- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Small changes in design can sometimes make a big difference in the way a home feels to its residents and visitors. Dramatic differences in home design often are readily apparent in custom homes. Yet production homes — designed to be built by larger companies many times in one or more subdivisions — tend to be tweaked with details that create greater appeal or function.

These details might not be new or even different, but increasingly, they are making a difference in the new homes being built in Virginia communities. Yesterday’s option is becoming today’s standard feature as builders react to customers’ desires.

“Everything in architecture is sort of evolutionary, not revolutionary,” says Mark Leahy, architect and president of Pinnacle Design and Consulting. “Production builders are trying to keep up with the competition, so when they see something that buyers want, they’ll add it into their own designs.

“Builders can track some of the optional choices that buyers choose, and they can eventually influence what details become standard features,” Mr. Leahy says.

For example, a few years ago, 9-foot ceilings were optional or were standard only in more expensive homes.

“Ten-foot-high ceilings are often standard features in homes today, and 9-foot ceiling heights are more and more common on the upper and lower levels,” Mr. Leahy says. “People like the feeling of space they get with higher ceilings.”

Speaking of space, garages are getting bigger, too.

“Three-car garages are being built almost across the board where they can be fit onto a lot,” Mr. Leahy says. “Typically now, though, lots are deeper and not always wide enough to accommodate a three-car garage. In that case, we’ve designed a split garage, which has a two-car side-loading garage plus a one-car garage facing the street. This creates a more attractive streetscape without all those garage doors facing out, and it creates an L-shaped space with the driveway.”

Miller and Smith is building homes with this garage configuration at Vint Hill in Fauquier County and at Victory Lakes in Prince William County.

“The split-garage design creates a courtyard environment for the front of the home, plus an angled entrance into the home with a space for a big, covered front porch,” says Patti Wynkoop, director of product development for Miller and Smith. “You have an angled exterior and an angled interior created by the three-car garage layout, which has side-entrance single bay and a two-car portion facing the front.

“But the other big advantage to this particular design at Vint Hill is that you can convert the single-garage portion to a first-floor guest suite with a bedroom, a full bath and a walk-in closet if you want,” she says.

While the addition of three-car garages may be changing the exterior layout of single-family homes in Virginia, the relaxation of design rules regarding stairs is affecting the interiors of homes.

The Washington area is known for its traditional homes, particularly center-hall Colonial-style floor plans, but consumers are welcoming new floor plans that incorporate stairs in a variety of ways. Moving the main staircase changes the configuration of a home on all three levels.

“All the rules have changed when it comes to stairs, and now we see them on end walls, in the middle of a home or on the side walls,” Mr. Leahy says. “Now it doesn’t matter at all, as long as it functions OK.

“In homes with 3,200 to 3,400 square feet or more, we’re getting requests for split stairs, which load from the front of the house and also load from the back of the house,” Mr. Leahy says. “If this cannot be accomplished, buyers want a second rear staircase leading to the upper level.”

At Lansdowne on the Potomac in Loudoun County, Centex Homes’ Huntley model includes a curving central staircase leading to the upper level, while a staircase on a side wall near the garage connects to both the upper and lower levels.

Often architects are redesigning the stairs leading to the lower level so this area becomes more of a part of the rest of the house rather than an afterthought.

“People are using their lower levels more and more, so they want to make this space seem more connected to the rest of the house,” Mr. Leahy says.

“We’re taking the door off the lower-level stairs, adding more interesting open railings and paying more attention to how the stairs enter the basement,” he says. “One of the tricks we’re experimenting with is turning the stairs with platforms and landings so that you end up facing into the recreation room instead of facing the back of the house. It helps incorporate more of the house into normal everyday living space.”

In M/I Homes’ Augusta II model at Beacon Hill in Loudoun County, a curving staircase placed in the center of the house leads to the upper and lower levels and opens into the center of the recreation room.

In Beazer Homes’ Dalton model, which will be available later this year at Sully Manor in Fairfax, the staircase has been placed on a side wall with landings, which allows the lower level to be entered in the center of the recreation room and media room.

A more unusual use of stairs and landings has been designed into the Christopher Cos.’ Providence model at Hampton Estates in Fairfax County. In this home, a split, curving staircase leads from the center of the main level to a large library.

