Rethinking our homes after sheltering in place.
Story by Tracy Dickinson
Photography by Tim Abramowitz
Featured in July 2020
According to legend, the harshest curse to call down on your enemy is this: “May you live in interesting times, may you come to the attention of those in authority, and may the gods give you everything you ask.”
The past several months seem to be the fulfillment of the first two curses for many in the U.S. And while we don’t want to complete the cycle, months of quarantine have given most of us the time to seriously evaluate our living space and to start asking for ways to improve it.
According to Builder magazine, “Early evidence would seem to suggest that buyers are developing new priorities for their homes. Some predictions are based on the practical realities of shelter in place and others on the psychological impact of the viral threat.”
It may be too soon to tell whether this is a knee-jerk reaction or a long-term trend for home design. However, central Iowa home designers are seeing some of the same response.
“We aren’t necessarily busier than normal for this time of year,” says Kevin Riesberg, Director of Design for Plum Design Services. “But homeowners are definitely paying more attention to how they live in their space and looking at ways to use it more effectively.”
Beisser Lumber’s Amy Larsen says overall design and remodel projects aren’t any different than pre-quarantine, but listening to clients is more important than ever. “I like to understand how people live and function in their spaces,” she says. “Given the new challenges we are facing, they need those flex areas, maybe more than ever—the room that could be an office or a homework and school area.”
Because homeowners have had more time in their homes lately to determine where those inefficiencies exist, they’ve also been faced with the possibility of either long-term closures or a repeat of the strict quarantine restrictions faced this spring. That means normal outside-the-home activities have been suspended or modified. This, too, has had an effect on home design.
The same features that appealed to homeowners before COVID-19 continue to be high on the list, but flexibility and multipurpose design have become key, especially in the following areas of a home.
In the midst of the quarantine, a REALTOR.com survey from early April revealed that American consumers were most satisfied with their homes if they lived in quiet neighborhoods, near grocery stores, and with usable outdoor space.
Location, location, location remains the standard for finding the right home. But making that home yours involves more than just moving in furniture and painting walls. This has been especially evident as families have sheltered in place for several months without the options of typical outside activities.
Homeowners are looking into deck replacements, covered decks, fire features, and even swimming pools and pool houses to enable them to entertain and host smaller gatherings at home in place of the typical events of summers past.
“Outdoor space has been a huge part of the work we’re seeing,” Riesberg says. “It’s definitely a worthwhile investment, especially with the prospect of being stuck at home for extended periods of time.”
“Outdoor living for us has been focused on covered decks and patios or 3-season or 4-season porch additions. Many homeowners have spent the better part of the past few months dreaming up their ideas, and we’re just working with them to bring that vision to reality,” Larsen says.
Over the past 10 years or so, home plans have almost entirely eliminated the formal dining room, with families opting for open layouts with in-kitchen dining space instead. “Open is still more popular by far,” Riesberg says. “Homeowners want that spacious feel with living areas open to one another and views outside, too.”
Some home plans replaced the dining room with an office or flex space, and that has turned out to be an advantage to many homeowners. For homes that have this “flex” or “away” space, the recent necessity of working from home, often with children in the house, has made that a premium space.
“Other homeowners are requesting a sort of pocket office, where an office area is tucked into an existing room,” says Riesberg. Sometimes, a work space can be added, with pocket or sliding doors to enclose the area when not in use.
Larsen agrees. “Homeowners have definitely been requesting more home office spaces and even the option to be able to have two home offices if it’s necessary for both adults to be working from home.”
But it isn’t just work space homeowners have discovered is lacking. It’s also workout space. “Home workout areas have been big,” Larsen says. “I think people are hesitant to go to the gym right now, so they’re needing that space to be able to work out at home and stay healthy.”
Once again, the challenge for designers has been to create areas in the home that can serve multiple purposes so homeowners can adapt easily as situations and needs change—whether it’s working from home for an extended period, working out at home, or offering a guest room when family visits. “A lot of these requests are square-foot-driven,” Riesberg explains. “Clients come with a list of ideas, and part of what we do is help them prioritize and determine what will fit in their space and in their budget. Multipurpose spaces can be a good solution for some homeowners.”
While open plans remain popular and allow for ease of entertaining, especially with crowd-size limitations due to the virus, homeowners are finding that the open concept can offer a little too much togetherness at times. “People are wanting spaces for their children, separate bathrooms for guests, and we’ve been seeing a lot of requests for entertaining spaces with wet bars for the adults,” Larsen says.
Both Riesberg and Larsen say finished lower levels, enclosed porches or sunrooms, and covered decks are projects driven by the need for better gathering spaces for different groups.
With everyone at home all the time for long stretches of time, homeowners have begun reevaluating the best use of their space. They’re looking for ways to meet the needs of the entire family so the kids have a hangout place, the parents can work, and the different task areas can be dedicated or easily adapted as the situation changes.
A recent article in the San Antonio Express-News quoted several sources speculating on design changes in the home. One suggested that in addition to rethinking gathering spaces and flex rooms, homeowners may begin reevaluating housing arrangements entirely, looking for more-creative ways to house aging parents or adult children in separate wings or cottages on the same property.
Whether we face another pandemic or not, the coronavirus is certainly changing the way we live both at home and in our communities. Reprioritizing what matters to you might well mean making some changes to your home.
“Still, planning a new home or remodel is working through the most important process of building, and you don’t want to rush the design process,” says Larsen. “It’s important to take the time to analyze your needs and plan the space. This will save time and money in the long run.”
Riesberg says, “There’s certainly a lot of talk now about how to live in the space you have. Designing a new home or rethinking the one you have in light of how you actually use it is the best investment in your home.”
It might be a curse if the gods give you everything you ask for, but if your home can meet all your needs, that’s actually a real blessing. •
- Amy Larsen Beisser Lumber
- Kevin Riesberg Plum Design Services