Small is the New Big

Small is the New BigToday’s homeowners prefer quality over quantity By Lis King

The age of McMansions is over. So say surveys conducted by such organizations as the American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Home Builders. Emerald Coast-area experts agree; now people want smaller, but better and smarter homes, they say.

“For so long, people wanted houses designed to impress rather than nurture,” says developer and builder Randy Wise of Niceville. “‘The bigger, the better’ was the philosophy. Then came a shift in attitude, a sort of backlash against conspicuous consumption, plus the economic downturn and an upswing in energy costs. Combine those three factors, and you’ve got the perfect storm, the right climate for a reevaluation of housing.

“Having said that, it’s important to note that today’s small house often isn’t less costly than the bigger one,” Wise says. “But buyers accept that as long as they’re spending their money on high-quality design and features, including those that cut utility costs, rather than rooms and space built just for show.”

Watree Homes, a Fort Walton Beach construction and development company, also is finding that home buyers are more interested in quality and energy-efficiency than square footage.

“We go the extra mile,” says operations manager Nathan Harris, “with such features as granite counters, all-wood cabinetry, tray ceilings in master bedrooms and, of course, appliances, fixtures and windows top-rated for eco-friendliness.

“The gist of it is that when you build smaller, you can spend money on higher-quality materials and features,” he says.

As They Like It

The Ockermans of Niceville typify the new kind of homeowner. When they recently built their home to replace a structure that had been destroyed in a fire, they opted for lots of energy-efficiency, as well as accessibility and features especially desirable in the Emerald Coast area.

“We had this house built for the long haul,” says Marie Ockerman. “We want to stay here for many years, and I think that makes a lot of difference. If you’re building with resale in mind, you may have different priorities.”

She raves about the energy-efficiency of the house.

“They sprayed insulation on the inside of the roof rather than the ceiling, so the attic is very comfortable,” Ockerman says. “In addition, the walls are extra-thick, and we put in geothermal heating and cooling. As a result, we love to show off our monthly utility bills. On the average, they run a little over $100 a month, and, believe me, our neighbors are watching this with considerable interest.”

Because the Ockermans plan to stay in the house for the foreseeable future, they had it built with extra-wide doors and wider showers with a view toward wheelchair accessibility. In addition, the toilets are higher than normal.

The house faces the Gulf of Mexico, so naturally the Ockermans didn’t want to skimp on the size of windows, regardless of the fact that Southern exposure lets in sun and heat. However, the windows are absolutely top of the line for energy-efficiency. They are also hurricane-proof.

Culture Shift

The top trade associations that follow home trends say that the shift in home buyers’ attitudes reflects a cultural shift, as well as tough economic times.

For many years, architects in particular have objected to the size-is-everything philosophy, and then one of their own, Sarah Susanka, wrote “The Not So Big House,” a book that urged home buyers to rebuff “the starter castle complex.” To everyone’s surprise, the book became a big hit and launched a nationwide movement toward commonsense housing.

“The book hit home, so to speak,” says Wise, the Niceville builder and developer. “People were fed up with the wastefulness of all that space, often for a very small family. Those two-story entries and specialty rooms for things like gift-wrapping or wine-tasting really got eyes rolling. And then when an older home got torn down to make room for a house that, size-wise, often resembled a hotel, it changed the character of a whole neighborhood. People didn’t like that.”

Another factor is that home buyers no longer think of a house in terms of resale. They used to think they needed that two-story foyer, a living room and a formal dining room to appeal to the next owners, but now they just want what they need for their own family. In fact, Realtors say that homeowners are no longer in the catbird seat if they own the largest house on the block. On the contrary, buyers might well run the other way.

The fact is that over the past few years, home sizes have declined for the first time since World War II. The U.S. Census notes that in 2009, the average size of homes under construction declined from 2,629 square feet in the second quarter to 2,343 in the fourth quarter.

How Green is My Home?

There’s more to the trend toward environmental consciousness than utility costs. So says Pat Ballasch of Dag Architects, a firm with offices in Destin, Tallahassee and Pensacola.

