Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Kitchens and Baths Continue to Attract Design Focus
The most popular areas of the home also are gaining new functions as the housing market begins its recovery
By Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA
Although the housing market remains very weak by historical standards, signs that this sector of the economy is strengthening are beginning to emerge, particularly in the realm of kitchen and bath design. These two areas of the home generally get the most attention from their occupants, and therefore are the last areas to feel cutbacks as market conditions tighten, and the first to recover as conditions begin to improve.
Emphasis on kitchens is beginning to increase, with more space devoted to—and increasing activities centered in—this part of the home. Likewise, there is growing interest in kitchen products (particularly related to sustainability), in-home technology, and accessibility concerns for an aging population.
Bathrooms, in contrast, are not seeing comparable improvements in room size and the number in a home. However, emphasis on bathrooms never declined during the housing downturn. Space devoted to bath areas remained fairly stable between 2009 and 2011 when other areas were declining. Accessibility remains a major emphasis in bath design, as doorless showers continue to be very popular. Energy-efficient lighting and water conservation also remain major goals for products selected for baths. However, comfort is also a priority, as radiant heated floors continue to be a popular feature.
These are some of the key findings from the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey for the fourth quarter of 2011, which focused on kitchen and bath design trends. Residential architects who provided detailed insights on consumer preferences for these areas of the home report that kitchens and baths remain a focus of residential design preferences.
Although beginning to strengthen, business conditions are relatively weak at residential design firms overall. Billings in aggregate declined very modestly in the fourth quarter of 2011 as compared to the third quarter, as they have for almost every quarter since mid-2007. Inquiries for new projects continue to be quite strong, although difficulty in obtaining financing for residential projects, coupled with general consumer nervousness about the outlook for the economy, have meant that the strength in inquiries has not yet translated into increased project activity.
Some sectors of the housing market are looking better at present. Home improvement projects—including additions, alterations, and kitchen and bath remodels—have fared very well during this downturn. Also, there have been recent signs that custom and luxury homes are currently doing better than other residential construction segments.
More attention on the kitchen
In late 2009, during the heart of the housing downturn, residential architects reported that the number of secondary food storage and food preparation areas in the home, as well as the overall size of kitchens, was declining. In late 2010, they reported that kitchens had stabilized in both of these measurements. With this recent survey, residential architects are reporting a modest rebound, with almost a quarter of respondents indicating that kitchens are increasing in both measurements, while fewer than 20 percent are reporting a decrease (Figure 1).
Kitchens seem to be regaining their function as the home’s “nerve center.” Computer stations or recharging areas for electronic devices were the kitchen features that residential architects reported as increasing the most in popularity. This was followed closely by integration with family space, continuing the long-term popularity of combining household living space with kitchen space. Adding a recycling center, expanded pantry space, and a wine storage area also rated high on the popular kitchen features list. Finally, adaptability/universal design also rated highly for popular kitchen features (Figure 2).
Sustainability continued to be a theme amongst the most popular kitchen products. Renewable material flooring and countertops topped the list of products increasing the most in popularity, followed by drinking water filtration systems. Natural wood cabinets were a bit further down the popularity list, as were upper-end appliances, duplicate appliances, and natural stone countertops (Figure 3).
Bathroom space generally stable
The number and average size of baths in the home did not fall off during the housing downturn, according to residential architects. Since the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey began in 2005, there has never been a period when more respondents reported that the number or size of baths was decreasing rather than increasing. However, in 2009, 2010, and 2011, the overwhelming majority of respondents reported baths to be stable in terms of both size and number.
The fourth-quarter results for 2011 point to these trends continuing. Three-quarters of respondents report the number of baths in the home has remained stable, and two-thirds report the size of baths to have done the same. For the remaining respondents, a slightly higher share report that the number and size of baths is increasing rather than decreasing. These results are largely unchanged from the fourth quarter of 2010 (Figure 4).
Adaptability and universal design features remain one part of bathroom design that is increasing the most in popularity. In 2011, this feature grew even more, with 54 percent reporting that it was increasing in popularity, compared to just 3 percent indicating that interest was declining (for a net score of 51 percent indicating growing popularity). In 2010, 50 percent reported adaptability to be a trend increasing in popularity, compared to only 6 percent indicating decreasing interest, for a net score of 44 percent. Interest in radiant heated floors and increased linen closet/storage space also remained relatively strong (Figure 5).
LED lighting surged to become the bathroom product increasing the most in popularity, with significant gains over a year ago. Water conservation was next on the list, with both water saving and dual flush toilets ranking high in terms of increasing consumer interest. Other products increasing in popularity (doorless/no threshold/roll-in showers, and hand showers) provide greater accessibility for households, again underscoring the growing interest in designing and retrofitting homes for an aging population (Figure 6).
Business conditions finally edging up
As the housing market continues its slow recovery, residential architecture firms are beginning to report more positive business conditions. As compared to the third quarter, billings at these firms were modestly declining in the fourth quarter of 2011, but this likely reflects a traditional seasonal slowdown. The last time that residential architects reported an increase in billings in any fourth quarter was 2005, so the most recent score of 48 is an encouraging sign.
Just as encouraging is the increase in inquiries for new project activity, which have now increased in each of the last six quarters. Unusually restrictive financing policies have meant that many of these inquiries have not resulted in actual projects, but as interest in residential design continues to increase, more work will eventually materialize (Figure 7).
This general upward trend can already be seen in project backlogs at firms. Backlogs measure the duration for which current active projects could keep the staff of a firm engaged at normal billing levels. For the fourth quarter, backlogs averaged 3.7 months, the highest level since mid-2008. Backlogs were averaging closer to five months during the peak of the housing boom, but current levels should be considered very encouraging, since they were under three months on average during much of 2009 and 2010 (Figure 8).
Firms in all regions of the country have been uniformly reporting weak business conditions over the past few years. In recent quarters, firms in the South and West have seen some improvement in activity levels. Historically, a disproportionate amount of residential construction activity has been centered in these Sunbelt regions. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate share of residential overbuilding also occurred in these regions, resulting in a growing number of distressed properties. As production levels have declined, allowing some of the excess inventory to be absorbed into the occupied housing stock, these regions have begun to recover. As of the fourth quarter of 2011, firms in the South and West reported increases in billings. While housing market problems persist, improvement in these two regions is an encouraging sign for a broader housing market recovery (Figure 9).
New residential construction activity remains very weak by historical standards. Weakness began in the entry-level market as early as 2005, when rising home prices were creating affordability problems for aspiring younger moderate-income households. Problems then escalated through the trade-up market and finally into the custom and luxury segments, along the way reducing demand for townhouse and condo properties, as well as for second and vacation homes. Many housing market observers felt that a recovery would again begin with increased demand for entry-level properties. However, financing problems have become more severe for buyers who don’t have a strong credit history, which has held back activity for buyers of more affordable homes.
With this fourth quarter survey, the new construction segment that seems closest to recovery is custom/luxury homes. This is in large part due to the ability of this population to attract financing even in restrictive times. Continued improvement in this segment, however, will rely on improvement in trade-up homes, which in turn will rely on improvement in entry-level homes. A complete homebuilding recovery will therefore rely on more broad-based improvements in housing demand.
Home improvement activity continues to sail along, even with general weakness in the construction market. Part of this can be attributed to homeowners who are having difficulty selling their homes, and improve their property to increase their odds of making a sale. Additionally, home improvement activity has relied less on traditional financing, so difficulties in obtaining credit have had a less dramatic effect (Figure 10).
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