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Business Intelligence:

Weak Housing Market Reflected in Kitchen and Bath Design Trends

Even with downsizing, households place priority on sustainability and accessibility

by Kermit Baker, PhD, Hon. AIA, AIA Chief Economist

Current kitchen and baths designs stress efficiency and simplicity, as these areas of the home are being somewhat downsized in the face of continued weakness in the housing market. In spite of more pressure on space, residential architects report functions being added to kitchens–such as recycling centers and electronic recharge and storage areas–as kitchens remain the command center of the home. For both kitchens and baths, households are placing a premium on features and products that promote energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, and adaptability in the use of space as seniors and populations with home accessibility concerns are becoming a significant share of household growth.

These are some of the key finding of the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey for the fourth quarter of 2009. With a focus on kitchen and bath design trends, this effort surveyed residential architects on emerging developments they are observing in their work with builders, developers, and households looking to design or remodel their home.

Kitchens take on added functions

Although kitchens and bathrooms remain a central focus of homes, these areas too have been somewhat downsized recently as homes have become smaller and more efficient. Historically, home sizes have shrunk somewhat during economic recessions, but a consensus is emerging that over the coming decade new homes will be smaller on average than they were over the past decade. In the near future, home values are unlikely to see the rapid appreciation that they saw between 1995 and 2005, which was a primary reason that households were looking for bigger and more expensive homes.

As home sizes moderate, space is being used differently. According to the Home Design Trends Survey, 14% of surveyed residential architects reported that the number of food preparation and food storage areas in the home was increasing, while 19% saw them decreasing. This pattern was very similar for the size of kitchens: 14% reported gains while 18% reported declines. Just a year ago, a higher share of respondents felt that the number and size of kitchen areas were increasing than decreasing (Figure 1). Cumulatively, since the Home Design Trends Survey began in 2005, there has been a fairly significant reversal in the growth of kitchen areas in the home.

While space is at a premium in the kitchen as architects need to do more with less space, there are some functions that have retained their importance and others that have even increased in importance. Areas devoted to recycling are growing in popularity according to a majority of residential architects surveyed. Pantry areas, computer work stations, and areas devoted to recharging laptops, cell phones, and PDAs also remain very popular functions within the kitchen. As kitchens continue to be the focus of most homes, integrating the kitchen with family space remains a popular option, as does designing kitchens for accessibility and adaptability (Figure 2).

Sustainability remains a popular choice for products used in the kitchen. Renewable material countertops and flooring are still seen as increasing in popularity by a majority of respondents, with just a fraction seeing either of these products as decreasing in popularity. Drinking water filtration systems and natural wood cabinets are beginning to stabilize in terms of their popularity (Figure 3).

Bathrooms emphasize sustainability rather than glitz

Trends in the number and size of bathrooms in homes are similar to kitchen trends, although more respondents reported that both the number and size of baths is increasing. Just 17% of respondents reported that the number of bathrooms in homes was still increasing, while 8% saw a trend toward fewer bathrooms in homes. Percentages were similar for the size of bathrooms (Figure 4). Both the number and size of bathrooms saw peak growth rates in 2006 according to previous AIA surveys, with the pace slowing significantly over the past three years.

With bath sizes stabilizing in homes, there are fewer features being added. However, a majority of residential architects report that interest in radiant heated floors is increasing due to energy efficiency and comfort considerations. As with kitchen design, residential architects report that households remain interested in accessibility and adaptability in their bathrooms (Figure 5).

Energy efficiency, sustainability, and accessibility are also key themes in popular bathroom products. Water-saving toilets in general and dual flush toilets in particular are seen as increasing in popularity by a majority of architects surveyed. Along with light-emitting diode (LED) lighting, these three product lines are seen as increasing in popularity even as households are generally scaling back on their investment in housing. Doorless and no threshold showers, as well as hand showers, are bathroom products that promote accessibility and that are remaining popular according to residential architects (Figure 6). Other upscale bath products are not faring as well in this new cost-conscious housing environment. Both steam showers and towel warming drawers/ racks are reported to be declining in popularity by about a third of respondents.

Residential architects still report weakness

Business conditions at residential architecture firms have been steadily declining since mid-2007. The downturn accelerated beginning mid-year 2008, and moderated throughout 2009. As of the fourth quarter of 2009, almost half (49%) of residential architecture firms participating in the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey reported that billings fell in the fourth quarter compared to the third, while only 13% reported an increase in billings. Those responses generate a score of 32 on the billings scale, down from 38 in both the second and third quarters. Inquiries for new project activity have been more favorable, but also continue to decline in recent quarters (Figure 7). Neither billings nor inquiries are adjusted for season trends, and since the fourth quarter of the year is generally slow for residential architects, these scores may be somewhat overstating the weakness in the market.

The weakness in new project activity has eroded the backlog of project workloads at many architecture firms. Project backlogs (the amount of time that in-house projects can keep current staff fully employed) have picked up modestly to 3.1 months at present from 2.8 months at the beginning of 2009, but well below the four to five month level that is more typical in the profession (Figure 8).

Regionally, no area of the country is showing signs of strength for residential activity according to residential architects. All regions have seen the downturn moderate since the end of 2008, but in all regions close to half of the respondents or even more were reporting declining billings in the fourth quarter of 2009 compared to the third (Figure 9).

In spite of the general weakness in the market, some housing sectors are much stronger than others. For new construction, the downturn began first for entry level (first-time buyer) homes, with this sector weakening beginning in 2005, as these households were priced out of the market as house prices continued to escalate. Now, with favorable mortgage rates, house prices that have seen considerable adjustments in most markets, and an $8,000 tax credit for qualifying households, homeownership is affordable again for many entry-level buyers. As a result, this sector is balanced between architects seeing it as strengthening and those seeing it as weakening.

Other construction sectors have not yet seen this level of recovery. Move-up homes, which are generally targeted by younger households trading-up to their second home, have seen better conditions as the first-time market has begun to strengthen. However, other housing sectors: second and vacation homes, townhouses and condos, and custom and luxury homes remain almost as depressed as they were in the fourth quarter of 2008. Home improvement activity in contrast – both kitchen and bath remodels as well as room additions – was reported to be growing in the fourth quarter after dipping slightly at the end of 2008 (Figure 10).



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