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Density and Accessibility, with Growing Interest in Neighborhood Amenities, Define Community Design Trends

As the housing market improves, households look for simplicity and affordability in home styles

By Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA
AIA Chief Economist

As the housing market continues its recovery, households’ evolving needs are turning towards more urban and accessible types of development. The security that comes with relative residential isolation is giving way to accessibility to jobs, commercial opportunities, and transportation options. Age-restricted communities are losing popularity to more diverse neighborhoods. Households are looking for home exteriors that are low maintenance, relatively simple and sustainable, yet encourage integration with the broader urban fabric that typically occurs within an infill context.

These are some of the main findings from the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey for the third quarter of 2012, which focused on contemporary neighborhood and community design trends. While households remain cautious in their housing decisions, the residential markets are finally seeing healthy growth. Billings at residential architecture firms have increased each quarter since the beginning of 2012, and are currently growing in every region of the country. The home improvement market remains very healthy, and an increasing number of new construction segments are finally seeing growth.

Density and accessibility driving development

In lieu of the large greenfield housing developments that were common during the pre-recession housing boom, home building is occurring on a much smaller scale today. Current production levels are only about a third of what they were during the peak of the market in early 2006, and less than half of what they are expected to be when the market fully recovers. As such, development activities are significantly scaled back in most markets across the country.

Higher-density infill development remains a very attractive option in this economic environment. Many infrastructure development costs are reduced or eliminated in an infill setting. Also, other consumer community preferences—access to public transportation, commercial options, and employment—are generally improved with infill development. While higher density is viewed as a positive for many households, they are also looking for some of the amenities associated with lower-density locations. Residential architects noted that community gardens, dedicated open space, and more recreational opportunities integrated into the development were among the top elements growing in popularity. (Figure 1)

Residential architects also value generational diversity in their projects. While multigenerational housing opportunities were seen as growing in popularity, age-restricted communities were one of the few design preferences that architects noted as declining in popularity. Subsidized and affordable homes included in developments, as well as greater diversity of home styles, homes sizes, and lot sizes within communities, were also in the second tier of neighborhood characteristics growing in popularity.

Within these broader neighborhood and community design parameters, home styles have demonstrated a fair degree of stability. Front and side porches, which offer greater connection to the neighborhood, remain popular features. Simpler exterior detailing and single-story homes also remain generally popular. Somewhat in contrast, contemporary (as opposed to more traditional) home styles have attracted some renewed interest. (Figure 2)

Home exteriors reflect the current interest in simplicity. Far and away the most popular feature in this category is the use of low-maintenance and durable materials for home exteriors. Somewhat related is the trend toward simpler exteriors using fewer materials, as well as fire-resistant exterior materials. Sustainable roofing is also gaining in popularity. Both cool roofs with solar reflective characteristics and the use of sustainable roofing materials are reported as popular options. (Figure 3)

Business conditions turning up

After a prolonged downturn beginning in 2008, residential architects have been reporting healthy levels of revenue gains, beginning with the first quarter of 2012. Though the quarter-to-quarter comparisons in revenue are not seasonally adjusted, they show strong improvements from year-ago comparisons. Inquiries for new project activity also show healthy growth, indicating that the gains in billings in recent quarters should continue for the coming quarters. (Figure 4)

This increase in workloads has also shown up as increased backlogs at residential architecture firms. Indicating the amount of work currently in-house and under contract, backlogs are typically measured as the number of months these projects would keep current staff fully employed if no new work came in.

Architecture firms were reporting average backlogs of 3.7 months in the third quarter, well below the levels seen during the last upturn but well above the depths of the downturn in 2009 and 2010. During the first three quarters of 2012, backlogs have averaged just over 3.6 months, compared to less than 3.2 months for the first three quarters of 2011. (Figure 5)

Evidence of a broad-based upturn in residential design activity can be seen in regional revenue trends. In aggregate, firms in each of the four major U.S. Census regions reported revenue growth in the third quarter relative to the second quarter. Firms in the Midwest in particular reported strong revenue growth in the third quarter, while firms in the long-suffering West also reported healthy conditions. These trends are significant, since a disproportionate share of home building activity occurs in these two regions. (Figure 6)

The upturn in the residential markets can also be seen in the number of residential sectors that reported growth this quarter. While the major home improvement sectors (additions and alterations, as well as kitchen and bath remodeling) have been relatively strong throughout the downturn, in the third quarter of 2011 all of the major new-construction sectors were still in steep decline, according to residential architects. By the third quarter of 2012, there was significant progress in design billings for new home building activity. Design activity for move-up homes (among owners who are trading up to a more expensive house), as well as for entry-level homes for first-time buyers, were both reported as increasing slightly, the first time either of these sectors has seen revenue growth since early 2006.

Revenue from design activity for custom and luxury homes was stabilizing in the third quarter, while the townhouse and condo markets have seen only a slight waning. Second and vacation home markets are still mired in steep decline. (Figure 7)


Illustration: Randy Lyhus, 2012.

Q3 HDTS Graphs


Recent Related:

Visit the Housing Knowledge Community homepage on AIA KnowledgeNet.

The HDTS panel is open only to principals, partners, and other firm leaders of AIA member–owned firms with a residential specialization. Apply to join the HDTS panel by completing a brief background information form on your firm here.

Visit the AIA Research Resource Center.


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Turnaround in Home Sizes, In-Home Amenities, and Property Enhancements

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Community Design Trends Emphasize Infill Development


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