Floor plans: Laying it all out
When it comes to new-home floor plans, the rules have changed.

"The rule is no longer 'buy as much as you can afford, and it will increase in value later.' It's 'buy what you need,'" said Kermit Baker, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects.

Thanks to the recession, said Baker, "having big for the sake of big is no longer cool. In fact, it's ostentatious. And it won't always resell. Greener and smarter? Yes. Bigger? No. Architect Sarah Susanka (author of "The Not So Big House" series) told us this 20 years ago, and it's come true."

The result, said Baker, is a canny buyer who wants rooms he truly uses and ditches rooms he rarely uses.

As buyers hit the "zoom out" button on their floor plans to downsize them, a multitude of rooms makes the house look like a maze. So "open" is the key word on the first floor, at least.

"The floor plan has to flow, because everyone is multitasking and rushing here and there," said Erica Broberg Smith, an East Hampton, N.Y., architect whose clients' homes cost $500,000 to $25 million.

"I think of the floor plan as a fish tank, where all the fish are constantly on the move. There can't be any dead ends."

Efficiency trumps drama when it comes to spaces like two-story foyers and family rooms, added Jed Gibson, president of architecture at Horsham, Pa.-based Toll Brothers, which builds high-end, semi-custom houses.

"They waste energy and are noisy. Now the buyer wants to put the space to use as bedrooms instead," Gibson said.

"The house's footprint must be efficient to save building costs," added Eric Elder, vice president of Calabasas, Calif.-based Ryland Homes, a national homebuilder. "That means, for example, putting plumbing over plumbing and not adding jogs (projections) to rooms."

The nexus of winning floor plans at all price points is the great room, said builders. It continues to live up to its name, combining the rooms enjoying the greatest use: the kitchen and family room.

"It's here to stay," said Baker. "No longer can we segregate our lives into different rooms: 3 o'clock homework here, 6 o'clock dinner here. We're busy and doing it all at once."

"This is where the family does everything: cooking, homework, checking their laptops and BlackBerrys," said Broberg Smith. "It may include a table, island with stools, a banquet and a fireplace."

The expanding great room is shoving the formal living and dining rooms off the page.

"The dining room is disappearing," said Baker. "We no longer have the luxury of having a room we only use once a year. The living room is nearly gone. Rumors of its death are not greatly exaggerated."

Only 20 percent of her clients want formal dining rooms, said Broberg Smith. Rarely do they want formal living rooms, she said. Gibson and Elder agreed.

Where the living and dining rooms still cling to life, such as in the combo platter of the two in the popular Plan 2650 ($236,900 to $315,900) at J. Lawrence Homes based in Wheaton, Ill., they find other uses between holidays, such as music rooms or libraries, said John Wozniak, J. Lawrence's co-chief executive.

After the great room, the room that draws the buyers' attention is the master bedroom suite, said builders. But its location differs.

Although the American Institute of Architects' latest trends survey shows a growing interest in ranch homes, putting all the bedrooms on a second floor costs less. J. Lawrence's best-seller, for example, features an upstairs master suite that would nearly double the house's foundation if bumped downstairs.