The housing recovery—slow though it may be—is starting to ease the downward pressure on home sizes and appears to be triggering a bit of a trend reversal, at least according to residential architects who responded to the AIA's Fourth Quarter 2010 Home Design Trends Survey.

During the recent economic unpleasantness, homeowner preferences shifted toward more efficient, smaller homes with reduced volumes and fewer bells and whistles. Spacious, top-of-the-line kitchens and luxurious, upscale bathrooms were out, while across-the-board efficiencies (space, energy, and water) were in. For some architects, at least, this trend seems to have been short-lived.

While the majority of architects still report that kitchen and bathroom sizes remained stable in 2010's fourth quarter (62 percent and 67 percent, respectively), slight upticks in those reporting increasing square footages in kitchens (22 percent, compared with 14 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009) and baths (20 percent, compared with 16 percent in 2009) could be an indication that things are starting to look up. Also, architects reported slight increases in the number of food prep or food storage areas in the home, as well as in the number of bathrooms, while those reporting no change in either decreased from 2009's fourth quarter.

More square footage in kitchens opens the door to including some special function areas that were largely eliminated during the worst of the recession, such as pantries, recycling centers, electronics charging areas, and computer work stations, all of which architects indicate are still very popular features. Also highly popular are great rooms—kitchens integrated with family living or gathering spaces. Residential clients also are very concerned about sustainability and health in their kitchens, according to the survey, and the popularity of elements such as flooring and countertops made from renewable materials (such as bamboo, cork, or concrete) illustrates this focus. Drinking-water filtration systems also are becoming more popular, as are natural wood cabinets, architects reported.

However, big-ticket items and design features—such as double islands, wine storage, pet feeding or grooming areas, upper-end or duplicate appliances, natural stone countertops—still have limited popularity.

The same goes for bathrooms; upscale products and design features such as steam showers, towel warmers, or sensor-operated faucets are less popular than elements that contribute to accessibility, practical comfort, water conservation, and energy efficiency. In fact, architects reported that accessible and universal design and products that improve accessibility—among them hand showers and doorless showers—are seeing the biggest increases in popularity, and an ever-aging population will continue to drive interest in such features, the AIA notes. 

Also very popular in bathrooms in the fourth quarter were radiant heated floors, water-conserving and dual-flush toilets, and energy-efficient LED lighting.

According to the AIA, residential architecture firms are still on shaky ground, with business conditions remaining weak and continuing to trail the commercial/industrial and other sectors. In the fourth quarter, the residential billings index scored just over 45 (any score above 50 would indicate an increase in billings), and 30 percent of architects reported that billings in the fourth quarter declined. Inquiries for new projects registered a relatively healthy 56, an increase over the third quarter. The AIA's chief economist, Kermit Baker, Ph.D., Hon. AIA, believes that billings are bottoming out around the country. The backlog of projects maintained a fairly flat trajectory throughout 2009, the AIA notes, but has started to show upward movement since the first quarter of 2010. Currently, backlogs are at 3.2 months.

Read the AIA's full report on the Fourth Quarter 2010 Home Design Trends Survey.