Fact: the population of the U.S. is growing at a faster rate than any country other than China and India.

Projection: Between the years 2000 and 2030, the U.S. will need 100 billion square feet of new residential space.

Challenge: This construction must simultaneously satisfy a more diverse base of homeowners, sustain the economy, and protect the environment.

HOME ALONE: Virginia Tech professor Arthur C. Nelson tells builders and developers to adjust  to changing demographics that will produce far more households with childless  couples or single occupants.
HOME ALONE: Virginia Tech professor Arthur C. Nelson tells builders and developers to adjust to changing demographics that will produce far more households with childless couples or single occupants.

Solution: That's what 40 housing and development experts from academia and the public and private sectors attempted to divine when they huddled at the Washington headquarters of The Brookings Institution for a two-day conference in April that Hanley Wood, BUILDER's parent company, cosponsored. Auspiciously titled “America Next,” this meeting sought to “pry open the box,” according to Brookings fellow Rob Puentes, by bouncing diverse views about the future of the “built environment” off of each other to see if any land on common ground.

The discussions focused on how acutely demographic forces are reshaping America and raised pointed questions about retrograde planning and zoning regulations. While no Eureka moment was summoned, there was consensus about the magnitude of these forces and calls for a sharp break from the status quo. “Change always wins,” said Frank Anton, Hanley Wood's CEO, “and what's happening now is that the monolithic way that developing occurs is changing.”

Brookings wants policymakers to reposition urban areas as “engines of prosperity,” to revalue cities' assets, and to rethink the challenges that suburbs face, said Bruce Katz, director of the think tank's Metropolitan Policy Program, who moderated the conference where like-minded New Urbanism proponents were well represented, but which also made room for panelists with strongly held opposing views to vigorously defend alternative and even contrarian ideas.

An open exchange can only help builders and developers to make their case that significant population shifts are going to transform the built environment, one way or the other, so hard choices must be made about how business and government should respond.

“The industry needs to know a lot more about demographic drivers than we do today,” observes Arthur C. Nelson, a senior resident fellow at Virginia Tech University's think tank, the Metropolitan Institute. Such information is essential for planners in whose hands future development rests, but who, in Nelson's estimation, are woefully lacking in their understanding about these trends and their implications.

WANTED: LESS HOUSE Nelson was one of the conference's four “provocateurs,” whose presentations triggered discussion and debate. Nelson contended that communities across the country desperately need “a new planning and zoning template” that acknowledges “fundamental shifts in demand for certain types of homes.”

He projects that the U.S. population will increase by one-third, to 400 million, over the next three decades, and double by 2099, with immigration accounting for roughly one-third of that growth. Households with children are expected to account for only 12 percent of the net change between 2005 and 2025, while single-person households should contribute 34 percent of that change in those years. Those shifts, along with the aging of America, are creating greater demand for condominium and townhouse living that's closer to urban centers, as well as a growing preference for smaller-lot detached homes.

LARGE-HOUSE GLUT: Comparing census data of occupied housing types with his own survey of owner  preferences, Arthur C. Nelson concludes there's a mismatch between what municipalities  allow and what buyers prefer, which could lead to an oversupply  of large-lot detached homes.
Journal of the American Planning Association LARGE-HOUSE GLUT: Comparing census data of occupied housing types with his own survey of owner preferences, Arthur C. Nelson concludes there's a mismatch between what municipalities allow and what buyers prefer, which could lead to an oversupply of large-lot detached homes.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC, Ann Arbor, MI.