Homes Getting Smaller As Market Weakens

WASHINGTON, DC— As the housing market continues to weaken, and rising costs continue to impact consumers, the size of the typical U.S. home is declining, a new study by the American Institute of Architects reveals.

The study, whose results were released by the AIA last month, suggests that residential architects are also encountering an increased emphasis on the part of clients, particularly aging homeowners, on greater accessibility throughout the home, as well as on a growing number of outdoor living options.

The study suggests, in addition, that key characteristics of the American home continue to evolve, in part because of the weak economy and housing market, and in part because of demographic changes in the population and the growing awareness of sustainable design principles (see Graph 1).

The findings, which form the basis of the AIA’s latest in a quarterly series of “Home Design Trends Surveys,” reflect overall home layout and use in the first quarter of 2008, according to the Washington, DC-based AIA, which derives its results from a panel of 500 architecture firms that focus on the residential sector.

Home Sizes Declining

One obvious sign of the changing characteristics of homes, the AIA notes, is their size.

According to government figures, the average size of a new home had increased nearly 50% over the past three decades, and as recently as 2006, almost twice as many residential architects polled by the AIA reported home sizes to be increasing as reported them to be decreasing. By 2007, however, that trend had reversed, as more residential architects reported home sizes to be decreasing than increasing. With the 2008 survey, more than twice as many respondents reported home size declines as reported increases (33.5% vs. 15.5%), according to the trade association.

“The weakness in the housing market forces households to be more sensitive to housing affordability concerns. Coupled with rising home energy costs, this encourages many to rethink their overall space needs,” observes AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker.

“While smaller homes may be a short-term response to economic conditions, there are signs that we may be at the beginning of a longer cycle where house sizes stabilize or even decline.”

Trends are similar, although less pronounced, for the volume of homes (e.g.: higher ceiling heights, two-story foyers), the AIA reports.

In the association’s 2005 survey, for example, 51% of the residential architects polled reported that the volume of homes was increasing, while only 4% reported them to be declining, the AIA notes. By 2008, with growing concerns over housing affordability as well as dramatically higher home energy prices that increase the cost of heating these larger spaces, this gap had narrowed significantly, with 28% of respondents reporting the volume of homes to be increasing and 12% reporting them to be declining.

Accessibility & Informality

Even with declining home sizes, residential architects report continued strong interest in accessibility into, out of, and throughout the home, according to the AIA.

More than two-thirds of residential architects polled report that home layouts to improve accessibility around the house (e.g.: wider hallways, fewer steps) are growing in popularity. Almost as many (59%) indicated that home layouts and features that promote accessibility into the home (e.g.: ramps, on-grade entrances) were also growing in popularity.

Coupled with the emphasis on accessibility to accommodate an aging population is the continued emphasis on increased informal space in the home and in an open space layout with flexible floor plans. With lifestyles adapting and household compositions changing, households are looking for greater flexibility in the use of space in their homes. As an example, a substantial portion of residential architects (29%) note the increased popularity of partial wall divisions (as opposed to floor-to-ceiling walls) to promote greater flexibility in the use of interior space.

The “green movement” is also apparently influencing the kitchen products architects are specifying, with an increased use of renewable materials for both flooring and countertops, a recent AIA survey reveals (see Graph 2).

According to the AIA, interest in outdoor living space has also been steadily increasing. In 2005, for example, slightly under half of surveyed residential architects saw this as a trend growing in popularity. By 2008, over two-thirds of respondents saw this as increasing in popularity.

Related to outdoor living is the growing interest in blended indoor/outdoor space, as well as outdoor features and amenities (for example: cooking centers, courtyards, outdoor fireplaces, exterior lighting and gazebos).

“As households place greater emphasis on using their properties, they are looking for home designs that blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor features,” Baker says.