“The overall trend toward sustainable design is really taking off,” he says. “People want better quality so a home will last a long time — in itself a ‘green’ consideration — and they’re much more interested in where materials come from.”

Reclaimed wood flooring, stained concrete and porcelain tile are all popular, according to Ballasch, not just because they’re ecologically sound, but also because they help fight allergens.

“We’re also finding much interest in water conservation, so we design homes with less-thirsty landscaping and with ‘rain hogs,’” Ballasch says. “That’s a self-contained system that collects, treats and recirculates rainwater. More-efficient heat pumps and new types of reflective windows that don’t absorb heat are other features that attract new home buyers.”

A survey conducted by Better Homes & Gardens magazine and presented at the annual National Association of Home Builders Show supports Ballasch’s opinions.

“The highest number (of survey respondents) ever listed energy-efficiency as their top priority in the next home they buy,” says Eliot Nusbaum, executive editor of the magazine’s Special Interest Group. That percentage was 76 percent.”

“In the past, energy-efficiency was mostly fluff and talk,” Ballasch says. “Now people are taking it seriously.”

Flex Rooms

Some of the amenities that people went gaga over in the McMansions have retained their appeal, however. Nusbaum says that wide-open floor plans still are favorites. Home buyers also consider outdoor private space important and still want home offices, although there is some change in the latter category. In 2009, 64 percent wanted a dedicated home office, but this year 28 percent have specified it as a multi-purpose room.

In builder-speak, a multi-purpose room is a “flex room.” Ballasch explains that people are no longer moving frequently, and the U.S. Census Bureau backs up that claim. In 2008, the U.S. mobility rate was 12 percent. That’s the lowest figure in decades. The flex room helps a home change with the owners, Ballasch says.

Essentially, a flex room is a blank slate that can be customized to suit home buyers’ needs by adding amenities such as built-ins, closets or extra electrical outlets.

Because of the flex room, it isn’t at all paradoxical that while the American home is getting smaller, it also is becoming more multi-generational. Many families now expect their children to live at home for a couple of years after college until they’re safely settled in good jobs and have saved enough for a house. The trend toward elderly parents moving in with their grown children also is a pervasive one. When combined with the standard bedroom and bath, the flex room becomes a sitting room and turns a part of the house into a private, apartment-like space.

As part of the trend in elderly parents moving in and possible future health challenges of their own, home buyers also are installing elevators in two-story homes — or at least making room for them.

“What we’re doing in some new construction projects is creating the shaft and the recess in the basement for the hydraulics,” Ballasch says. “The shaft is framed to make closets for now, but it is there later if needed.

“Long-term planning is certainly in,” he says. “And that’s smart. You never know what’s going to happen. A flexible house is great, one that can be used one way now but can accommodate something else in the future. Look at it this way: When you’re building from scratch, it’s easy to make a wide doorway that’s wheelchair-accessible. It’s hard to do later.”

Closeness is In

One of the big benefits listed by small-home owners is family closeness. In the age of McMansions, there were many special places, such as a recreation/playroom, a sunroom, a master bedroom suite, decks and a patio, and, of course, there were TVs and computers in every child’s bedroom. All of that roominess encouraged isolation. By contrast, the smaller house invites family interaction, with the kitchen being the heart of it all. This is where the family not only cooks and eats but also talks, does homework and entertains the Cub Scouts.

But is all this a lasting trend? Absolutely, say the experts. In the Better Homes & Gardens survey, 36 percent of the respondents said they wanted their next home to be smaller, and according to Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research for the National Association of Home Builders, nine out of 10 builders say they’re building or planning smaller homes than in the past.

“We don’t need big homes,” Ahluwalia says. “Family size has been declining for the past 30 years.”

But what about Sarah Susanka? She practices what she preaches. As a bestselling author, Susanka could have built a McMansion. Instead, she built a 2,200-square-foot Cape Cod with a big front porch on a lot that looks rural but is close to the airport, the grocery store and a lovely lake.

“What more could one want?” Susanka asks in her new book, “Not So Big Remodeling.” You guessed it: In this book, she sets out to help people use existing space better.