• How American households make housing choices and value homes is in flux
  • Structural shifts in housing preferences impact homeownership tenure and mobility
  • Materials science and building technology alter a home’s ability to keep pace and adapt with both the near-term and structural changes of its residents

Like a mind or a bad housing downturn, a recovery is a terrible thing to waste. Even a less-than-satisfactory one. A silver-lining that shines amid a dark pall of adversity, distress, failure, and other negatives that come with a cyclical downshift can be looked at as an essential light beam of valued “lessons learned.”

Why not expect the same, then, of a rebound? Especially one so full of chronic challenges—affordability, talent and skilled labor, and productivity--as housing’s supply-constricted recovery attenuated across the past decade or so.

Over the next month or so, a 6-part series in this space will explore the current decade-long residential investment, development, and building recovery’s structural “lessons learned.” Our analysis will serve both as a tactical reminder and a set of enduring pillars strategists and market players can build their future on as uncertainty, volatility, and mixed signals intensify in the weeks and months ahead.

To prosper tomorrow, players need to change today. That means tapping into both deep streams of knowledge and experience from the past as well as wider flows of present-day learning from inside and outside building’s challenged domain.

Here’s one lesson we believe this housing recovery—the stretch of slow growth from 2011 to the present--has made crystal clear:

Homes need to be both more durable and more nimble.

Both literally and metaphorically, homes must be designed and built to weather time’s stress-tests of increasingly severe climatic challenges as well as dynamic social and demographic shifts that are impacting the most basic purpose of homes, how they’re made up of households, and the ways that human longevity impacts their design and use—today and tomorrow.

Most importantly, while this phenomenon—the fact that homes need to be constructed and engineered and designed to be more resilient and adaptable—is one of the current housing recovery’s most critical take-away lessons for the future, too little investment in research and development is committed to solving for where those challenges will lead.

Bright spots in multigenerational, flex-space living, revenue units, and universal design have certainly become part of the mix of current design and development. It could be said they’re even gaining momentum in the U.S. But, despite their increasing popularity, those initiatives tend to be trial-and-error, hit-or-miss ideas rather than fully-evidence based strategies to meet a fundamentally changing housing landscape.

Fortunately, there are ways architects, builders, developers, and product manufacturers can tap into deep R&D commitment that’s going on right now, only not within our own borders. Such a resource is on full display in the ambitious collaboration between Sekisui House, its U.S.-based Woodside Homes, and their partners, in this year’s BUILDER Concept Home, Chōwa—Living In Balance.

Chōwa, to put it simply, builds on indoor and outdoor living that extends outward from under a single iconic roof and around a central living room. Design and structure serve the home’s residents’ real-time and evolving needs and desires for essentials—peace of mind, privacy, connection to nature, flexibility of use, and human contact. Under a single roof, a blend of living, work, play, rest, and eating—for a relatively fluid household—all find balance and harmony.

Lead architect Hirokazu Miyachi, who heads up design and development of Sekisui House, Ltd.’s SHAWOOD line of custom homes, wants to create a feeling of connectedness between people inside the walls of his homes and the beauty and power of nature outdoors.

Chowa's lead architect, Hirokazu Miyachi, from the Sekisui House team, heads up architecture for the company's SHAWOOD Homes line. Photo by John McManus
Chowa's lead architect, Hirokazu Miyachi, from the Sekisui House team, heads up architecture for the company's SHAWOOD Homes line. Photo by John McManus

“The most important thing to consider when designing a building and its space is people,” says Mr. Miyachi. “It’s a building for people. The design of the space, the orientation of the elements in the space, both inside and out, is what I’d consider as one of the most important things to do to create a comfortable and happy space.”

Structure that is so resilient and design that is so nimble doesn’t happen by accident. Japan-based Sekisui House has been at the forefront of housing and living research and development investments going back several decades, with the 1990 founding of the Comprehensive Housing R&D Institute. Chōwa—whose design and construction pedigree is Sekisui House’s very successful SHAWOOD line of homes being sold in Japan and Australia--reflects next-generation R&D investments that builders, architects, and developers in North America can access as they too invest more strategically in more resilient, more adaptable home plans.

First, let’s take a glance back for a perspective on what’s driving this megatrend and shaping its future.

Homeownership Remains A Goal
Contrary to a widely-held belief from not so long ago that the Great Recession and its aftermath portended a new “Renter Nation” era, leading to a dramatic erosion in the power of the American Dream of homeownership and suburban community living, reality worked out differently.

Millennials, we’ve come to learn, take to homeownership a lot like prior generations have, only later on by a few years—reflecting the impacts of student debt as well as slower household and family formation rates. Fact is, the millennial generation’s massive size and diversity suggests clearly that more housing of every type, price range, and geography is what’s needed, and that both the Dream and its attainment are very much part of this generation’s plans, as compelling as they’ve been for every other cohort.

