Homes of the future

by Lotus Abrams

In our collective, not-so-distant past, our homes served primarily as a place where we returned in the evening for rest and rejuvenation after a long day at the office. All that changed at the onset of the pandemic, which dramatically altered the way we use our homes — a shift that will undoubtedly impact what future buyers search for when shopping for a house. “Home took on a whole new meaning during the pandemic,” says Mary Cook, the founder of Chicago-based interior design firm Mary Cook Associates. “We’re spending a lot more time in our homes now, so we need them to perform in different ways for us.”

Beyond COVID-19, generational and regional differences are also contributing to homebuyers’ evolving expectations, as well as their growing focus on climate change and technological innovations. Architects, builders and designers are adjusting their plans to meet the demands of those future buyers. Think lavish outdoor amenities, golf simulators, pet spas and more.

The great outdoors

During the pandemic, many of our activities moved outdoors, from dining to socializing. While the urgent need to meet others outdoors for safety reasons has diminished, our desire to enjoy life outside hasn’t subsided. “The No. 1 space that people who already own homes are still spending dollars on renovating is outdoor entertainment areas like patios, decks and pergolas,” Cook says. “Entertainment, exercise, work — you name it — it’s all spilling outside, so outdoor space is key.”

Architects and developers are responding to this desire by designing and building homes — and entire communities — with outdoor living top of mind. “The one trend that we see across all housing types, from multifamily apartments to condos, is access to outdoor space,” says architect William Halter, vice president of Elkus Manfredi Architects in Boston. “COVID-19 only exaggerated the desire to have the ability to get outside. Where it used to be only a percentage of units needed to have balconies, now almost every unit needs a balcony.”

When designing The St. Regis Residences, Boston, a new 22-story glass residential tower from Cronin Development located in the Seaport District, Elkus Manfredi Architects sought to meet buyers’ expectations for an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. While most of the 114 luxury condos have balconies, those that don’t due to waterfront regulations boast innovative 6- by 8-foot glass walls that open as Juliet balconies to the harbor views. “It’s really a great way to further expand that interior-exterior connection,” says Halter, who served as the lead architect on the project.

Perspective homebuyers aren’t just seeking access to the outdoors, however. They’re also seeking outdoor amenities in their communities, which developers are accounting for by incorporating an abundance of pocket parks, playgrounds, open playfields and walking trails. “Passive outdoor amenities are a big priority right now, and walking trails rank even higher than the traditional swimming pool,” says Jim Jacobi, president and owner of Parkland Communities, a developer and builder of residential communities based in Atlanta that has 13 communities in the pipeline across the state of Georgia. “The amenity that’s on the top of the list, though, is a dog park.”

Not all outdoor amenities are in demand. “Tennis courts have definitely gone by the wayside,” Jacobi says. “Pickleball courts are now more popular than tennis courts, so we’re not even including tennis courts anymore. We’re putting in open playfields instead.”

Keeping climate change in mind

Environmental sustainability hasn’t always been a priority for homebuyers, but as climate change awareness continues to grow, the mindset is changing. Many developers are now putting an increasing emphasis on building efficient homes, including the Howard Hughes Corporation, a developer of master-planned communities that operates in six markets, including the Houston, Phoenix and Las Vegas metropolitan areas.

“It’s taken a long time to gain traction, but homeowners are finally starting to think about energy efficiency, waste management and water efficiency to a much greater degree than they did in the past,” says Jay Cross, president of the Howard Hughes Corporation. “Now, we’re seeing, in particular, energy and water conservation as being incredibly important features, so we’re working with our homebuilders to start to design homes that are WaterSense- and Energy Star-certified so people know that they’re buying something that is going to deliver them efficiencies.”

Building with climate change and sustainability in mind, however, means thinking about the future as well as the present, including technological innovations that are on the horizon. “We’re constantly monitoring new technologies like water absorption technologies where, like a solar panel on your roof, during the day it’s absorbing solar and at night it’s actually drawing water out of the atmosphere to provide potable water for you the next day; we see that coming,” Cross says. “Battery storage in garages for electric vehicles and emergency backup we also see coming. It’s still early days, but we’re constantly monitoring for when they make commercial sense.”

