New homes getting bigger, greener

Buried underneath a story about a Generation Y home was some interesting information about the new homes of 2011: they are getting bigger and greener.

“Homes are getting bigger,” said Rose Quint, the NAHB’s assistant vice president for survey research. She said the average home completed in 2011 had 2,522 square feet, up from 2,381 the year before. “On average, new homes have more square footage and are getting more expensive,” Quint said.

It’s a seeming anomaly, considering the economy. But the key to the size resurgence lies in who built new homes last year: The economy favored those with wherewithal and who were moving up the housing food chain…

And about that environmental awareness that’s supposed to be at the heart of consumer demand these days (I heard variations on the phrase “green is the new granite countertop” no less than five times in three days here): It depends on who’s asking the questions, apparently.

McGraw-Hill Construction, a trade publisher and researcher, released a survey during the conference that painted the green share of residential construction as booming, having increased from 2 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2011. Further, it should reach 29 to 38 percent of the market by 2017, representing $87 billion to $214 billion in business, the report said. Driving this demand, McGraw-Hill said, is consumers’ desire to reduce their energy bills…

Grail Research, a Cambridge, Mass., firm that studies green-related issues, contends green may be less of a revolution than an evolution, if even that. The researchers found that the number of consumers with preferences for green products is decreasing as the recession continues, and that significant numbers of green consumers have switched back to conventional products.

These might be viewed as competing trends but I have argued that I think these could actually go together: Americans want space as well as greener (and perhaps greener as normal) features.

The new figures about housing size from 2011 are fascinating because the downward trend in recent years has been hailed by many as a sign that Americans have gotten their spending under control, lowered their expectations, and are moving away from sprawl and McMansions. But the 2011 figures suggest that there are still people who want (and can pay for) large houses. I’ve suggested before that housing sizes will go up when the economy improves and perhaps this is some evidence for that.

I wonder if we can reconcile different reports about consumers and green products by suggesting that green is simply becoming more normal. It is one thing to add the latest or expensive green features such as solar panels or rainwater retrieval systems. It is another thing for all new homes to have very insulated windows or an efficient furnace, improving features that all homes have to have anyway. What this would mean is that it would be more difficult to market a home as green and ask a premium price as opposed to having some expected or more basic green features. The phrase “green is the new granite countertop” fits with this idea: if you want your home to sell, you will need to have some basic green features.

The Not So Big House in the Chicago suburbs

Architect Sarah Susanka has made a name for herself by writing about the Not-So-Big House. In this, Susanka advocates for smaller homes with custom features that fit the personality of the inhabitants. Instead of buying a cookie-cutter McMansion or tract home, Susanka would have you design a slightly smaller home that better fits your needs.

A new development in Libertyville, a northern suburb of Chicago (about 40 miles north of the Loop), will feature four of Susanka’s homes. Here is a description of the price and size of these homes:

SchoolStreet will have 26 homes in a “new urban” design, plus condominiums in the historic Central School. The single-family homes range from $500,000 to $700,000 and 17 homes have already been sold.

Susanka is designing one floor plan of about 2,200 to 2,400 square feet with four fronts, so four could be built in the community. McLinden says the bungalow-style model or showcase home will be completed and open to the public next fall. It will stay open for six months because the architect thinks the only way for most people to really understand her principles is to walk through the spaces. McLinden hopes to build homes like it in future communities, too.

“This is just the beginning,” said Susanka. “We both are doing this as a test drive to see if there really is a market here.”

It is interesting to note that these homes are not cheap (though they may be slightly smaller). The money in these homes will go to certain features that mark Susanka’s designs:

Vary the ceiling heights. This provides the intimacy and feeling of personal space that some say is missing in big-box McMansions with all tall ceilings. Builders might try this with tray ceilings — at an extra charge, said Susanka.

Create sheltered spaces. Frank Lloyd Wright had his inglenooks or seating areas around fireplaces. Susanka puts a library alcove off the living room.

Make spaces do double duty. The library alcove works as a formal dining area.

Light to walk toward. This means put a lighted something, such as a window or lighted painting at the end of a hallway or other vista. “It provides a sense of extension. It feels like it’s longer than it actually is, and people experience more space.”

Don’t forget the “away” room. This can be an office or first-floor bedroom, of course, or a room for adults to read, do crafts or entertain friends. Or maybe the messy little children can use the away room, leaving the main living areas in better shape.

Speaking of messy youngsters, the home will have a laundry room that’s about 11-by-12 feet. “It can be a craft room for the kids — let the paint fly,” said the architect.

The author-architect is willing to explain and describe her homes, but she believes nothing compares with seeing them in real life.

“I’m trying to make as simple as possible a set of ideas that in a way are complex,” she said. “We are used to thinking about design in two dimensions. The quality of the space has to do with the third dimension, the heights and shapes of the space.”

Multiple times in this article, Susanka and the developer suggest these homes must be experienced in order to understand how all of these pieces come together. I would be curious to tour one of these houses myself to see if it really does feel different to a typical home, even in a quick walk-through. I have looked through a number of her books and have most enjoyed seeing pictures of cozy reading spaces.
I would also be interested to know who is attracted to these homes rather than typical new homes. People with greater appreciation for aesthetics and design? People with higher levels of education (Bourdieu’s theory of distinction)? People looking for the “hot” yet suburban neighborhood?