A new survey of architects reveals new trends in home construction and remodeling that show rising demand for home offices and outdoor living spaces but slumps in requests for the kinds of specialty rooms and upscale features that were a staple of building projects before the recession.

“Continued troubles in the housing market are limiting interest among homeowners in special features, advanced systems, and upscale products,” says the American Institute of Architects chief economist, Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA. “Other than outdoor living areas and home offices, few special function rooms are attracting attention.”

Home offices up 

Of all the new residential project requests fielded by architects in the second quarter of 2011, home offices ranked at the top at 36 percent, compared to just 31 percent a year ago. Similarly, outdoor living spaces posted a two-point rise at 24 percent this year compared to 22 percent in 2010.

“House prices have not yet stabilized in many areas of the country, and as a result, households are nervous about overextending themselves,” says Baker. “As such, special function rooms have not generated much recent interest. There are a few exceptions to this general trend, however. Demand for home offices for telecommuting remains strong. Outdoor living space has remained healthy even in the face of the housing downturn.”

This trend is likely to continue as some 54 percent of architects report the popularity of outside living spaces is on the rise, and 43 percent report similar sentiments for home office projects. The only other specialty room with a favorable trend is the mud room. Some 26 percent of architects report rising popularity for mud rooms, compared to just 17 percent a year ago.

On the down side, au pair/in-law suites and hobby/game rooms are called popular by only 2 percent of the architects responding to the survey.

Technology tips scales 

At the top of the list of most popular systems was wireless, with a 50 percent score, which represents an 8-point jump from a year ago. Energy management (46 percent), geothermal (45 percent), and solar panel systems (44 percent) still are generating strong interest, but all of those numbers are several points down from a year ago.

Baker says the trend for wireless systems is also related to the growth of home offices. “Given the popularity of home offices, wireless communication devices top the list of systems increasing in popularity, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, even as homeowners reduce the number of special features in their homes,” he says.

Building outlook 

Some of the best news in the report is that there are signs of stabilization in the residential construction market, but it is almost entirely in additions and remodeling.
“Conditions in the broader housing market are beginning to stabilize nationally,” says Baker. “Business conditions at residential architecture firms likewise have shown signs of stabilizing, but just as many firms are reporting declining billings as are reporting increases.”

Another positive point of the study is that market stabilization appears to be regionally widespread. “The general stabilization seen in business activity at residential architecture firms is reflected across the four major U.S. Census regions,” says Baker. “In the second quarter, firms in three of the four regions–the Northeast, Midwest, and South–were all reporting modest billings increases.”

As for the West, Baker still sees mild declines there, but he notes that region was the hardest hit by the recession. “One reason for this is that the West contains some of the nation’s most overbuilt markets filled with vacant properties, such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., and Sacramento,” he says.

Nationwide, 40 percent of architects reported improvements in projects involving additions or alterations. That was up from only 22 percent in 2010. Some 36 percent of architects reported improving work in kitchen and bath remodeling, up from just 29 percent a year ago.

Segments reported to be still in severe decline include the first-time buyer/affordable home market (-37 percent), the move-up home market (-35 percent), the custom/luxury home market (-22 percent), the townhouse/condo market (-37 percent), and the second home market (-62 percent).

Baker says the continued weakness in the lower end of the market such as first-time home buyers is of particular concern going forward. “Most analysts feel that a sustainable recovery in the housing industry needs to begin at the lower end of the market, because an influx of entry-level buyers will begin to put pressure on the other higher end housing segments,” he says.

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