Jim Heniff, 62, has a mean case of wanderlust. A consummate road warrior, the former bond trader (now semi-retired) logs some 15,000 miles per year on his BMW motorcycle, often with his wife riding tandem. Recent expeditions have taken them to Montana, Wyoming, and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Home base for the Heniffs is a 3,500-square-foot colonial in the northwest Chicago suburb of Inverness, where they've lived for 30 years. Until recently, they also split their time at their condo in Scottsdale, Ariz. When their youngest son finishes grad school, they plan to uproot and build a new primary residence elsewhere—perhaps near Sedona, Ariz., or out east in the Carolinas, where a few friends from the motorcycle club have relocated. The region is still up for grabs, but one edict is clear: Their next house will forgo “space for the sake of space” and exercise greater economy, energy efficiency, and eco-stewardship. “We don't need five bedrooms,” Heniff says. “Right now, we have rooms I don't think we've ever used in this house.”
This is not to say Heniff is thinking small. He bristles at the term “downsizing” (it has the negative connotations of a corporate re-org, he says), preferring the phrase “right-sizing” to describe his ideal future home—a single-story residence with fewer matchbox-sized rooms and more functional, open, multipurpose realms. The plan won't be so much about shaving off square footage, he says, as rethinking how available space might be better allocated for a different kind of life, sans kids.
Heniff is not alone in this sentiment. In a recent study of 2,000 baby boomers commissioned by Builder's parent company, Hanley Wood, and conducted by the market research firm DYG, 60 percent of respondents anticipated “downsizing” with their next move. But downsizing, they clarified, meant fewer rooms, although not necessarily less square footage or cheaper products. Said one focus group participant: “I'll sacrifice space but not quality. The rooms I'm left with need to make me feel good each time I walk in.”
Ever mindful of the buyer segments home builders most hope to impress, the study, titled “Every 8 Seconds: American Housing as Boomers Turn 60” (which paired quantitative survey data with qualitative insights from focus groups), specifically zoomed in on consumers ages 50 to 60 with annual household incomes of more than $100,000. Researchers at DYG deemed this group of buyers “Boomfluentials” in recognition of the power they wield in shaping emerging housing trends.
THE PROBLEM WITH RESEARCH When you're talking about a generational cohort that's 78 million strong, it's fair to assume not all boomers share a unilateral vision of home. But our study did find some common ground—at least in the collective psyche of the affluent subset. And some of the findings were surprising. Suburban living, apparently, is a hard habit to break. Boomers are (despite claims to the contrary) coming to grips with how accessible design will help them age gracefully and maintain their independence. Balmy climates are still a big draw for empty-nesters with cash to spend. Funny how these basic themes don't convey the overt rejection of the status quo that many anticipated from the originators of the counterculture movement.
The data also yielded more than a few paradoxical findings. Respondents expressed a desire for spaces that were “cozy and comfortable” and yet “open, airy, and spacious.” They claimed to desire visitors (not live-in children or parents, mind you), but no mess, clutter, or crowding. They espoused idealistic intentions to pare down their possessions and have less “stuff,” but in the same breath demanded built-in storage to hold every last gadget and artifact—including the latest, greatest technologies.
Respondents professed allegiance to energy-efficient and “green” features but also expressed the belief that, having worked hard, they've earned the right to deluxe, six-head showers and enormous windows. Oh, and then there was this choice morsel of feedback: Nix the stairs in the floor plan, thank you, but leave space for a Stairmaster.
Could it be that the so-called “Me” generation still wants it all? You bet. Is it possible to design homes that leave these eager buyers feeling at once inspired, pampered, and prepared for the future? Hanley Wood handed the data over to two seasoned architects to tackle that question. From there, two concept houses emerged: a new suburban compound, conceived by Ed Binkley, national design director for Blood-good Sharp Buster (BSB), and a retooled plan for an existing subdivision by New York architect Dennis Wedlick. Below we extract some of the most salient findings from our study, throw in some other boomer data for good measure, and use the architects' prototype designs to illustrate how the latest insights might translate into new visions of home.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlantic City, NJ.