- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

In theory, architects and home builders can design anything they want and hope they attract buyers who share their taste in home style. The reality, particularly in the Washington-area real estate market, is that buyers, architects and builders are constrained by the availability of land and by the desires of buyers.

With land prices rising rapidly and fewer tracts of land to be found, architects increasingly need to design residences that fit on smaller or narrower lots than in the past while still meeting the demands of home buyers for homes of 3,000 square feet or more.

“Overall, I’d say urban planning has a lot to say about the trends of home designs today,” says Bill Sutton, an architect and principal with Sutton Yantis Associates Architects. “What’s fundamentally different is how a whole development is laid out, which dictates a whole different type of design.”

In Maryland, many new communities are so-called traditional neighborhood designs, Mr. Sutton says, “along the lines of Kentlands and King Farm, so the homes we design there are usually narrow houses with rear garages.”

Mr. Sutton points out that during the 1960s and 1970s, most homes being built in the Washington area were center-hall Colonial-style homes with about 2,400 finished square feet.

“Basically, those homes were a box with a garage which would end up about 65 feet wide,” Mr. Sutton says. “The house would be 40 feet wide, and the garage was 24 feet wide. In the 1980s, we were starting to see narrower lots come into the picture, but the homes were getting a little bigger, averaging 3,000 to 3,500 square feet for a single-family home.”

Since these homes had front-entry garages, “architects were adding living space over the garage,” he says. “Now we’re pushing the homesites to be deeper and narrower, with a detached or attached garage at the back of the house.”

Despite the smaller lots, homes are getting larger, “with 3,200 to 3,300 square feet about the smallest and often up to 5,000 square feet when the optional spaces are finished,” Mr. Sutton says. “The architectural and aesthetic challenge inside these homes is to create a sense of spaciousness within a narrow confine.”

Architect Chris Lessard, founder and principal of the Lessard Architectural Group, agrees — the biggest challenge is dealing with the reorganization of the home, which is dictated by a smaller and narrower homesite.

“We’re designing more homes with a rear-loading garage and with courtyards, so that when you open the front door, you are looking into open space,” Mr. Lessard says. “One reality of these smaller lots is that we’re seeing yard space get smaller and smaller, even in homes designed for families.”

Even children’s play space is different, he says.

“Today, we don’t have the old process of all the kids in the neighborhood getting together to play in someone’s back yard,” Mr. Lessard says. “Kids are usually participating in organized activities which take place somewhere else. A lot of families prefer to have a courtyard space which is more protected than the old-fashioned unfenced back yard.”

For example, K. Hovnanian’s Santa Barbara model, a narrow single-family home available at Southdown Shores in Edgewater, features a two-car garage at the back of the house and a courtyard embraced by the breakfast area, the main gallery and the foyer.

The upper-level hall features a wall of windows that looks down into the courtyard, creating a light-filled and visually pleasing space.

“The biggest change in our neotraditional home designs, which are built on narrower lots, is at the back of the home,” says Allan Schweber, general manager for the Maryland division of Craftmark Homes.

“The front of the home is almost a center-hall Colonial-style with a living room and dining room on one side, but at the back of the house, we’ve placed the family room behind the kitchen and open to the breakfast area and kitchen, with the garage behind the family room,” he says. “This creates a nice flow for families and guests, who like having one big open space. The design is L-shaped, too, so there’s a courtyard or deck area off the family room.”

Craftmark Homes’ Oakwood model, priced from the mid- to upper $600,000s at Clarksburg Village, has an open kitchen and breakfast area, which opens onto the family room, which has two walls of windows and a glass door to the courtyard.

With an integral garage on the lower level rather than a first-level garage, the family room can have three walls of windows.

In addition to designing courtyards rather than traditional back yards, architects are trying to create interest and a feeling of space in the home through the use of 9- and 10-foot ceilings and the development of interesting visual lines.

“We’re not necessarily designing angled rooms, but we try to create vistas through the house which are angled by the placement of doors and windows,” Mr. Sutton says. “It can be interesting to look diagonally across a room.”

In Centex Homes’ Sheffield model at Avalon in Waldorf, the open living room has an angled view across the foyer and into the family room, and the angled entrance to the library provides a vista across the family room and into the breakfast area and optional sunroom.

