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Kitchens and Baths Regain Some Attention in Home Design

As the residential sector begins to recover, focus turns to making kitchens and baths more accessible and sustainable

By Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA

AIA Chief Economist

Pressure on the number and size of kitchens and baths as a result of the housing downturn appears to be subsiding. A growing number of residential architects report that the number and size of kitchens and bathrooms have been increasing recently. Residential architects see growing popularity in pantry space and recycling centers in kitchens, while interest remains strong in integrating family space with kitchens. Similarly, bathrooms designed for adaptability and incorporating universal design features remain very popular. These are all key findings of the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey for the fourth quarter of 2010.

Business conditions at residential architecture firms generally remain weak, and billings at these firms have not grown since mid-2007. However, project backlogs have been inching up recently, so business conditions may see some improvement in the coming quarters. Further evidence of an impending recovery is that firms in each of the major census regions are reporting that revenue is beginning to stabilize. Firms report that home-improvement projects (additions and structural alterations, as well as kitchen and bath remodels) are much healthier than new construction activity. The second and vacation home market, as well as the townhouse and condo market, remain extremely weak.

Kitchens again the focal point

As homes have been downsized in recent years, kitchens have not been spared. The AIA’s 2009 survey of kitchen and bath design trends reported that more residential architects indicated that the size of kitchens was declining than increasing. This downsizing of kitchens may have run its course. As of the Q4 2010 survey, 22 percent of respondents reported the size of kitchens to be increasing, with 16 percent reporting decreasing sizes. Most respondents (62 percent) were seeing no change in size. The number of food preparation or food storage areas in the home was reported as holding steady this year after the slight net decline reported for 2009 (Figure 1).

With less pressure on size, some special function areas within the kitchen remain popular. At the top of the list are pantry space and recycling centers, where almost half of residential architects are reporting increasing interest, and very few are reporting a decrease. With growing numbers of electronic devices being used, areas for recharging these devices (as well as general computer work) also remain popular features within kitchens. Integrating kitchens with family living space–often called “great rooms”–remains a very popular design feature (Figure 2). Other more upscale kitchen features (double islands for working or eating, wine storage areas, composting bins, pet feeding and grooming areas) have more limited popularity at present.

Sustainable design is the dominant theme for popular kitchen products. Almost half of residential architects surveyed indicated that both renewable material flooring (like bamboo or cork) and countertops (concrete, bamboo) are gaining in popularity, while only a small share indicated that consumer interest was decreasing. Drinking-water filtration systems and natural wood cabinets still are showing reasonable gains in popularity (Figure 3). However, as with upscale design features for kitchens, upscale products are not faring well. Duplicate appliances, upper-end appliances, and natural stone countertops are all declining in popularity, according to a large share of residential architects.

Accessibility remains key design concern for bathrooms

Emphasis on bathrooms also had waned somewhat during the housing downturn. In our 2009 survey, only about one in six residential architects reported the number and size of bathrooms to be increasing, while about one in 10 reported them to be decreasing. With this survey, the share reporting the number and size of bathrooms to be increasing grew modestly. Still, the overwhelming majority of architects reported no change in either of these measures (Figure 4).

Bathroom design that promotes accessibility and incorporates universal design elements topped the list of features growing in popularity, according to survey respondents. This concern has rated high for several years in the AIA’s Home Design Trends Surveys, and an aging population ensures continued popularity for years to come. Radiant heated floors also were reported as a feature with increasing popularity in bath design (Figure 5).

Given the emphasis on accessibility and universal design, doorless showers and hand showers were reported as growing in popularity. However, topping the list of bath products were water conserving toilets–both those directly using less water as well as those with a dual flush option. LED lighting is another bathroom product seeing continued, strong growth in popularity (Figure 6). Again, more upscale products (steam showers, towel warming racks or drawers, sensor operated faucets) were reported as having decreasing levels of popularity.

Business conditions remain weak

Despite some signs that the housing market may be beginning to recover, residential architecture firms remain plagued with weak business conditions. The AIA Home Design Trends Survey billings index was just over 45 in the fourth quarter (without seasonal adjustments), where a score of 50 would indicate that billings had stabilized. Just over 20 percent of residential architects reported that billings in the fourth quarter increased from the third quarter, while 30 percent reported a decline. Residential architecture firms have not reported a quarterly increase in billings since mid-2007. Inquiries for new project activity increased somewhat in the fourth quarter, which may be an encouraging indicator for future workloads (Figure 7).

Project backlogs at firms–the amount of work in-house and under contract–was sufficient to support current staffing levels for about five months in mid-2007, when firm billings were at their peak, but steadily declined through early 2009 when they fell to below three months. Since then, backlogs have essentially remained flat, with just a modest upward drift. However, it does appear that they have stabilized, and should begin to drift back up as the housing market recovers (Figure 8).

Nationally, billings at residential architecture firms are beginning to bottom out, and that same trend holds for each of the four major regions of the country. At present, there are no regions where firms on average are reporting increasing revenue, but firms in all regions are seeing billing levels begin to stabilize. The regional billings index scores are all very close, ranging from 43 for residential architecture firms in the Northeast to just over 46 for those in the South (Figure 9).

While there has been some progress over the past few months in terms of stabilization in the home building market, most sectors remain quite weak. The entry-level market, with homes designed for first-time buyers, has deteriorated over the past year, according to residential architects. Currently, 39 percent of respondents rank that sector as weakening, while only 16 percent report it to be strengthening. The other major residential construction sectors likewise are reported to be weakening, although at a somewhat slower pace than in late 2009. However, the second and vacation home market remains extremely depressed, with 65 percent of respondents reporting it to be weakening, and only 9 percent indicating that conditions for these homes are improving.

In contrast, design work on improvements to existing homes is reported as very healthy. For additions and alterations, as well as kitchen and bath remodels, more than half of respondents serving these sectors report conditions to be improving, and only about one in 10 report them to be weakening (Figure 10). In spite of the downturn in the home improvement market, spending on these projects has remained much stronger than for new construction, and as a result more residential architects have looked to the home improvement sector as a source of projects until the home building market recovers more fully.


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Visit the Residential Knowledge Community homepage on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Learn more about the Home Design Trends Survey and how you can join the panel.


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