By Barbara Stahura. Thanks to demographics and buyer boredom, diversity in design is making a comeback. As the traditional middle class that once dominated home buying shrinks to make way for new household configurations, traditional floor plans are no longer sure to satisfy. Production builders have often designed to the nostalgic idea of the nuclear family, but that's a minority now, points out Roberta Feldman, director of the City Design Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Even the two new categories added for the 2000 census -- "parent-in-law" and "son/daughter-in-law" -- didn't cover the growing diversity. People wrote on their surveys grandparent, aunt, or nephew, and the Census Bureau kept track. From 1990 to 2000, non-family households increased 23 percent, compared with the 11 percent increase for family households. Some 4 million households include a child and grandchild or a householder living with both a child and a parent.

As a result, new homes must do so much more than they did for Beaver Cleaver's family. They may need to accommodate families who care for aging parents, stepchildren who live there part time, and home offices wired to the hilt and accessible to clients, while perhaps also anticipating safety concerns when age or disability strikes. And more children are coming home to live with their parents after college, notes Feldman. "It's a disaster to put them in the bedroom next to the parents. That floor plan works only for parents supervising young kids. Separating the bedrooms in the design is much more [livable]."

Different, but Not Too Different

In addition to lifestyle patterns that shake up the status quo, fickle consumers have become used to demanding -- and getting -- what they want. Buyers try to separate themselves from the crowd by putting a personal stamp on everything from their T-shirts to their terraces. And they want style.

"What's happening is that people are reacting to the blandness of the '80s, that stucco, Mediterranean, narrow home with no real design influence," says Bob Wilhelm, principal and senior designer for Hezmalhalch Architects of Irvine, Calif. "People are breaking away and being more definitive. If the home is Spanish, it's Andalusian, hacienda, and so on. If it's Italian, it's Tuscan, Sienna, Renaissance. The major styles are being picked apart and evolving."

With the economic boom of the '90s, many buyers were able to spend more on their homes than ever before. Thus, "they felt empowered to get what they want," says Ben Scheier, custom residential group manager/senior designer, for [i]PLAN, an architectural design firm in Mesa, Ariz., that handles custom and production housing. "Builders were forced to design homes with more flair and to fill more niches."

Sam Haymart, an [i]PLAN production home designer, says the challenge is providing more while keeping costs in line. "We're trying to design homes for production builders that offer a little extra but still work in a production setting. Something the builder can understand and build economically, but with options, it can give the perception of being a custom home."

This is how MHI of Houston meets buyers' demands. "We're taking some upper-end features into production housing," explains Mark Love, MHI's vice president. These include stone as a front elevation accent, Masonite siding accents for a nostalgic look, or a rock-stucco combination for a "Texas hill country" look. "You never saw this in production under $200,000 before," says Love.

Buyers are not the only ones demanding more variety. Many municipal planning commissions have begun to require style diversity in new neighborhoods. MHI's Love says Houston-area municipalities are definitely demanding this, and Haymart is finding the same situation in Arizona's markets.

Haymart says this kind of mandate from municipal planning commissions is often needed to create healthy new neighborhoods. He adds, though, that "if a builder just slaps fake wood siding on a home, that doesn't make it a better product," he says. "Builders who spend time in designing with true intention do better than the others."

The industry is waiting to see how well Lennar's experiment in Southern California will work. Its Architecture Included (AI) plan at Harveston, in Temecula, will include home styles as diverse as American Farmhouse, Craftsman, Italianate, California Prairie, and more, with various styles mixed on the same blocks.

Ben Scheier says AI "is not terribly dissimilar to what custom developments are doing in their design guidelines--pushing builders in a certain direction. But this is more overt than [a builder] just submitting plans for approval."

The Price of Flair

Adding variety in home designs doesn't necessarily rack up costs, say many builders and designers.

"It's very easy to create architectural character with simple means such as use of color and simple boxes, and using trellises, banding brick with two colors, and so on," says Feldman of City Design Center. "You just have to be more clever and creative."

[i]PLAN uses value engineering. "Good design does not cost more money if it's well thought out," says Haymart. "If it's fine tuned to a point where you're making effective choices, efficiency doesn't translate to cheap."

Midland Builders in Madison, Wisc., with more than 100 floor plans, also uses value engineering. President Jeff Rosenberg says using mass customization -- for example, extending a home's width or depth, reconfiguring bathrooms, or expanding kitchens to accommodate islands -- keeps overall costs down.

He says Midland homes can cost a bit more than competitors', depending on options. "But we feel if our homes look really good and our costs a little higher, our neighborhoods are so much more attractive that they sell out with greater velocity," he says. "That justifies the slightly higher costs."

--Barbara Stahura is based in Tucson, Ariz.

BIG BUILDER Magazine, March 2002