Demand for luxury kitchen and bath items has fallen significantly as consumers opt for fixtures and products that are environmentally friendly and easy to use, even for aging buyers, according to the recently released quarterly home design trends survey by the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

“Because of concerns over affordability and re-sale value, it’s not surprising that there has been a sharp decline in demand for high-end kitchen and bath products,” said AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker in a press release.

Other similar luxury items have also slid in popularity. Demand for items such as wine refrigerators and wine storage units has dropped a full 22 percentage points from 2007 to 2008, according to the AIA data, which measured home design trends for 2008’s fourth quarter. 

Kitchen designers agreed with the findings. “Homeowners are going back to basics and willingly accepting solutions which cost less and are ‘good enough,’” observed Susan Serra, a certified kitchen designer and president of Susan Serra Associates in Huntington, N.Y.

But that doesn’t mean builders should start ignoring kitchen and bath design. While “no doubt people are feeling the pressure of current economic conditions and are cutting back on some luxury kitchen and bath items, most real estate agents firmly believe kitchens and baths sell homes,” noted Connie Edwards, director of design for Timberlake Cabinetry in Winchester, Va. “People still want a kitchen that is attractive, is a good value, is well-designed, and will last many years.”

The survey also found that buyers are increasingly interested in building products that are renewable and energy-efficient. For example, demand for multi-head showers, a luxury item that also expends significantly more water than a single-head shower, fell by 17 percentage points in 2008 compared to the previous year, according to AIA data. “A drop in interest of multi-head showers are reflective of both a greater environmental awareness and desire to keep utility costs manageable,” Baker explained.

”People are both budget-conscious and environmentally-conscious. They ask a lot more questions,” said custom builder Phil Kean of Phil Kean Designs, in Winter Park, Fla. “People look at [green products] as a long-term investment.”

Kean said that some of his buyers are choosing energy-efficient designs expressly for cost management. “This year I’ve actually had people say, ‘I don’t want as high ceilings because I don’t want to have to heat that space,’” said Kean. However, he added, “people that are more environmentally conscious from the start are most likely to ask about green options, but I think people are moving that direction.”

Status may provide part of the motivation. “Consumer awareness of ‘green’ products” has made eco-friendly features this season’s must-haves in kitchen and bath design. “There is a real cache in being able to show your neighbors your very cool recycling center or countertops made from recycled products,” Edwards said.

The last major trend indicated by the survey results is a growing desire for accessible and easy-to-use kitchens and bathrooms. With boomers aging, certain features, such as hand-held showers, proved slightly more popular in 2008. Edwards said she expected such trends to continue in coming years, as buyers seek details such as “roll-out interior cabinet features that are easer on the back, seats in showers, and grab-bars that make living in a home longer a reality.”

Kelsey Williams is an editorial intern at BUILDER magazine.