New-home design appeals to broad market segment


By KATHERINE SALANT, Correspondent

News of current residential-design trends usually comes from the large home-building firms that build all over the country, census data and large surveys parsed by home building organizations, such as the National Association of Home Builders, or reader responses from magazines, such as Better Homes & Gardens.

I decided to try a different tack. I looked at the best-selling plans from five home-plan services, firms that sell home plans to both individuals and homeowners, and interviewed executives with each one. The five firms included (, The House Designers (, Southern Living (, Design Basics ( and (

Not only did I spot definite trends among these top sellers, but also there was a clear winner. The same design held the top spot for the second year running with three of the five firms. It has been sold in almost every state and appeals to a broad segment of the home-buying market, including families with two or three children, empty nesters, and professionals, said Tammy Crosby of The House Designers.

Despite the belt-tightening times we live in, this top seller is, most emphatically, not a "just the basic box" so often derided by critics of suburbia. In fact the customizing details of this house make it unlikely to be offered by a high-volume production home builder. And its size, a modest 2,091 square feet, is more than 400 square feet smaller than the average-sized home built in 2012 (2,524 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders).

The message could not be clearer: Homeowners want quality over quantity.

rsalant23cThe best seller is a one-story house with a fairly compact shape and its floor plan arrangement is similar to the other best sellers: central common living areas that are open to each other, split bedrooms (master suite on one side of the house; secondary bedrooms on the other), outdoor living space adjacent to the main living area, and an optional "bonus room" that could be built in the attic area above the main living floor.

What differentiates the best seller is its façade. The style, characterized by Dan Gregory of as "storybook Craftsman," is not historically accurate; it is evocative and original and nothing like the "traditional-style" houses that constitute most of suburban housing. Even more unusual, considering that all purchasers first encounter it as a small image on a computer screen and not as a finished house, the design strikes a powerfully nostalgic chord that resonates with many homeowners.

Getting specific, the eye-catching exterior includes highly unusual trusses on the front entry gables and the sides of the garage that are visible from the street. The building material is stone and cedar shingles. There are playful shapes (the stonework framing the garage bay window slopes outward rather than going straight down); the colors are a pleasing earth-tone palette of browns and grays. The two-car garage is angled to one side, which adds to the very unusual look. The house is well proportioned and clearly the hand of an experienced designer.

And it is more than enough to elicit a click from home-plan website visitors, critical to online sales success. As Hillary Gottemoeller of said, "We have 28,000 plans. Many have the same features as the top five sellers; what makes a top seller is you have something people click on."

rsalant23eAn eye-catching façade is not enough to clinch a sale, however. David Wiggins, of Leander, Texas, the architect who designed "L'Attesa di Vita," as the plan is known, said a winning exterior must be joined to a floor plan that delivers the other two essentials that today's home-buying public demand: luxury and efficiency.

Despite the small size, his plan includes a master suite with a sitting area, his and her closets and vanities in the master bath, which has both a soaking tub and a shower. The generously sized kitchen, breakfast nook and family room area are flooded with natural light from the large windows that face the rear outdoor living areas — a lanai (a frequently used term that refers to a covered outdoor deck or patio) and a "BBQ Porch" with an outdoor fireplace. The formal dining room is separated from the main living areas by a two-way fireplace.

The two secondary bedrooms on the far side of the house afford a lot of privacy to the occupants of the master suite, and there is a "media room" by the front entry that could be a home office or a fourth bedroom.

What did Wiggins conclude was expendable for today's homeowners? A formal living room (none of the best sellers had one), two-story spaces that include a grand entry foyer with a big chandelier that is showcased through a large window over the front door (none of the best sellers had this either), and a fourth bedroom (rare among the best sellers).

Such practicality was a common thread among all the popular designs, and some of this challenges land-planning dogma. For more than 20 years, planners and architects have argued for side-loading garages in new-home communities so that large garage doors will not dominate the streetscape.

Paul Foresman of Design Basics said that his firm has found through focus-group research that two-thirds of homeowners prefer the front-loading garage because they can see where they are driving and thus avoid errant toys and sports equipment, often casualties of the tight 90-degree turns required of the side loaders. Homeowners also complained of damaging their cars — sheering off side mirrors and scraping doors and fenders — as they maneuvered their vehicles into the side-loading entry. Foresman said that among his clientele a three-car garage is desirable, even when the house has only 1,200 or 1,300 square feet of living area.

On the interiors, Foresman said his purchasers love a "drop zone" by the garage door to "capture" mail, backpacks, and all the other stuff that family members bring inside before these things clutter up the living areas.

Another hit: tucking a pantry closet around the corner from the kitchen so that a white pantry door doesn't mar the aesthetics of a kitchen decked out in upscale wood cabinetry. Energy efficiency was also a priority for the home-plan purchasers, the executives said. As utility costs are going up, increased insulation, better windows and more efficient heating and air-conditioning systems are being carefully scrutinized.


Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at


Last modified: March 22, 2013
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