Glen Hiemstra has three kids in their 20s who swear their American Dream doesn’t include owning a McMansion in the suburbs. That kind of insight is catnip to Hiemstra, who is the founder of Futurist.com, a Web site that loftily focuses on “the dissemination of information about the future and how to create it.” But he’s been in the forecasting game long enough to know that when it comes to the future, what people say and what they eventually do can be two very different things.
“If you survey the younger generation—what I like to call the ‘digital native generation’—they say they are more interested in urban areas that are environmentally sustainable and have access to high technology,” says Hiemstra. But “once this generation starts forming families, we’ll see some backing away [by] this group from saying that they don’t want to live in a suburban home.” That buyers and products over the next several decades might look a lot like they do today is a common thread connecting the prognostications of nine Nostradamuses whom Builder asked to think about the future of housing.
This look forward is an unorthodox starting point for a series Builder will publish throughout 2008 to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Instead of retracing the industry’s historical highlights over the past three decades, we decided to try to find out what a similar period in the future might offer.
During the past 30 years, builders often sought clues about future trends by peering in their rearview mirrors. Only recently have they considered the impending nexus at which design, construction, and technology might converge. Recent dismal market conditions have shattered most builders’ crystal balls or discouraged them from even gazing. But futurists see on the horizon a time and place where home and work intertwine, where sustainability is more than a catchphrase, and where builders and developers creatively address demographic and generational shifts and preferences instead of shoehorning new buyers into housing that suited the past.
“There are a number of alternative futures out there,” says Dr. Jim Dator, director of the Hawaii Research Center for Future Studies at the University of Hawaii. In one scenario, “families will become more important, [and] we’ll spend more time in houses, not moving all over. Big houses will be useful as multifamily houses. We’re already seeing this happen as [grown] children stay home,” he observes, because they’ve been priced out of the market.
A larger, diverse country
Any predictions about the future must factor in the inevitability that the U.S. will need housing for another 100 million people by 2040, according to Census Bureau projections. Robert Lang, co-director of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, has noted that if current trends play out, three-fifths of that growth would occur in 20 “megapolitan” regions. “Imagine a contiguous span of populated land from Portland, Maine, to Richmond, Va., the joining of Carolina’s Research Triangle with Georgia’s Atlanta, the meeting of the Puget Sound and the Willamette Valley,” says Charlie Hewlett, managing director with the real estate consultancy Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCo), who responded to Builder’s inquiries with Shyam Kannan, RCLCo’s director of research and development.