The home building industry has a reputation for being evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but buyers and their needs changed substantially over the last half-decade. Boomer buyers are older; the iPhone transformed communications and web technology; and the family makeup evolved. 

“Often I think developers are looking backwards at the last successful project, when the trends are moving out from underneath them,” says architect Don Powers, founder of Providence, R.I.-based Union Studio Architecture + Community Design, who notes that there’s been a sea change in the public’s understanding of home design. “The general understanding of home design [among consumers] is higher.” And that heightened knowledge is influencing what’s being built and sold.

To find out what trends are taking hold, Builder talked to three architects—Powers; Charles Wenzlau, principal of Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based Wenzlau Architects; and Nick Lehnert, executive director of the research and development department of Irvine, Calif.-based KTGY Architecture + Planning—about how the future of home design is shaping up. 

Smaller and Closer to Main Street

The architects say one of the biggest trends is that people are moving back to Main Street and into smaller homes. The trend is particularly strong among boomers looking to downsize. “They want to sell their houses in the suburbs to move closer in to be able to walk to the movies,” Wenzlau says. 

While statistics imply the trend toward smaller homes recently reversed, Powers attributes the “blip” to foreclosures “skewing the average up,” adding that the developers and home buyers he’s working with are all looking for product that is “smaller and well crafted.” 

He credits much of the trend to the success of architects Marianne Cusato and Sarah Susanka in popularizing small-but-smart home design, as well as the overall improvement he perceives in buyers’ appreciation for quality. 

One notable exception Lehnert points out is Gen X buyers, who “are still looking for more square footage.” 

“It’s not the whole market, but it’s a shift,” says Powers. “The pool of people buying only on price per pound is shrinking—or maybe developers are just responding to a want that has always been there. Every time we do communities with smaller homes, people come out of the woodwork, saying ‘I’ve never seen anything in between a large single-family house and a condo.’ It adapts to different kinds of families—empty nesters, single women.” 

Neighborhood Feel

Wenzlau has been working with developers and builders to “deinstitutionalize” projects for a more traditional neighborhood feel. Powers sees the same trend, adding that there’s a particular demand for right-sized homes in projects that foster close-knit communities. 

To illustrate, Powers points to Riverwalk, a cottage community in Concord, Mass., where sales have been brisk (since breaking ground in September, only one home remains unsold) and homes fetch prices “20% higher than anything comparable in the area,” he says. Its secret: thoughtfully appointed smaller homes situated around a common green, leaving cars in one parking area away from the shared public space. The dwellings also are net-zero capable, with all homes wired and plumbed to accommodate solar photovoltaics and thermal hot water panels, which can either be installed at time of purchase or added on later. 

Not the Same ‘Ol Designs

“Families are different,” says Lehnert, adding that changes run the gamut from the surge in multigenerational families living together, to the way technology is “forcing families to live their houses differently.”

The answer? Including more of what Lehnert calls “idea space” in the plan. “Consumers would like to live houses differently than how everyone else would live. So how do you allow them to have that function in the house so they can flex it?” He suggests adding idea space adjacent to the family room to allow larger families more room to be together, while those who wish to can adapt the space to take on a secondary purpose.

In the multifamily market, Wenzlau has noticed that customers are “looking for something other than the typical condominium.” Whereas 10 years ago his firm was “doing a lot of stacked flats,” now the trend is toward projects with greater variety—such as cottage and courtyard homes.

Outdoor Space

“We’re seeing tremendous enthusiasm for privatized outdoor space,” says Lehnert, adding that customers are looking for “architecture that protects the space,” offering privacy. Enhancing that space with an outdoor kitchen or fire pit is becoming increasingly popular among Powers’ clients. 

Customers downsizing from large single-family houses to attached homes don’t want to give up private outdoor space with room to garden, Wenzlau says. He answers that need with semi-private patios.


Not surprisingly, opinions diverge when it comes to sustainability.

Powers has noticed what he has titled the “Prius Effect.” “There’s a certain amount of sustainable features that people are willing to buy on an emotional level, even if it doesn’t make sense economically,” he says. “Ten years ago, people would ask for a pool; now they ask for a geothermal heat system. … They’re willing to pay more so they can feel like they’re doing their part and express themselves.” 

Lehnert also believes that high-performance building is useful for self-expression, but he sees it on the builders’ end. “Some builders are doing it and branding themselves that way, understanding that it will cost them more.” 

As for customers, “everybody wants to be green, but few are willing to pay for it,” he says. “It’s an ongoing process figuring out how much we [as an industry] are going to do.” 

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.