When smaller means more

Two vastly different worlds are converging in home building today.

One is expressed in mega-square footage with top-of-the-line appointments that characterize custom homes. The other is the smaller dwelling perfect for homeowners looking to downsize. But now even small homes have all the bells and whistles.

More American home buyers and remodelers want it all -- if not more space, better space in looks, layout and function. They want convenience, ease of use, storage to the max and comfort. Home buyers are even looking to vacation spots for inspiration.

Five to 10 years ago, real estate perquisites largely were based on perceptions of deluxe upgrades, such as granite counters rather than laminate and master baths with double vanities.

Today, you can add to the mix things such as spalike baths, wine cellars, walk-in pantries, outdoor rooms, coffee bars in master bedrooms, work stations for charging cell phones, and finished garages.

Some of the impetus for better detailing of homes has come from furniture manufacturers. They are listening to their customers who say they want cabinets that look like furniture in the kitchen and bath, more efficient storage and display for plasma televisions, and computer stations or desks that gather and hide all the cords.

Furniture-style vanities for the bath are available from Kohler Co., and you also can choose your sink and faucet.

Good-looking organizational options abound through retailers such as Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Ikea and The Container Store, with woven wicker-basket bins now a popular fixture in many kitchens.

As consumers have become more aware, the wish lists for residential amenities have become more sophisticated. Home buyers attuned to what's available in sustainable, green technology can find flooring and cabinetry made of renewable resources such as bamboo, for example. And builders are taking notice.

What resonates most is this: Prospective home buyers and remodelers alike welcome a little luxury and a lot of thoughtfulness about what's important in the 21st-century home.

The ideology of architect Sarah Susanka, author of the best-selling The Not So Big House (Taunton, $22.95), has kicked in some nine years and six books later. Her latest installment, The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters (Random House, $24.95), came out last spring.

Susanka's mantra of "build better, not bigger" has challenged designers and architects to seek more clever solutions to creating space. And the downsizing she has encouraged is becoming a trend.

"Downsizing has become cool," Susanka says. "How comfortably, how sensibly a home lives has percolated into the consciousness."

But though homes might be getting smaller, that doesn't necessarily mean people are spending less, says Charles Miller, editor of special issues for Fine Homebuilding, a magazine devoted to residential construction. Architectural tricks such as altering ceiling heights between rooms are effective devices to visually expand space, Miller says.

"Putting in a half-wall with a bookcase and extra storage, delineating one space from the other, adds spaciousness and generosity," he says. "Layering creates another level of interest."

Susanka has noted the same trend. Dropping a home down in square footage allows a bigger budget "to make it comfortable, beautiful," she says. "Houses may be a third smaller but just as expensive."

She long has been an advocate of the extra touches that give a home character and personalize spaces. Susanka says there are many ways to add character, often simply by paying attention to details. Though fancy moldings, trims and ceiling medallions are not new, availability is much greater and synthetic options have brought down price tags, for example.

"Another thing that's really blossomed over the last decade," Susanka says, "is the value of a beautifully designed door, both interior and exterior." Inside, paneled or carved doors or doors with glass panes can add grace as a passage from room to room.

"There's also a sense of integration of utility spaces," she says. "If laundry rooms and basements are finished with the same character as other rooms of the house, it's going to make the whole house feel better."

Generally there's more appreciation for craftsmanship, Susanka says. That's why hand-scraped flooring has become a more popular option. A popular choice is wide (5-inch) boards with grooves and dings that lend a vintage, rustic look, one that's casual and elegant at the same time.

Part of what fuels consumers is a desire to recreate the ambience of a vacation, perhaps even a luxury hotel. New styles of outdoor furnishings mimic indoor styles and forge a connection between interiors and exteriors. Outdoor grills, bars and pergolas have brought resort accouterments home. Some of the "hardscaping" for outdoor rooms now is being integrated into home construction, along with landscaping as a backdrop.

A trip to Canyon Ranch or other spas might not fit your calendar or budget yet, but you can soak in a tub that caresses tired muscles in your own bathroom spa. Steam showers also are new niceties in the bath.

Besides a desire to recreate vacation experiences, today's trends speak directly to organization and storage. In the garage, some builders are holding bare drywall and concrete floors to a minimum. They are finishing out garages with floors of lock-in rubber tiles and furnishing them with stylish cabinets and shelves.

The mudroom is another space that's become standard in new residential construction and remodeling. Usually at the back, side or garage-door entrance, it's equipped with built-in cupboards for outerwear and gear, cubbies for shoes and boots and a bench for groceries in transit from the car.

There even are tricked-up mudroom options such as built-in cubbies for pets. Cubbies also spill into the kitchen, where leftover spaces are put to good use as wine racks or pullouts that hold spices or cleaning supplies.

Though the preference for amenities in the home varies, one thing is clear: Home buyers want a sanctuary.

"But space alone doesn't make it a sanctuary. We've gone bigger and bigger and bigger, but we're not feeling any better about our lives," Susanka says. "People are looking for tranquillity."


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