Jan. 19, 2010, Las Vegas – As lifestyle choices, demographics, and economic realities shift home buyer preferences, more and more buyers are turning their backs on the McMansion and demanding smaller homes. But no matter the reason, smaller does not—and cannot—mean sacrificing style, amenities, and, ironically enough, space.

"Everybody's got to find a way to build smaller homes, because that's where the market is and where it's going to be for some time," Boyce Thompson, editorial director for BUILDER magazine, told attendees at a workshop during the International Builders' Show. While Thompson couldn't rule out that McMansions may someday make a comeback, the reasons for their current passé status are hard to ignore: too much unused space, a shift to smaller families, lending constraints, Baby Boomers trading down instead of up, and echo boomers in need of space-efficient entry-level housing.

Simply put, American homeowners no longer want so much "house."

In addition, attitudes have changed. A BUILDER magazine survey of new-home shoppers found that two out of three fear job loss; at the same time, spending quality time with family has become more important and more homeowners are opting to stay in. "People aren't looking to the house as an investment anymore," Thompson said. "They're looking at it to create the lifestyle they want to live."

Indeed, meeting new footprint constraints shouldn't mean sacrificing the comfort, warmth, or livability of the home by, for example, dropping ceiling heights below 8 feet—a tactic tried by some a few years ago, explained architects William Devereaux of Devereaux & Associates in McLean, Va., and David Kosco of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Bassenian Lagoni Architects.

First and foremost is to know what your buyers truly need and what they aren't willing to sacrifice. "Instead of a one-size-fits-all arrangement, you need to go into your market and see what works," Devereaux said. In some of his East Coast markets, for example, buyers are more than willing to forgo formal living and dining rooms.

Devereaux and Kosco offered a number of other tips for maximizing space without sacrificing design:

  • Think about fewer walls and less compartmentalization: Focus on great rooms and eliminate the formal living room and dining room spaces.
  • Create flex rooms that are multifunctional. These can be utilized in a variety of ways—as a formal space, perhaps, or as a den—depending on styling and furniture. Kosco includes "respite" space in his designs—one room outside of the great room that allows for alone time.
  • Don't waste space for circulation.
  • Don't sacrifice warmth-inducing touches, such as built-ins and fireplaces.
  • Expanses of glass and natural lighting can create the illusion of space. Think both horizontally and vertically. In one plan in California, for example, Kosco specified floor-to-ceiling windows, with transoms on top of traditional 6-foot-8-inch units. Multiple-panel patio doors and interior French doors also can draw in sunlight.
  • Kosco also utilizes visually interesting ceiling treatments—such as a barrel vault ceiling in the kitchen or bath and wood beams in bedrooms—to broaden the visual space and create interest.
  • Embrace storage opportunities. Utilize wasted space, such as under the stairs, for storage. Kosco also stretches kitchen cabinets to the ceiling, with smaller units at the top for rarely used items.
  • Don't neglect outdoor areas, from the porch to the patio. "You have to look at those spaces as a way to expand" the living area, Devereaux said.
  • Rather than a passé U-shaped kitchen, remove cabinets from one side and add a center island, which is a higher-value item in buyers' eyes.
  • Use color: White walls don't inspire and make small spaces feel dull.
  • At the entry, don't just pour visitors into the living room, Kosco said; give them some sort of arrival experience.
  • Think about "memory links"—touches that stick in a shopper's mind, such as a special detail like a window seat.

    Above all, don't be boring or cookie-cutter. The footprint of the home may be smaller, but there's always room for amenities and luxurious touches. "We have to keep some design in our housing, or we're not going to have anything to sell," Devereaux argued.

    Katy Tomasulo is deputy editor forEcoHome.