Anticipating homebuyers’ needs on the energy front has also been important at Parkland Communities, which is now building all of its homes with 100% LED lighting, as well as prewiring all garages for a future car charger. “Retrofitting an electrical box for a car charger can cost a fortune, and sometimes it’s impossible,” Jacobi says. “We do a prewire, so it’s allocated for already in the electrical box. We’re preparing for a big change in the cars people will be driving.”

Next-level amenities

In high-end condo projects, amenities like indoor pools, fitness rooms, golf simulators and business and meeting centers have become de rigueur, and amenities geared toward residents’ furry friends are especially sought-after. “So many people got pets during the pandemic,” Cook says. “Pets have become an integral part of designing multifamily and condominium projects, including adding things like pet spas.”

Buyers in the luxury condo market are now searching for differentiators, Halter says, so along with expected high-end amenities, the St. Regis Residences, Boston also offers hotel-inspired concierge and butler services, in addition to room service from the restaurant on the building’s lower level. Some residences even have butler pantries for secure delivery of goods and services. “We also included two hotel-style guest suites residents can reserve for family and friends visiting from out of town, which is another nice amenity within an urban setting,” Halter says.

Active adult communities for residents who are 55 and over are also attracting buyers with a bevy of luxurious amenities. Seth Ring, executive vice president at Toll Brothers, reports that some of the luxury homebuilder’s active adult properties have full-time lifestyle directors who plan regular social events and gatherings for residents. “With the rise of remote work, we’ve seen the trend of some active adult buyers making a move to the place they want to eventually retire a little earlier than expected,” Ring says. “To meet this increased demand, Toll Brothers has expanded its active adult offerings, with town homes and single-family one- and two-story homes in resort-style communities that offer on-site amenities and a low-maintenance lifestyle.”

Multifunctionality is the new normal

On the single-family homefront, in particular, post-pandemic mindsets have fundamentally altered buyers’ needs in terms of how they use space. That means the traditional model — a kitchen, living and dining space, bedrooms and bathrooms — no longer fits many buyers’ lifestyles, signaling a rise in the need for multifunctional spaces that can adapt to evolving needs. “Now a home is also a classroom, a respite, an office, a gym and a place to host family and gatherings,” Cook says. “I don’t think that’s going to change much.”

Perhaps more than any other change that came out of COVID-19 is the shift to hybrid and remote work. “A home office is a much bigger priority now than it was when we were building houses 10 years ago,” Jacobi says. “Now if you don’t include a bona fide office, you at least need to have a home management center area where someone can set up a desk and computer to be able to work from home — let’s call it a Zoom space. We now factor that into every home plan that we do.”

Cook has seen that the pandemic has also given rise to more multigenerational living situations. To enable older family members to retain a degree of privacy while still sharing common areas of the house, for example, she says homes can be designed with suites that have their own bathroom, patio and sitting area. Taking it a step further, Cross envisions creating entirely new ways for multiple generations to live in close proximity to each other. “We think, ‘How can we develop a new product where a family might come in and buy three or four adjacent lots with a common backyard?’” he says.

“Or it could be multiple generational family units within some kind of enclosed place, which means kids are playing with the grandparents every day. It’s a trend that we think is going to grow.”

Toll Brothers has found that usage needs can vary greatly from buyer to buyer, and the builder offers a build-to-order model that allows customers to design their homes to fit their individual lifestyles. “Our floor plans are intentionally designed with a number of flex-space options so that our buyers can use the space as they wish,” Ring says.

Building a sense of community

Cross also spends a lot of time thinking about what’s important to residents of the Howard Hughes Corporation’s communities on a larger scale, both now and in the future. Subdivision development, he says, has changed dramatically from the time when communities’ retail businesses, supermarkets, restaurants, office space and medical facilities were built up gradually as increasing numbers of homes were completed. As Cross sees it, today’s homebuyers want to live in communities with a walkable downtown, where dining and entertainment options are integrated into multifamily residential complexes and offices. “Now our game plan from day one is to build a fully serviced town center so that people’s expectations are all met within 15 minutes of where they live,” he says.

Cultural attractions like the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, an amphitheater located in The Woodlands township outside Houston, draw regional visitors and also bind residents together, Cross says. In addition, regular events keep residents engaged and involved. If anything, the pandemic has only served to strengthen people’s need for community. “Creating the sense that you can always expect something going on, be it an art show, parade, Christmas pageant or game, starts to create a sense of community that is more than your house,” Cross says. “That’s a big part of what we do, and we see it growing.”

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