By Michele Lerner December 5, 2013
If you’ve toured a newly built model home recently, you may have noticed a few things missing: a formal living room or the once-popular two-story family room.

Today’s new homes are a bit more practical and reflect the way people live: in their “family center” — an oversized, open great room with a center island kitchen, a casual dining area and a family room.

Washington area residents prefer traditional homes, but local builders and architects say that even though exteriors remain mostly traditional, buyers increasingly are looking for more contemporary interiors with open floor plans.

Now that new home sales are making a comeback along with the rest of the housing market, builders are incorporating these new ideas into their home designs.

“Builders scaled back home sizes and features right after the housing crisis in order to be at a particular price point, but now they’re bringing back larger homes in order to meet buyer demand,” says Debbie Rosenstein, vice president of the Christopher Companies, a local builder based in Oakton, Va. “But buyers are a little different now. They’re looking at values more carefully.”

Kim Ambrose, vice president of marketing for Miller & Smith in McLean, says builders now use every possible square foot as efficiently as possible, without any two-story spaces but with an open feeling from 9- and 10-foot high ceilings that are standard in many new homes.

The most notable trend in new home designs is the contemporary style open floor plan, ideally with an unobstructed view from the front of the house to the back. The best option would include view of a porch or sunroom since people want to see outdoor space if they can, says Michael Kingsley, principal of KTGY, an architecture and planning firm in Tysons Corner.

“One way to bring the outdoors inside is to build a covered outdoor corner room within the footprint of the home and accessible through glass doors to the family room or kitchen,” says Kingsley. “It’s an efficient way to create an outdoor living area without adding an appendage to the house.”

Linda Ellington, vice president of sales and marketing for Mitchell & Best Homebuilders in Rockville, says the company offers an integrated outdoor living space as an option on some of their models with glass openings to the space from the family room since that’s where most people entertain and spend time with their families.

Even if the lot configuration doesn’t allow for an outdoor room, most new home designs focus on creating an open primary living space rather than on formal rooms.

“Buyers want an open kitchen with space to spread out and entertain,” says Lauri Chastain, vice president of marketing for Stanley Martin Homes in Reston. “Even if we don’t have space for an enormous kitchen, we design one that’s well laid-out with an ample island and a walk-in pantry if possible.”

A living room is a rare find in all but the largest new homes, but some still offer a separate dining room for buyers who want a more formal space for entertaining.

In addition to open, contemporary floor plans, some of the other trends in new home designs include:

● Flexible rooms. “There’s usually a flexible space set aside in single-family homes on the first floor for a library, a parlor or a home office,” Kingsley says. “In smaller homes people like to have a little office space near the family room instead of a separate home office. People don’t really need a big office anymore, so this is more natural.”

At One Loudoun, Miller & Smith offers an optional studio space above the rear attached garage that has both an interior and an exterior entrance.

“The studio has a bedroom, a full bath and a little kitchenette,” says Ambrose. “We were surprised that about 25 percent to 30 percent of our buyers are choosing it, but some people want it for boomerang adult kids and for extended family visits.”

Mitchell & Best offers a second level loft that can be wired for a homework center, used as a traditional sitting area/library or closed off for a formal office.

Miller & Smith offers a loft with its three-bedroom designs and has also introduced floor plans with four bedrooms and a loft that can be used as a study space or recreation room for children.

● First floor bedrooms. Most builders offer an optional first-floor bedroom with a full bath, but few offer a first-floor master suite because of space requirements.

“More people are asking for a first-floor bedroom, but they don’t want to lose the great room space, so that’s one reason it’s nice to have the flexibility of a den that can be converted to a bedroom,” says Rosenstein.

● Family entrances. One of the more practical changes in new floor plans is an emphasis on efficient use of space, particularly the family entrance from the garage. Instead of a mudroom, this space often has multiple options for customization for sports equipment, a charging station for cellphones and tablets, and backpacks, Rosenstein says.

Ellington says they offer personalized family entrances for every floor plan, including things like a computer station and sometimes a second powder room.

● Efficient designs. “We try to make sure there’s no wasted space at all, so we design homes without two-story spaces and with the main stairs moved out of the foyer,” says Chastain. “This gives us the opportunity to add more space for smarter living like more ample space in the mudroom and to meet our goal to have a walk-in closet in every bedroom.”

● Extra customization. “Most small builders, including the Christopher Companies, offer more flexibility to move things around [such as] non-load bearing walls,” Rosenstein says. “It’s much more prevalent now than it used to be to ask for customization. People want to be able to say they’re not in a cookie-cutter home and to express their individuality.”

● Smaller but more luxurious master baths. “Consumers prefer more space in the master bedroom closet instead of one of those huge ‘dance hall’ bathrooms where you could host a party,” says Chastain.

Kingsley says “gallery-style” baths that are elongated and have more windows rather than square master baths have become more popular because they offer more efficient use of space.

“We’re also designing more spa baths with a shower and separate tub cordoned off with glass wall,” says Kingsley.

Ambrose says more buyers want an oversized shower in the master bath instead of separate tub and shower, particularly among younger families buying in their Loudoun County communities.

● Deemphasized garages. On single-family homes, it’s becoming more popular to recess the garage so that it’s less of a feature, Rosenstein says.

At Maple Lawn in Howard County and Poplar Run in Silver Spring, Miller & Smith is building single-family homes with rear entry garages. Ambrose says their research shows that people prefer attached garages rather than detached, even when they are behind the house.

● New materials and designs for exteriors. “The D.C. area still isn’t a contemporary market, especially for exteriors, but we’re seeing a little innovation with arts-and-crafts style exteriors,” says Rosenstein. “We still have a lot of brick, but we’re seeing more stone and Hardiplank cement siding in more price ranges.”

Ambrose and Ellington both say they offer a variety of brick, stone and siding combinations so that the homes look different and the streetscapes are interesting.

“We’ve seen a nice change in the past few years with people being more willing to embrace new ideas and move away from the focus on traditional design,” says Kingsley. “These more open floor plans make a home feel better, even when it’s smaller; especially when you have nice sight lines and high ceilings.”

While the majority of D.C. residents may not be ready for ultra contemporary homes, the trend toward lighter and more open homes with smart, efficient design elements seems to be a growing preference in this area.

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.

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