Designing Second Homes

Communication challenges are part of the custom home business. So anyone who designs and builds secondary residences understands the market for second homes comes with a different set of communication challenges, and slightly different clients.

Second-home owners tend to be vibrant, active and exacting people, with slightly larger bank accounts than most, who know exactly what they want. In some parts of the country, these clients flee harsh winters by escaping to their second homes, sometimes for an entire season, or for a week or two at a time. Second homes can be small one-bedroom weekender retreats, or a family compound and gathering place for extended family.

The nature of a second home is to be unoccupied much of the time, with owners who live out of town. Out of town can mean an hour away in the big city, or on the other side of the country. For those clients who live farther away, the design and build processes take on a different flow than is typical.

“Owners who live out of town is not a problem. We communicate with them using electronic communication,” says Gary Carlson, president, Carlson Homes in Scottsdale, Ariz. During the design process, clients receive sketches, and are on the site maybe once during design to discuss progress in detail. To ensure satisfaction, Carlson is not opposed to sending his designer to where the client lives, but this is rare.

Once construction begins, Carlson regularly sends pictures so clients can track progress. “My superintendent will call once a week to discuss the progress. During construction, owners are out here two or three times. We want them out once before construction; then at the mechanical stage they’re out here to review before the drywall stage,” he says.

In Solona Beach, Calif., where Wardell Builders constructs second homes, the same design/build system is used as for any other project, regardless of where the clients reside. “Like with anything in business, you simply leverage tools differently on different projects,” says Terry Wardell, president. “We still have regular weekly communication, mostly by e-mail. And when we have meetings, we prepare a written agenda. If you want to leave a meeting with answers — especially one with off-site clients — you better have the clients prepared going into it. With a remote client, we make sure they read the documents and understand everything, by asking more follow-up questions.”

Remote clients require a little more attention for some aspects of custom home work, including how to safeguard their property while away. Wardell maintains many of the homes it builds, so it’s not a big deal for Wardell’s service team to pass by an owner’s home at an owner’s request. “The security systems on these homes are basic front-line systems, and most ring to a central station that handles the call. They set up their security monitoring system so the company will then call us, and if you have sewage pumps that need monitoring, for example, they typically are tied to a security system,” Wardell says.

Unfortunately for the clients of John Knudson, president, Knudson Gloss Architects in Boulder, Colo., the response time to any security alert can take up to an hour in the remote locations where vacation homes are built. “Therefore, we are more security conscious with materials. We beef up everything, like stronger windows and doors, for example. For effective security the best situation is to have neighbors around who can check on your house.”

Back in Arizona, Carlson equips all his houses with home automation and security systems, including two cameras and lighting control. “It allows owners to control the house remotely. We’ve found that it’s popular with full- and part-time residents. They can see what’s going on, or can set up the lighting to vary night by night, or can control their HVAC system.”

Designing differences
The design of most secondary homes doesn’t differ much from primary residences, builders say. But this depends on how much money a homeowner wants to invest. In the north woods of Wisconsin, secondary-home owners want what they refer to as cabins, but really are full-blown homes. “Sometimes what they think of as ‘just a cabin’ is four bedrooms with two or three baths and a two- or three-car garage. They want a second home that’s just as large as their primary residence,” says Lisa Prince, designer for Blake & Associates in Long Lake, Minn., and Paul Prince Construction in Bloomer, Wis., where most secondary homes are built for between $350,000 to $500,000.

Prince believes in well-thought out plans, especially when clients can’t be present during the design stage. “We use the design/build process and work to have as many decisions made ahead of time, so the client understands what they will get no surprises in the end,” she says.

Simple design differences, however, can enhance the lifestyle of the second-home owner. For example, Prince’s clients want a fireplace in a great room big enough to hold the couple who lives there, but also the children and grandchildren who visit. “The great rooms typically are large enough to accommodate everyone. And the floor plans are open to the kitchen and eating area, which is the scheme they seem to like,” Prince says.

Another feature of the secondary home in Wisconsin is plenty of wood on the interior. “On the exterior, we try to encourage the use of wood, too. They also like to have stone fireplaces. But in the mid-priced range, we end up using the fabricated stone for the fireplace because then you don’t have to invest in the structure necessary to support real stone. They’d rather spend that money on other elements of the house.”

Wood also is common to secondary homes in Colorado, Knudson says. His clients expect to see different materials. “Like normally you see a drywall home as a primary residence, but in the mountains you get wood paneling, and log homes, and a more dramatic experience overall.”

For most secondary homes, clients want something different. Their primary house is lived in for reasons such as being close to work, family, and are in a subdivision environment. For second homes they don’t have to be as stoic; they can be unusual, exciting and dramatic, Knudson says.

“These homes tend to have open floor plans, taking the minimum amount of space and making it work as best as it can. They tend to be party houses with more, but smaller, bedrooms, and more bathrooms. However, the primary resident still wants a master bedroom that’s special, and not downsized,” Knudson says.

Second homes can be small or large, from hand-hewn log structures of only 1,000 sq. ft. in the woods, up to a compound in Wyoming that includes a main and guest house, and several outbuildings, Knudson says. “The extended family spends most of the summer in property like this, and their primary house might be in the Florida Keys.”

Like in Wisconsin, owners of second homes in Colorado need the ability to store toys like a snowmobile, skis, fishing poles, which is not a common requirement for most primary homes, Knudson says.

In Arizona, second homes tend to be smaller, Carlson says. In line with Wisconsin and Colorado, the great room concept is used to a much greater degree than in full-time residences. “Homes are designed for visiting friends and family so they want space to entertain. The secondary bedrooms are larger than those in a family’s full-time home. And, in second residences, more attention is paid to the master suite,” he adds.

Flex space, Carlson adds, also can be valuable in a second home. “Flex space is exactly that … it’s flexible, so it can be a sitting area, for example, and then if the grandkids come down during the winter, they can play there while the owners stay in the great room. The flex area usually is away from the adults.”

In California, the second-home market is not the vacation-by-the-lake market. Property in Del Mar on the sand is expensive, so interior space is maximized, Wardell says. “They may not be as large as the owner’s primary residence, but the kitchen and master suite amenities are just as nice. They also have extra bedrooms for family. We have built 14,000-sq.-ft. two-bedroom second homes. But we’ve also built 600-sq.-ft. models.”

Designing for lifestyle
In addition to healthy bank accounts, most second-home clients, even though they tend to be older, also possess healthy lifestyles, Knudson says. Still, the design team is always cognizant of incorporating universal design elements. “Many homes are multistory, so we stack walk-in closets for a roughed-in elevator shaft. Seldom do we design specific cabinetry heights and things like that unless the client is handicapped. It’s a rule of thumb to block-in bathrooms for grab bars.”

Wardell’s customers in California are active and healthy, so there’s very little universal design in these homes, he says. “Think about what universal design really is. We do most of that already. A standard 2-ft. 6-in. doorway is a small door in our homes because we usually go with a 3-ft. doorway. In terms of having a master shower with a curb, or a big opening, we have that anyway. Those elements, architecturally, are simply considered nice to have. We don’t incorporate fold-down seats or grab bars, but how much is that really going to cost to add when the owners need them? Many homes have an elevator, or are designed for one in the future. But many of our owners use them to get their suitcases up and down the stairs.”