“We’re seeing a battle between open and closed spaces on the main level,” Mr. Sutton says. “People want the flow from room to room, and they want the house to feel spacious, but they also don’t want a completely open house because that’s too noisy. So we’re starting to design more homes with different areas for peace and quiet which can be closed off.”

In K. Hovnanian’s Yorkshire model, a duplex home available from the upper $200,000s at Kensington Villas in Hagerstown, the dining room is open to a hall, the library is almost completely enclosed, and the family room has smaller openings than usual to the hall and the breakfast area.

In Centex Homes’ Savannah model, soon to be available at Metro Place at Town Center in Suitland priced from the $300,000s, the family room is open to the kitchen, but the dining room and living room are separated.

M/I Homes’ Breckenridge model, available at the Fields of White Marsh from the upper $500,000s, has a visually open family room, which is separated by columns and narrow walls from the gallery and the breakfast area. The adjacent library is almost completely enclosed.

In most homes, the kitchen and breakfast area are open to each other, and they often represent the largest area of the main level.

“Kitchen islands are getting larger all the time and now look more like furniture,” Mr. Sutton says. “Buyers also want larger ovens and separate cooktops, but all of this is turning into a contest for wall space. You also want to leave the kitchen open with doors to other nearby spaces. One thing that is being squeezed out is wall cabinets. The cabinets are going up higher, but in a lot of kitchens, there are fewer of them because of the need for wall space.”

Mr. Lessard says more clients want a catering kitchen or an expanded butler’s pantry that can function as a bar for parties.

“People are entertaining at home more often, or at least they think they will,” he says.

Ryan Homes’ Monarch model, available at several Maryland locations, features an expansive kitchen with an oversize center island, a walk-in pantry and a large butler’s pantry.

Another area of increasing importance to home buyers is the mudroom or family foyer, an entrance off the garage into the home that has grown in size and sophistication.

“People used to walk through the little space that held the washer and dryer right into the house, but now this space is being enlarged and customized with cubbyholes for each family member, a place for boots and backpacks, and sports equipment,” Mr. Lessard says.

Mr. Sutton adds that “in some high-end homes and custom homes, these family foyers are finished as nicely as the kitchen, with tumbled tile counters, cabinets to match the kitchen, a laundry room with upgraded appliances, cubbies, lockers and seating areas. Some of them add a half bath or even a full bath to use as a ‘biocontainment’ zone when the kids come in from sports or playing in the snow. They’ll even use this as a space to wash the dog along with the muddy kids.”

In the Toll Bros. Chelsea model, available at the Estates at Cedarday from the $600,000s, the mudroom has entrances from the garage and from a covered porch and includes a closet. The separate laundry room is nearby.

In K. Hovnanian’s Santa Cruz model at Southdown Shores, the mudroom has entrances from a side porch and the garage and into the breakfast area.

Mr. Sutton recommends that a rear staircase should come down into the family foyer so that family members can enter the home and go directly upstairs with ease.

“A lot of homes with 3,500 square feet or more now have a back staircase in addition to the main stairs,” Mr. Sutton says. “You almost always see this with homes at 4,000 square feet or above.”

In Ryan Homes’ Monarch model, the main stairs are at the back of the expansive two-story foyer, while a second staircase leading to the upper and lower levels is between the family room and the family foyer, a spacious area with a closet and an entrance into the oversize laundry room.

Buyers want expanded kitchens and family foyers in their larger homes, but even in neighborhoods with smaller homes on smaller lots, consumers are looking for as much living space as possible. Buyers believe that with today’s inflated home values, they should at least have plenty of finished space to enjoy.

Buyers have been finishing basements for decades, but now builders are offering included or optional space for finishing over the garage and on the attic level.

“The more finished square feet you have, the more the value of the home increases,” Mr. Lessard says. “Buyers are choosing to finish the attic space with bedrooms, bonus rooms and home offices, fitting in whatever they can into that level that suits their lifestyle.”

Craftmark Homes offers an optional finished attic level on all three of its New Castle models at Clarksburg Village, a space with a playroom, bedroom and bath and the option of adding skylights.

In Toll Bros.’ Essington model, available at Cattail Trace and Triadelphia Crossing, a fourth bedroom and two baths are built partially above the three-car garage, and buyers can add a fifth bedroom over the rest of the available garage space.

