or an upstairs library or family room.

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