Emphasis Seen on Accessibility as U.S. Home Sizes Decline

WASHINGTON, DC — The prolonged downturn in the U.S. economy and the nation’s housing market, coupled with growing concerns about rising utility costs, has resulted in greater interest among consumers in smaller homes, a newly released survey by the American Institute of Architects concludes.

According to the latest in a quarterly series of Home Design Trends Surveys conducted by the Washington, DC-based AIA, the growing desire for smaller homes is being accompanied by broader lifestyle changes, with U.S. households eschewing upscale amenities and opting instead to invest in more low-maintenance projects, particularly for property improvements.

The findings from the AIA survey, which focused on overall home layout and use in the first quarter of 2010, were buttressed by a report issued last month by the National Association of Home Builders which found that the size of new single-family homes declined last year, reversing some three decades of increased growth.

According to the AIA, accessibility within the home continues to be a concern, especially for an aging population, and there is an increasing demand for more flexible design and informal space within homes.

“We continue to move away from the ‘McMansion’ chapter of residential design, with more demand for practicality throughout the home,” said AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker. 

While kitchen and bathroom remodeling continues to remain the most promising sector in residential construction, there has been a drop off in the popularity of such upscale property enhancements as formal landscaping, decorative water features, tennis courts and gazebos, according to Baker.

“There has been a steady decline in both the square footage and volume in home design in recent years,” he noted. “The preference instead seems to be for more flexible, open and informal layouts that allow for both ease of movement and fostering a space more conducive to family living.”

According to the NAHB, the size of new single-family homes declined last year, dropping to a nationwide average of 2,438 sq. ft.

After increasing continually for nearly three decades, the average size of single-family homes completed in the U.S. peaked at 2,521 sq. ft. in 2007. That number was essentially flat in 2008, and then it dropped in 2009, so that new single-family homes were almost 100 square feet smaller in 2009 than in 2007.

“We also saw a decline in the size of new homes when the economy lapsed into recession in the early 1980s,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “The decline of the early 1980s turned out to be temporary, but this time the decline is related to phenomena such as an increased share of first-time home buyers, a desire to keep energy costs down, smaller amounts of equity in existing homes to roll into the next home, tighter credit standards and less focus on the investment component of buying a home.

“Many of these tendencies are likely to persist and continue affecting the new home market for an extended period,” Crowe observed.

In keeping with their slightly smaller size, new single-family homes completed in 2009 had fewer bathrooms than they did previously, the NAHB reported. The proportion of homes with three or more bathrooms was 24% last year, a decline from the peak of 28% in both 2007 and 2008, the trade association said.

The percentage of single-family homes with two bathrooms increased from 35% to 37% last year, and the percentage with 2½ bathrooms was at 31% for the third consecutive year. The proportion of single-family homes with 1 or 1½ bathrooms has been below 10% for more than a decade.