When markets turn soft, things get interesting. With housing starts correcting to a more sustainable pace and inventory piling up, builders are reevaluating the rote and the slapdash when it comes to design and pondering how savvier floor plans and features might serve as a differentiator in tougher times. But they're also trying to stretch a dollar. BUILDER asked a handful of industry veterans to weigh in on the trends that will likely drive the new year.

Great Big. With first-time home buyers and empty-nesters dominating the playing field for the foreseeable future, open floor plans will continue to reign supreme. “Both of these markets are great room markets,” says Don Anderson, principal of Color Design Art, an interior design and merchandising firm in Culver City, Calif. “People with small kids or no kids don't need the separation as much, whereas families with teens sometimes want more personal space.” In open plans, watch for continued use of ceiling beams, coffers, arches, pillars, and varied flooring to delineate transitions, predicts Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research at the NAHB.

My Space. Is the living room dead? Is the dining room defunct? Forecasts of their demise may be premature. Anderson sees a growing number of builders creating a flex space near the front entry and leaving it up to the homeowner to decide how to use it—be it a formal dining area, parlor, library, home office, billiards den, or Elvis shrine.

HOT WASH: Expanded utility zones with extra storage, counter space, and hobby tables  are in demand.
HOT WASH: Expanded utility zones with extra storage, counter space, and hobby tables are in demand.

In and Out. Outdoor living is here to stay, but backyard living is old school. TNDs have resurrected the front porch as a social zone, while the return of courtyard style plans has rekindled a desire for al fresco spaces carved into the middle or side of the house for privacy, notes Ed Binkley, national design director for the architecture firm Bloodgood Sharp Buster (see “The New American Home 2007,” page 118 and “Keeping Up With the Boomers,” page 158). Nature connections off the master bath are especially popular among empty-nesters craving vacation-like retreats.

Fully Loaded. And p.s., when it comes to outdoor spaces, a patch of grass with a sapling or two simply won't do. “Land prices are so high that builders have maxed out their footprints, so they're having to do more amenitized outdoor spaces,” says Philadelphia-based architect Jim Wentling. “We're seeing nicer grade-level patios with flagstone and other treatments we typically had not seen before.” NAHB data notes a rise in porches and patios in single-family homes (up 10 percent in the last decade), while decks have fallen out of fashion.

Home Sweet Office. Home offices remain in top demand (a recent study by the American Institute of Architects found them to be the most commonly requested optional space in the home), but mini tech niches, adjacent to the kitchen, great room, or atop a stair landing are also gaining ground, particularly among parents who want oversight of their kids' surfing habits. “Computers are compact,” notes Steve Sennikoff, a principal with Scheurer Architects in Newport Beach, Calif. “You don't need to give up an entire bedroom to accommodate a workstation.”

Embracing Mess. Watch for more square footage allocated to mudrooms, laundry, and utility zones, with expanded countertop space for hobby projects, built-in storage, gadget recharging stations, and pet-washing areas. In upscale markets, the “dirty kitchen” is making a comeback. “People like to have a supplemental place behind the show kitchen where they can hide dishes during parties,” says Sennikoff.

Remastered Mix. Empty-nesters are clamoring for first-floor master suites, although predictions of a ranch-style comeback may be unfeasible. “Boomer plans are slanted toward single level, but they are up against a land price situation that's squeezing lots and footprint dimensions, so the trend now is for a master down with a den on the first floor and some auxiliary space on the second floor,” says Wentling. Also on the rise: dual master floor plans to accommodate non-traditional buyers—for example, multigenerational households, or friends who buy a home cooperatively because they cannot afford to buy solo.

High Time. Say goodbye to two-story foyers and grand stairs and hello to a more uniform feeling of openness. The standard first-floor ceiling height is now 9 feet, according to NAHB data, and that's not likely to change. “Now that people have discovered transom glass and the wonder of natural light, they aren't going to give that up,” says McLean, Va.–based architect Bill Devereaux.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Anderson, IN.