Editor's note: This is the first installment in a series stemming from the third wave of the America at Home Study.
As architects, we are typically invited into the creative process and consulted on the needs and wants of the consumer when a home builder or developer is creating new product. And depending on the market, the client, and the product itself, each of these creative opportunities provide different levels of direct consumer insight to drive design. When the pandemic hit and DAHLIN partnered with marketing expert Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki of tst ink and consumer strategist Belinda Sward of Strategic Solutions Alliance on waves one and two of the America at Home Study, we were able to get firsthand insight into the behavior changes people were making in their homes and communities. That ultimately impacted how we started thinking about the spaces and places we design.
In October 2022, we again partnered on wave three of the America at Home Study—of 3,000 U.S. adults, 25 to 74 years old with incomes of $50,000 or more a year—giving us the first post-pandemic opportunity to understand changes in behaviors and attitudes about home. The combined total of almost 10,000 responses from April and October 2020 and now October 2022 is powerful. What’s even more powerful are changes in people’s behaviors and attitudes about home and community over the past two years.
Consumer research often gets a bad rap, and the results can get discounted. Critics say it’s easy to ask people to tell us what they want, and they’ll say “everything,” so how real are their projective responses? Life with COVID-19 was not something any of us could have predicted, and it delivered uncertainty at every turn. So our team took the approach of asking about actual behavior changes people had made when in their homes, and the “why” behind those changes provided deeper answers so we could be more confident about the insights.
In October 2022, 16% of homeowners reported they had purchased a home in the last two years—the same number (16%) of people who in 2020 said they had plans to buy a home in the next two years. Seems like these people surveyed may have accurately predicted the recent boom in home sales. This gives us even greater confidence in our latest data. Looking ahead, responses from wave three forecast an optimistic outlook for new-home demand with 51% of renters across all generations saying they intend to purchase a home in the next three years. Our job now is to understand what post-pandemic behaviors, preferences, and attitudes mean for the future of home and community design.
What does “home” mean, and what are consumers’ greatest hopes and fears?
When we asked people what “home” means to them, not surprisingly in the middle of a pandemic most said “safety.” It was the top answer for 89% of people in October 2020. Post-pandemic it’s still No. 1, this time for 93% of respondents. All other factors, including “comfort,” “relaxation,” and “family," also rose over the past two years, telling us the home is more important than ever. This data point alone isn’t super insightful but, combining it with others, paints a clear picture of the role homes play in people’s lives today.
When wave three launched last fall, the housing market high of 2021 was retreating. Because of this, we asked people to share their top three hopes and fears. Their top fears were “inflation” (62%), “economy/my job” (36%), and “climate change” (31%). This says to us that attainable product, not only in terms of initial purchase price but also ongoing operating costs with consideration for minimizing the impact on the environment, is critical. There are likely some things we can do less of in exchange for things that add value the consumer wants today. Never have we seen “climate change” rise to the top three like this.
On the hopeful side of the ledger was “my immediate family” (62%), “a better, healthier me” (39%), and “my home” (34%). The home itself provides hope for the future and has a critical role to play in supporting a holistic sense of health and well-being beyond the latest home technologies, which are more important to some than others. Coming out of the pandemic, health and wellness is top of mind in several ways, and consumers place value on how their homes and communities can support them.
What stuck after life with a pandemic?
How people spend time at home is really the best indicator of use of space and should drive our design decisions. We partnered again with Kantar, a leading marketing data and analytics company, on the latest wave of the study. Kantar’s U.S. MONITOR data aligns with the America at Home Study, corroborating three COVID-era routines that will be “enduring norms at home” after the pandemic:
- Sticking with meals at home;
- Embracing e-commerce; and
- Increasing quality time together.
The activity that showed the biggest increase post-pandemic is online shopping in general, increasing from 39% to 46%, perhaps driving some of the need for better designed storage in the home overall, no matter the size or type of home. At-home behaviors that decreased between wave two in the heart of the pandemic and wave three post-pandemic are shown here:
|Behavior ||October 2020 ||October 2022 ||Difference |
|Spending time on social media || |
|Playing video games || |
|Kids schooling from home || |
|Work from home || |
|Grocery or food delivery || |
Almost one-third of people continue to work from home, and we see some specific requests for how that at-home workspace needs to function and integrate within the home overall. An office doesn’t need to take up a secondary bedroom, and respondents prefer it not to. Areas for working need to be designed with soundproofing and natural light as independent spaces that don’t disrupt how the home functions “after hours” or cause the homeowner to have to adapt their lives to accommodate guests. More on that later.
The behaviors that remained steady throughout and post-pandemic are “exercising at home/outside” at 44%, “DIY improvements” at 29%, and “entertaining friends/family at home” at 16%. It’s no wonder gyms and fitness operators report struggles. Homes that are designed with purpose-built, rightsized home offices and a flexible space for at-home fitness to accommodate midday fitness breaks will meet these consumers’ needs. And while a little more than 40% of consumers said they were “reducing spending” because of fears about inflation and the economy, there’s some good news for the housing market—only 15% said they were “putting off buying a home or car.” Tie that back to the earlier stat where 51% of renters in 2022 said they plan to buy a home in the next few years—there is solid demand for homes designed for how people want to live today.
The most important room in the house may surprise you
The kitchen has been replaced by the family room as the new “heart of the home.” When asked to rank the most important room in their homes, the family room was No. 1 by far at 46%, followed by the kitchen in distant second place at 19%, and then primary bedroom at 18%. The data is one thing. The insights behind it are another, and we saw in their own words how the different generations use these rooms differently.
For millennials, the family room is a place to gather and a place where a lot of activity happens. This single male millennial says it best, “I do almost everything in my family room—all the things I like to do. I relax and watch movies and television there. I often eat dinner on my sofa. I have my laptop on the coffee table, so I do all sorts of things with it. It is the most relaxing space in my house, and I spend a lot of time there.”
Baby boomers see the family room more as a comfortable place to relax. They placed slightly more importance (20%) on the kitchen than others, and it’s the place for gathering and entertaining—still considered the hub of the home to them. The connection between the two spaces is critical, and how they function both for family time and when entertaining guests deserves some more focus.
The primary bedroom is for more than just sleep, especially for millennials. Time to reconsider the layout of this space for sure. A female millennial with children described her experience this way, “It is uniquely mine and my getaway. No one else comes into my room. It is my retreat. Has my very comfortable bed. It has my home office where I work remotely.”
Others spoke about it being the place in their home where they could get away and check in on a YouTube video, watch sports, return some lingering work emails, or have some quiet reflection time, alone but together with others in the home.
What’s missing in a home remains the same from 2020 to 2022
Rounding out this look back at pandemic times and the world today, when we asked consumers to tell us what was missing from their current homes that they wanted and would be willing to pay for in their next home, the answers remained consistent across two survey periods in 2020 and our recent post-pandemic survey. Quite simply, these are priority areas that deserve more focus. The top three haven’t changed much, and the opportunity to make a real impact with better design is key to our design approach.
|Feature ||April 2020 ||October 2020 ||October 2022 |
|Greater technology/energy efficiency || |
|Expanded and better storage || |
|Better equipped kitchen for cooking || |
That’s a lot of data and a lot of insights. Our goal with the America at Home Study was to directly understand how the pandemic changed consumer behaviors, attitudes, and desires in homes and communities and to share these insights with others in our industry so we can all work to create spaces and places that reflect consumer values and help solve the housing challenges we face. The answers aren’t always bigger and more. As we found, most important, they are intentional and responsive.