“The library has been placed on a midlevel, sort of a landing between the first and second floor,” says Debbie Rosenstein, president of Rosenstein Research Associates and director of sales and marketing for Christopher Cos. “This model is an upscale home which will be built on a large lot, so it has space for this staircase and library as well as a second staircase leading to the upper and lower levels.”

Libraries and studies traditionally were placed in the front of a home and decorated as formal, visible space appropriate for entertaining, but most architects today place them in a more private location.

“Libraries have really become home offices, and people really want them to be functional,” Mr. Leahy says. “They are usually placed in a rear corner of the house so they can be more private and separated from the flow of traffic.”

In Beazer Homes’ Newcastle model, available this summer at Sully Manor, the study has been placed in the corner and is accessible only through double doors from the living room.

In M/I Homes’ Augusta II model, a large library has been placed in a corner between the family room and a powder room, although a see-through fireplace links the library with the family room. This library can be personalized with bay windows and bookshelves or even with two walls of windows for a sunroom effect.

Architects are adding more and more windows to homes whenever possible.

“The back walls of some homes are becoming almost transparent,” Mr. Leahy says. “We’re seeing great expanses of glass across the back of the house, but in some cases, there are fewer windows on the sides of the house because the lots are narrow and the homes are closer together.

“Sometimes we’ll add higher windows on side walls so you get light and yet still have privacy,” he says.

The Christopher Cos. Providence model features a wall of windows in the family room, with the adjacent breakfast area bumped out into a deep bay for additional windows.

In NVHomes’ Mount Vernon model at Wolftrap Run in Fairfax County, the entire back of the house has walls of windows, including some two-story windows in the family room.

Besides the additional windows in the back of the house, builders also offer optional enlargement space in this area.

“Lots are often narrower, so builders cannot extend the living space of the home on the sides, so they offer the ability to expand off the back of the house with a sunroom, a morning room, a conservatory or just a bump-out of the family room and breakfast area,” Mr. Leahy says.

In the Hylton Group’s Blake II model at Hampton Park in Prince William County, buyers can extend the family room and the breakfast room and add a morning room as well as a deck.

Kitchens have grown increasingly larger in proportion to the rest of the home in recent years. Yet buyers seem to want them even bigger.

“Kitchens just can’t be big enough,” Mr. Leahy says. “People want more counter space and larger appliances, so now we tend to pair up the tall elements in the back of the kitchen plan so they are less noticeable. Center islands are still there, too, but we’re seeing a big push away from island cooktops. The trend is to keep the island free of appliances and just include a second sink.”

At Centex Homes’ Huntley model at Lansdowne on the Potomac, the center-island kitchen opens to a breakfast area and includes arched openings to a keeping room that further expands the casual living space of the kitchen.

Similarly, the Christopher Cos. Providence model at Hampton Estates has an open hearth room and breakfast room open to the kitchen, so friends and family can be together with plenty of space.

Even as kitchens get larger and consumers still demand open floor plans on the main level, builders are responding to the desire among some buyers for more defined rooms.

“Builders today are interested in creating a real space without necessarily putting walls around it,” Ms. Wynkoop says. “Some creative ways architects are defining space are with ceiling treatments and varied ceiling heights, a pilaster or a niche or adding a bulkhead or even a window seat to define a separate space.”

According to Mr. Leahy, “While open floor plans are still popular, we’re doing a little more compartmentalization now. For instance, instead of two columns defining the dining room and living room, we’re adding arches and thickening up the walls a little to create more separation of the spaces.”

In NVHomes’ Mount Vernon model, the family room has a two-story ceiling while the adjacent kitchen and breakfast room have a one-level ceiling, and the breakfast room has been bumped out from the rest of the house in a nearly separate octagonal-shape for greater definition.

In Beazer Homes’ Dalton model, available in summer 2004 at Sully Manor, the kitchen has a narrower configuration with access to the adjacent family room and to a large bay-windowed breakfast room.

One other change in many new homes is the movement of the laundry room from the main level to the bedroom level.

“In 70 to 80 percent of new home designs, the laundry room has been placed upstairs,” Mr. Leahy says. “This also changes the garage entrance into the home, which has developed away from the mudroom-laundry room combination and into more of a defined family foyer space.”

