Festival of Homes: 'Small is the new big'

The trend in home size over the last decade is neatly summarized by Patrick Richter, president of Richter Builders, a Libertyville custom home builder.

"It used to be that everyone had a living room, dining room, family room, kitchen and breakfast area," he recalls. "Then they added a den, then the sunroom, then the screened porch. Then they added the master bedroom sitting room, then the piano room. Then everyone had to have a butler pantry."

Then, he said, came the crash. And suddenly buyers didn't have money for the huge and myriad rooms and the luxury finishes they had been buying. The result was a sudden realization they could settle for less home. "I can't say people are asking for a smaller kitchen," Richter says. "But I do see efficiencies coming from different places. Like do I really need that sitting room?"

Whether they build custom, semi-custom or production homes, builders are all at work creating new, smaller options to meet the demands of buyers.

"Small is the new big," says Andy Konovodoff, president of Lombard-based Town & Country Homes, a production builder constructing homes in Wauconda, Elgin and Oswego. "Everyone wants something that's small and manageable. They want a house they can cook and clean in, and still get out and have a life, enjoy travel and take the kids to the park."

The square footage trend this year is expected to boil down to "how low can you go," say experts. They attribute that belief to the 9 percent drop seen from 2007 to '08 in average single-family home size, with the average falling to 2,438 square feet, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau numbers. "But they're anticipating a larger drop from 2008 to 2009," Konovodoff says.

A number of factors point to homes growing even smaller, says John Wozniak, builder president of J. Lawrence Homes, which features several floor plans that measure out at less than the national average. Those factors range from the expense of ever-more-limited land parcels to the high cost of energy.

"We have seen high demand for our floor plans at our communities in Wadsworth and Joliet that measure less than 2,400 square feet," Wozniak says. "That's why nearly half of the homes we are offering at our new community in Lynwood will also be on a smaller scale. Less still is more."

Spatial economics

Wheaton-based semi-custom home builder Smykal Homes, building in the southwest suburbs, is another builder embracing a "less is more" philosophy.

When the recession hit, says vice-president of sales and marketing Peggy Taheri, fewer prospects were walking in the door, "and we had more time to listen and respond to those who did. What they were saying was that they were pulling back. They were becoming more conservative."

As a result, Smykal grabbed its portfolio of homes and took each home down a notch, while also unveiling newer, smaller models. The firm had never before offered floor plans measuring below 2,100 square feet, Taheri says. But in 2009, Smykal Homes introduced the 1,815-square-foot Bradford model at Joliet's Ashford Place. The Bradford delivers a two-story foyer, three bedrooms, 2.5 baths and full basement, plus a second-floor loft centrally located between the three bedrooms for an extra measure of flexibility, Taheri says.

Smaller also works for Town & Country Homes. The builder's best-selling community is Domenella in Wauconda, where it introduced what it calls a "value line" ranging from 2,000 to 3,200 square feet. That 2,000-square-foot model still provides three bedrooms and 2.5 baths, plus upstairs bonus room, Konovodoff says. "It has a non-formal living room that is separated from the family room by a half wall," he adds "It's actually what we consider flex space. You can take that half wall out and make that entire space a family room, or leave it as is."

Town & Country's Churchill and Hunt Club communities in Oswego have the same value line, Konovodoff says. "That's sold very well for us," he adds.

City builders have been just as proactive in meeting their clients' tastes for smaller homes. A case in point is the northwest side semi-custom builder CA Development. Launched in the early 1990s, the firm's homes grew larger by 20 percent over the next 10 years, vice-president Paul Bertsche says. By late last decade, CA Development offered no homes under 3,000 square feet, and most of the houses it constructed were in the 3,500-square-foot-and-up range.

"We said, 'You know, we need to take a step back,'" Bertsche says, noting the company now offers four Smart Choice models in the 2,480 to 3,000-square-foot range, part of a new series of homes CA Development offers at Edgebrook Glen and Mayfair Crossings, in Edgebrook and Irving Park respectively.

Lost rooms

How do you make homes smaller without making them less livable? There are more than a few tricks of the trade (see accompanying sidebar). But in many cases it comes down to eliminating some of those rooms that, as Richter says, buyers once thought they needed and now realize they don't.

Builders are not going back to the days of the 10-by-12-foot bedroom, Richter notes. "People still want good-size bedrooms. The rooms need to be large, but the room count is less. Some people are saying I don't need a library. I don't need a den. I don't work out of my home. They won't take individual rooms they won't use. People are reviewing what they actually need."

In some cases, they're deleting once indispensable rooms. "The GenX and GenY buyers don't see value in traditional living rooms," Konovodoff says. "The formal living room is definitely getting squeezed out."

Going forward, Bertsche predicts builders will have to be considerably more efficient than some have been recently, in both home design and in construction costs. "Buyers still want all the amenities they wanted before," he says "But you need to do them in an efficient, energy-saving manner."

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