That’s not to say big change isn’t afoot in what that Dream means and how people realize it.

The strategic pillar here—and one we’ve heard builders, developers, architects, and interior designers attest to from various vantage points—is that people want to live differently in their homes. Nimbleness, flexibility, adaptability—which allow not only for varied use of space, but, rather, add up to entirely different financial and living options—are no longer negotiable features. They’re requirements. They demand that nimbleness both in real-time—i.e. the ability to parse out and use part of the place as a revenue flat or an in-law suite—and over-time, which means that the home design itself, its location, community, and its connectedness to resources can all evolve as its residents do throughout life.

Driving this mega trend, households themselves—and the relationship lives of consumers—are in flux. Single-person households, households with a grandparent—or two, households with adult children, households with unrelated adults, households with a full-time caregiver, etc., all tend to be faster-growing household composition types than traditional married-with-young-children nuclear households. Demographics, including the emergence of a new sandwich cohort of leading-edge GenX-aged adults with both adult children and aging parents, show that family and household patterns are evolving at a sped-up pace.

What’s more, this post-Great Recession reset has not only further exposed structural, dynamic changes in household composition, but a potentially far-reaching shift in how long people will reside in the homes of their choice.

Here’s recent data on median duration homeowners reside in their home: 13.3 years. For households shifting from a first-time homeownership into a “move-up,” the expectancy for tenure into that home increases by nearly 50%, to 18 years.

There are reasons to expect homeownership tenure rates to hold steady or even increase in the United States.

Among them, economics and policy forces in the wake of the financial insanity that led to the global financial meltdown and the Great Recession, tend to tamp down speculative housing activity. Further, a mindset pivot away from viewing one’s home merely as a financial investment, or worse, an ATM--betting that price appreciation will exceed the rate of borrowing against the value of the property.

If a home is to be a place more of us are going to spend more of our time, whether it be for financial reasons, for preferences around easy access to livelihood centers, or culture, or nature, or recreation and entertainment, or health care, or our children, or their children, homes need to fluidly change.

And they need to do so without great expense or effort.

The same structure needs to be—and can be, thanks to new building technologies and materials and designs—an assortment of homes that both protect a sense of sanctuary and connect inhabitants to the vitality and resources of nature. They can accommodate a spectrum of household compositions and adapt to them seamlessly and instantaneously, with a moveable wall, or a “granny flat” or an Airbnb unit or a home office that converts into a guest suite.

Floorplan spaciousness and volume, flexibility, flow, natural airiness, human-centric lighting, tempo, instantly adaptive uses against a timeless feeling of safety and calm—these are the balances Chōwa forges out of extensive open living areas that connect people inside with nature outside the walls. This tie between the exterior and interior space becomes possible thanks to the fusion of Sekisui House’s proprietary structural framing systems and its advanced customer-centered adaptive designs.

This excerpt from Sekisui House’s 2019 Sustainability Report helps illustrate the level of commitment and investment the Sekisui House and Woodside teams have focused on bringing to Chōwa:

“Pursuing the safety and comfort of housing and improving quality while responding to customer demand is a housing manufacturer’s mission. Our company established the Comprehensive Housing R&D Institute in 1990, and since then we have conducted investigative research into how lifestyles and housing best interact with one another, as well as research and development in pursuit of healthy and comfortable living, including inspection and assessment of basic housing features. Through in-house inspection and research, we quickly identify problems and find solutions, creating technologies that are unique strengths for Sekisui House, such as the heavy steel- framed ß System, the SHEQAS seismic absorption system and the Airkis high-quality indoor air system.

“We have also established the Nattoku Kobo Studio (Home Amenities Experience Studio) inside our Comprehensive Housing R&D Institute; this studio is a place where consumers and builders can consider ideal housing through dialogue, and where we exchange information with approximately 30,000 visitors per year. In addition, we have established the Sumufumulab, a base for research and development and information exchange regarding living spaces and lifestyles inside of the Grand Front Osaka, in front of Osaka Station. There, we conduct joint research based on open innovation with various stakeholders.

“In August 2018, we opened the Human Life R&D Institute, becoming the first Japanese company to study happiness, and began research into “houses where happiness grows the longer you live there.” Here, we are focusing our attention on research themes that pursue a sense of happiness, such as health and familial bonds, in addition to the themes that Sekisui House has continued to devote ourselves to for many years: safety, security, and comfort. We are also proposing “happy homes,” which allow residents to recognize and experience happiness, and are heightening the sense of happiness in housing and communities by scientifically and theoretically clarifying expertise relating to “houses where happiness grows the longer you live there.”