In an industry moment poised between post-crash and comeback, a number of forward-thinking design firms are focusing on housing innovations that might coax buyers out of hibernation. The creative brief isn’t just about mustering the will to buy, although one can never underestimate the power of great design, but about what people can comfortably afford in an era of diminished purchasing power and tentative employment conditions. Give them a smart product and a stress-free way to have it, and you’ve offered a persuasive alternative to renting or settling for something outdated.

BSB Design, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, recently sketched plans for two detached house types—one for singles, one for young families—that address these issues. Small and modern but not micro, they’re an attractive option for urban infill and the inner-ring suburbs, particularly suburban downtowns that are rezoning to capture young, skilled workers who want loft-style living close to the action.

Both schemes ease first-time buyers into the housing market. “Here in Tampa, a lot of the existing product is a house with no character, five to 30 years old, that is inexpensive but needs a lot of work,” says BSB partner and design director Jerry Messman, who works in the Florida office. “My goal was to do something Starbucksy and affordable so a buyer would say, ‘I want this brand-new house that’s really cool, fits my lifestyle, and is about the same price as that 1,400-square-foot house that’s old and hard to maintain.’”

The “smaller singles” concept offers the possibility for monthly mortgage payments on par with rental prices. The core thinking went like this: What can we offer that’s different from the resale market, and from what was new a couple of years ago? And what scale hits a roughly $100,000 price point that young buyers can afford, perhaps with mom and dad kicking in the down payment? “It’s like an iPad; each new version has improvements that people want to jump on, and the improvements can be a lot of small things,” Messman says.

The clean-lined homes are detached (think acoustical freedom) but loftlike: one large living area, a bedroom hidden behind a sliding door, and a big multipurpose room next to a front- or rear-loaded garage for use as a hobby shop, home office, or crash pad. Designed to fit on a 25-foot-wide lot, the two-story plan puts the living area and bedroom on the second floor, with the entry, garage, and 12-foot-by-17-foot flex space on the street.

The houses are 685 square feet (but total 1,506 square feet under roof, including the unconditioned flex space, garage, patio, and balcony) and have a brick and mortar cost of $65,312, or $95.35 per square foot based on Midwest pricing and mid-level specs. Their 18-foot width allows 7-foot spacing between neighbors, which complies with Florida fire code.

It also builds in breathing room. “We’ve seen a rejection of townhouses as affordable products in some markets,” says Stephen C. Moore, BSB senior partner. “When Sarasota was in the doldrums after the housing crash, a builder replatted the lots and put these types of small houses on single-family lots, and buyers went crazy.”

Another piece of the innovation puzzle is the elevations. Messman composed them as artwork, putting together colors and patterns that mimic the expensive metal panels and cedar rainscreens used on upscale homes, while sticking with a palette that’s affordable and familiar to builders.

“Fundamentally, they’re the same collection of materials, just used in different patterns: brick, stone, a combination of wide and narrow lap siding, maybe lap siding installed vertically,” Moore says. “Vinyl would not be out of the question. And the elevations can be adapted to fit into a traditional community.”

Consumers seek physical manifestations of their sense of self and their place in the community, and BSB’s second prototype offers “starter families” a well-designed house where they can put down roots. This nimble, three-bedroom home has an attached 528-square-foot rental apartment, reducing the mortgage burden. And it grows with them. When the owners reach a point where they want that space for themselves, the apartment can be reclaimed through a connector in the great room. With its 7-foot kitchen strip, Messman envisions the unit functioning down the road as an in-law or master suite, perhaps with a teenager scoring the master upstairs.

“Builders would have to research what the apartment could rent for in various markets, to see whether it’s enough to compensate the owners,” Messman says, adding that the purchase also requires the cooperation of banks, some of which require buyers to qualify for a loan independent of rental income. He estimates a construction cost of $149,300, or $55 per square foot, based on a mid-level traditional-style elevation.

The elevations, designed for differing markets, resolve the issues that are important to neighbors. With a side-load garage on the apartment, the 60-foot-wide buildings read as single-family detached homes and avoid the stigma of look-alike duplexes, where 50 percent of the residents often are renters. These owner-occupied homes could be sprinkled into existing neighborhoods or form sections of new subdivisions.

In this transformative period in housing design, builders will have to leverage creativity to attract the next generation of skittish buyers. “The newer shopping malls have nice materials and contemporary colors; that’s what younger adults are seeing in the world, and they’re more interested in modern design than their parents were,” Messman says. Crisp, secure, and priced within reach, these two concepts offer an autonomous lifestyle and a contemporary vibe—not extreme, but enough to change the norm.