By Christina B. Farnsworth
What started Sept. 11 disturbed us all. For Gen-Xers, there is no parallel; Sept. 11 will be the generation's defining moment, like the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam were for Boomers. However, housing experts agree that these events may have intensified rather than undermined X Generation's fairly conservative economic views and their strong desire for homeownership.
Flexibility, affordability, and design nuance matter more than ever. Join us as we delve more deeply into the Gen-X files. And meet one building team who successfully revamped its product based on our research.
Everything we knew and believed true changed on Sept. 11. "Until then we were all feeling pretty confident about a lot of things that we just can't grasp now. ... Priorities have changed and so have buying habits, styles, and colors for the short term--who knows for long term," says Lifestylist Suzanne Felber.
"Living day to day and surviving has become much more important," Felber says. Something she feels will really show with the Gen-X crowd, "some of whom made millions in minutes, had the world in their court, were making more than their parents ever made right out of college, and felt they were invincible. Now they may be unemployed, going to war, and having to deal with things they've never had to see," she continues. "Long-term relationships will become increasingly important, and owning a home--the permanence of it will become even more of a priority," says Felber, president of Regarding Sources (lifestyle resources centers for the home, based in Dallas and Tucson, Ariz.).
Home is a priority to architect Rick New's staff, half of whom are Generation X. Like other Xers Builder has interviewed, they eschew "design as usual" homes (not to mention being labeled Xers in the first place).
Illustration: Neil Leslie
New, principal with Downing, Thorpe & James, says his young staff, when viewing a recent residential design contest's winners, accused New and the other contest judges of selecting pretty much the same house in all categories. Moreover, they said, the monotonous winning designs, whether big or small, were not what his staff would have chosen.
New's crew are all qualified design professionals and thus both sensitive to and perfectly able to articulate their thoughts about design. They know what they don't like, yet even they can't agree on the perfect feature list. Those looking for the quick-fix list of six or seven things with which to attract Gen-Xers are bound for disappointment.
In truth, the magic X formula doesn't exist. And whether or not it ever might is open to debate. But a close look at the charts on the following pages will help you understand the similarities and differences among different respondent cohorts: younger and older X-ers, female and male, and married and not married. Things they agree (or disagree) on may surprise you.
Take space and design for example. When Builder queried Gen-X respondents, their answers differed little from other age groups surveyed. Most groups, whatever their age or demographic, want more storage and nicer kitchens and bathrooms. It's the subtleties that make the difference, New says. Xers want efficient and stylish space, not merely square (or even cubic) feet. It's as much about how you deliver as it is what you deliver.
Certain interesting feature preferences do differentiate our surveyed Xers, and they arise from family composition, respondent gender, and age within the cohort. For example, male respondents and younger Gen-Xers find formal rooms slightly more important than others surveyed in the group (see chart "Formality Fades," page 102). Our survey showed that informal living now rules; 68.9 percent vs. 31.1 percent. When asked to choose between a formal living room or a room for another purpose (in a same-size house), the group went for the alternative use. Yet, close reading of survey results suggests a slight butsurprising preference for more formality among younger Gen-Xers.
This generation is very conscious of scale. For example, Kristen Bason, a Gen-Xer featured in "Gen-X Files" (February 2001, page 231) feels that builders overdo new homes--too many windows, overscaled and illogical spaces, and "fresh-mud landscaping." Irvine, Calif., architect Art Danielian emphasizes scale when it comes to satisfying Gen-X.
Both New and Danielian hammer on the need to integrate land planning and architecture. New limits streetscapes of consecutive houses on a street to six and Danielian to eight before introducing a defining feature--a turn in the street, a pocket park, or some other land plan feature to break the land plan down into variable and digestible chunks. Both architects believe the Gen-X market responds well to flexibility in streetscapes and floor plans. Why not vary lot widths to achieve variety and allow garages to be de-emphasized in a series of front, side-loaded, and detached garages? Danielian asks. New achieveaffordability with a basic plan and numerous flexible variations.
But in itself the revolt against monotony is hardly news. Even the Urban Land Institute (ULI) weighed in on the subject during its spring council meeting in Minneapolis. ULI reported that those most successfully catering to young childless professionals are building "funky, charming, flexible" housing for people seeking convenient maintenance-free and commute-free living.
"We're targeting young singles, single women, gays, and active older adults--the 75 percent of the housing market that is not mom, dad, and one or more children. They want cool; they want lofts; they want to be near schools and cultural centers," said ULI speaker Robert L. Silverman, chairman of The Winter Group of Cos. in Atlanta, which has completed several infill projects in former warehouses and industrial buildings. "People want to eliminate car trips, they want flex space," urban loft builder Michael Loia, president of Loia Budde in Atlanta told the ULI audience.