Toll Bros.’ Eldridge model, also available at Cattail Trace and Triadelphia Crossing, priced in the $900,000s, includes a master suite built mostly above the three-car garage, including a deep walk-in closet, sitting area, bedroom and bath.

An optional grand master suite for this model expands the space above the garage and includes a larger den and three walk-in closets.

“Buyers want master suites that are larger and larger in the bedrooms, sitting rooms and bathrooms, so you cannot sacrifice on the space there,” Mr. Lessard says. “Master bathrooms are designed for sizzle, not efficiency.”

In M/I Homes’ Eagleton model, available at the Fields of White Marsh from the $500,000s, the expansive master suite has a fireplace in the bedroom; two walk-in closets; a linen closet; and a bath with two separate vanities, a corner tub with windows on two sides, and a separate shower.

Craftmark Homes’ Chesterbrook model, available at Clarksburg Village from the mid- to upper $600,000s, includes a 22-foot-long master suite with an arched transom window at one end, two walk-in closets and a bath.

An alternate second floor, available with an aboveground rear garage, expands the master suite further with a separate 12-by-15-foot sitting room, a 22-by-20-foot bedroom with windows overlooking the courtyard below and an expanded master bath.

“The Chesterbrook model, when built over the garage, has a huge walk-in closet with two entrances and a second walk-in closet,” Mr. Schweber says. “The master bath has a walk-through shower with a seat and multiple heads, and there’s still space for two separate vanities and a soaking tub.”

Toll Bros.’ Cary model, available at Cattail Trace and Triadelphia Crossing from the $900,000s, has a master den, a sitting area in the spacious bedroom, a dressing area surrounded by four walk-in closets, and a bath with a tub and separate shower.

In Ryan Homes’ Monarch model, the master suite has a tray ceiling; an optional corner fireplace; a separate sitting area with an optional bay window; two walk-in closets; and a luxury bath with two separate vanities, a soaking tub and a separate shower.

An optional larger shower is available. This home, available at seven locations in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, is priced from the mid-$500,000s to more than $1,000,000.

Expanding master suites and finishing attic living space are two ways buyers are increasing their square footage, but many are also choosing the traditional method of completing the basement level.

“Basements offer large entertainment spaces, and most buyers are choosing to leave them as open as possible so they can use every inch of their homes,” Mr. Lessard says.

“Home entertainment systems are becoming more elaborate on the lower level and in the family room, and a lot of builders are getting specialists in this area involved before the house is built to integrate a computer system and a sound system into the home,” he says. “Sometimes, we even design a separate little room into the home just for easy access to the equipment.”

In M/I Homes’ Eagleton model, the lower level has a central staircase surrounded by entirely open spaces that the buyer can choose to define into separate rooms or leave as a large party space.

Centex Homes’ Westridge model at Avalon has an expansive recreation room with an optional wet bar, with areas for a den and media room with a connecting full bath.

Mr. Sutton says he sees the lower level as the next area needing attention by architects and builders.

“One of the only places I think today’s homes still fall short is in how to deal with the basement,” Mr. Sutton says. “Too many people are treating the lower-level design as an afterthought, with the mechanical room put in first and then a little thought given to what’s left over. We need to look at the lower level in the preliminary design phase to make sure this level feels like it lives with the rest of the house.”

Mr. Sutton suggests opening up the stairway from the upper level so that it is less walled in, adding open railings or at least a wider opening at the bottom.

“Stairs should be designed so that they come into an open recreation room rather than a wall, so that people don’t need to turn a lot of corners just to get to the main room of the lower level,” Mr. Sutton says.

Ryan Homes’ Monarch model’s staircase to the lower level lands in a position facing the largest entertainment area, and the entire basement includes columns for support and decoration with a minimum of walls so most of the space can be left open.

Similarly, in K. Hovnanian’s Santa Cruz model at Southdown Shores, the stairs end in the recreation room rather than a hallway and most of the lower level is available for open space.

With Washington-area home prices climbing into the stratosphere, buyers demand ever greater amounts of living space for their dollars.

The architects’ and builders’ challenge is to design homes with the maximum amount of living space on the minimum amount of land with a visually appealing mix of closed and open spaces on three and sometimes four levels.

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