We’ve all heard the buzz lately. Architects are reporting more work on the boards and more calls from potential clients. Some dare to call themselves “busy,” while crossing fingers against a jinx. Finally, there’s real data to support those good vibrations. The AIA’s latest Home Design Trends Survey shows substantial improvement in nearly every sector of residential construction. These second quarter 2013 results, drawn from AIA’s residential-focused firm leaders, indicate special strength in additions and alterations but, most encouragingly, they also track substantial increases in “custom/luxury” homes. The improvement is, mercifully, country-wide, and especially strong in the South and Midwest regions. Backlogs of work are growing as well—as much as four months of business waits in the wings.
I’m gratified to see the custom home market improving, because it remains the bread and butter (or should we say, paté?) of most residential architects. Remodeling certainly kept many alive during the Great Recession, and it will continue to provide a long tail of work into the future, but new custom homes are where the best challenges and opportunities lie for our compadres. Not only are custom homes coming back, but they’re coming back bigger. Despite the resonance of the “not-so-big” message championed by Sarah Susanka, the average American single-family house crept up to 2,585 square feet in 2012, the largest it’s been since the Census began collecting the data. And the latest averages for housing starts show this number growing even larger—to 2,647 in the second quarter of this year. That’s good news for architects—although perhaps not for the planet.
Alas, the AIA survey does hit one sour note: Weakness remains in the “vacation/second” home market, which is also traditionally a source of work for architects. A glimmer of hope gleams amid the numbers, though, as only 8 percent of respondents reported a decline in that market versus 48 percent in 2012. I’m personally relieved to hear this, because I bought a second home in 2011. Brilliant move or tragic mistake? Time will tell.
I bought my house under the guidance of both my head and my heart. On the heart side, it’s in a beautiful rural location with lots of room for my young son and three dogs to run and make joyful noise. On the head side, I bought at the nadir of the market with an eye to retirement one day. Helpfully, the house was designed with accessibility in mind—all on one floor with a no-threshold shower.
Turns out, I’m not alone in balancing present and future needs in my house. The AIA Survey underscores an emerging awareness of our aging population’s needs: There are more requests this year for ramps and elevators and for first-floor master bedrooms. Even if clients don’t need them now, they know they may someday. Or, as in my case, their live-in parents or elderly pets may use them first. Call it resilient floor planning.
Also noted on the survey is a growing interest in environmental resiliency: Solar panels, backup power generation, and “hurricane resistant design” racked up higher numbers than they had in 2013. We were resilient enough to survive the economic crash, and we now expect the same from our buildings going forward.