In addition to upper-level laundry rooms, many builders are allowing for flexible open space on the second floor for home offices, computer areas or even a family room for just the family.

In Miller and Smith’s Unit B model to be built at Vint Hill II in Fauquier County, a bonus room can be added beyond the master suite’s walk-in closets for use as an exercise room or sitting room.

This home already has a private library on the main level and a “command center” with a built-in desk adjacent to the kitchen and the family foyer.

This builder’s Unit C model at Vint Hill II can be expanded with a bonus room on a separate level over the garage with an optional full bath.

In the Hylton Group’s Sequoia model at Hampton Park, the second level can be modified with a loft area outside the second bedroom that can be used as a play area or children’s study.

Porten Homes’ Chatham model at Prestwick in Fairfax County’s Kingstowne neighborhood features an open home office with optional built-ins just outside the master-bedroom suite. An alternate floor plan for this home includes an open loft with an arch and columns to define the space.

Porten Homes’ Barrington model at Prestwick includes a two-story living room, but buyers can opt to close off this space and add a master-suite sitting room or a fifth bedroom.

Beazer Homes’ Newcastle model, to be built at Sully Manor, includes a two-level family room that can be converted to a one-level room, allowing for a bonus room or a master-suite sitting room on the upper level.

Similarly, Centex Homes’ Huntley model at Lansdowne on the Potomac features a two-story great room that can be converted to a one-level space with a fifth bedroom and an additional bath on the upper level.

According to Mr. Leahy, “In homes with 4,000 square feet of living space or more, all the bedrooms are expected to have direct access to a bath, either a private bath or a connecting bath.

“In these larger homes, builders are also offering an optional second powder room on the main level, often close to the kitchen and mudroom area,” he says. “This will be a less formal powder room meant for the family, while the formal powder room is usually placed closer to the foyer.”

In Centex Homes’ Huntley model, the second bedroom has a private full bath, while the third and fourth bedrooms share a connecting bath with a double-sink vanity.

In master baths and master suites, builders are designing separate his-and-hers space as much as possible.

“His-and-hers walk-in closets are a must, and designers are also trying to create a dressing area with shelving and a window seat,” Mr. Leahy says.

“Master bedrooms, even in smaller homes, are configured with a separate sitting room or a sitting area bump-out or bay area,” he says. “Tray ceilings and pan ceilings are used to define these spaces, too.”

In the Christopher Cos.’ Providence model, the master bedroom features a standard sitting room off the bedroom with a wall of windows. An optional change can expand this to a larger space allowing for both a personal gym and a sitting room.

In a smaller home, the Hylton Group’s Valmont model, available at the Oaklands in Prince William County, the master suite includes a sitting room designed into a bumped-out space for extra definition.

Master suites are offered on the first floor in many locations, particularly in communities designed for residents older than 55.

“While we are definitely seeing more floor plans with first-floor master suites, buyers are finding that these designs are not always worth choosing because of what they have to give up on the main level,” Mr. Leahy says.

“The narrow lots which most builders must work with make a first-floor master suite less appealing,” he says.

Some builders are offering homes that are updated ranch homes for those who prefer one-level living.

At Pelham’s Reach in Culpeper, Beazer Homes is offering buyers a choice of 11 models, including three one-level homes.

The Cypress Point model includes a formal dining room, a separate family room, a small office with an optional built-in desk, a kitchen and a bay-windowed breakfast room in addition to three bedrooms and two baths, including a master bath, all on one level. This home can be expanded with a finished lower level and a bonus space for the garage.

The Hylton Group has designed the Spruce model at Hampton Park with a more open floor plan with a living room and dining room open to the center-island kitchen, along with three bedrooms and two full baths, including a master bath.

This home also can be expanded with a loft level including a bonus room and a bedroom with a full bath, plus a finished lower level.

Allowing plenty of space for personalization has become a common trend in new homes, so buyers can finish their bonus space to suit their needs during one phase of their lives, such as with a nursery that later becomes a playroom, then a study and then, perhaps, a hobby room.

The evolution of residential architecture parallels lifestyle changes among buyers.

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