How the pandemic has put flexibility front and center in home design

[Washington Post – September 17, 2020]

Six months ago the coronavirus pandemic turned the entire nation into homebodies. Now architects, builders and interior designers are addressing the pain points that emerged when our homes became our offices, schools and entertainment venues.

It’s a little too soon for completely new model homes to be built that take the new normal into account. Still, incremental changes in floor plans and interior design have been made that point the way to the future.

“While there are definitely some design changes we’re making, we also want to be careful of an overreaction to the current situation and design things that don’t make sense 18 months from now,” says Bill Ramsey, a principal with KTGY Architecture and Planning in Denver.

“For example, home schooling is a big issue right now, but we don’t see that as a long-term need so we’re not designing homes with a school room as part of the floor plan,” he adds. “Instead, we’re focused on flexibility so that there is a place to do virtual school in the short term that can work for some other need in the future.”

Just as we’ve learned to pivot and adjust to a new way of living, so have our homes. Now architects are taking into account the way people are using their homes to make new designs more relevant.

“Flexibility is key,” says Bob Zuber, an architect and partner with Morgante Wilson Architects in Chicago. “Open floor plans are not gone, but adaptability is important. For example, we designed a floor plan with an open room that can be configured into three different spaces with pocket doors, barn doors or glass-and-steel folding doors that open and close. You can have it all open into one big space with an expandable dining table or you can convert it to use temporarily as offices, a guest bedroom or a library.”

“Basically, we’re looking at floor plans and figuring out new ways to combine or separate space for different functions,” says Ramsey. “For example, we can move the equipment in an upper-level laundry room to a closet and convert the laundry room to a small office. Or we could open up the space more for a loft-like area for homework or an office.”

A “Zoom room” or a phone booth-size office can be carved out of a variety of spaces in the home, including a dining room or a bedroom, says Ramsey.

A formal dining room is a good space to convert to a den or closed office, especially because newly designed homes have plenty of dining space in kitchens and great rooms, says Jeff Lake, vice president of architecture and design of Tri Pointe Group, the Irvine, Calif.-based parent company of six regional home builders around the country.

Formal dining rooms offer an opportunity to create space for multiple activities in one room, says Jessica Geller, a partner with the Toledo Geller interior design firm in Englewood, N.J.

“Even before covid-19, we’ve introduced things like a game table or a sofa with a small table into the dining room to add casualness to the space and provide a spot to do homework or a puzzle or paperwork,” says Geller. “The second table can be the kids’ table during a holiday gathering.”

Geller says she also emphasizes more comfortable seating in the dining room so that homeowners want to use the space more frequently, even for casual meals.

Adapting for functionality

Whether the lifestyle changes associated with the pandemic are permanent remains to be seen, so temporary solutions by designers are making homes more functional for now.

“Big open floor plans aren’t conducive to Zoom calls,” says Kendall Wilkinson, principal of Kendall Wilkinson Design,  an interior design firm in San Francisco. “Converting a guest bedroom into an office works for that, but we’re also creating little vignettes or ‘micro-rooms’ within open floor plans by rearranging furniture. We’re breaking up the space without adding walls by delineating space with rugs and furniture.”

A console table can be added to an open dining area, says Wilkinson, with room for a chair that matches the dining chairs and a nearby cabinet that can be closed to hide work or school materials when they’re not in use.

A temporary solution can also be a screen in an open floor plan to create a sense of privacy.

“The screen has to feel like it has a purpose, so we designed one that’s painted on one side and has wallpaper on the other so that when it’s folded up it still looks like art,” says Wilkinson. “It’s important to be able to convert your home back at the end of the day so that your home still feels attractive and calm.”

When every family member is at home most of the time, it becomes more important to find a place to be alone.

“We’re trying to work out how to make a home more like a sanctuary even though it’s also where so many are working,” says Tommy Beadel, CEO of  Thomas James Homes in Aliso Viejo, Calif. “We try to make sure each house has multiple outdoor locations, not just the backyard. We add side and interior courtyards when we can with multiple uses for entertaining, working and relaxing.”

K. Tyler, an interior designer and partner with Morgante Wilson Architects, says that more clients are asking for finished attic spaces and for loft areas in children’s bedrooms where they can find a quiet corner.

“In one project with a sloping roof we finished a crawl space into a tunnel between the kids’ rooms,” says Tyler. “We’ve also added benches under stairwell windows for a reading nook.”

Primary suites, whether they are on the first or second level, often have space that can be enclosed or divided to create an office, gym or just a retreat from the family, says Lake. In some cases, he says, they can add a satellite space around the corner from the primary bedroom or primary bathroom.

Adding a chaise lounge or an armchair and ottoman to a corner of a bedroom can give homeowners a place to occasionally retreat away from the great room, says Wilkinson.

“It’s rare for everyone in the household to want to do the same thing at the same time,” says Ramsey. “So you need multiple spaces to entertain yourself indoors and outdoors. If possible, we like to design homes with a primary ‘public’ outdoor space and a more secluded small outdoor space off an office or bedroom. You can add a small nook off the main living space as a place to read or surf on your iPad.”

For example, in a small house, a secondary living space can be furnished with a daybed for the occasional guest, a seating area for reading and a table that can function for work or schoolwork. A barn door can be used to close off the space when guests sleep there.

“You’re not locking yourself in to any particular use for the space, which means it’s more likely to be used more often,” says Ramsey.

A quiet place

Almost the moment the pandemic started, everyone realized they would need a place to work and a place for their children to do schoolwork.

“Most of our models have a little 5-by-8-foot or 6-by-9-foot open tech space near the kitchen,” says Beadel. “We immediately closed off that space with a door on our floor plans and in our newly built homes because everyone realized, even our employees, that you need a private place for work calls.”

Every Thomas James Homes model has a first-floor bedroom that is now being staged as a home office, says Beadel.

“An important piece of working from home is the need for soundproofing,” says Lake. “A pocket office or a Zoom room can be small, especially if it’s only functioning as an office part of the time. We’re taking the space that was an open home management space near the kitchen and closing it off in some models.”

Unfortunately, barn doors are not always soundproof, says Lake, so buyers today can choose a solid sealable office door if they prefer.

“We’re introducing these small office options, around 7-by-7-feet, that can be almost anywhere in the house with the option of a built-in desk and shelves,” says Lake.

Some new floor plans include a small “Zoom room” along with a larger office with space for two desks, says Lake.

“On the upper level, we try to incorporate a homework space and a Zoom room, sometimes by converting a loft into an office,” says Lake.

Adding built-in desks and shelves on the upper loft is also an option, he says.

“We’ve done a few homework stations or rooms on the second floor, but mostly we find that parents and kids want to do school work in a more public space either at the kitchen table or in a ‘nerve center’ near the kitchen,” says Tyler, of Morgante Wilson Architects. “It’s best to have three or four spaces around the house if possible where someone can work or do homework, so we put in more pocket doors and barn doors to divide rooms and add a little quiet to the spaces.”

Garages and mudrooms

A modified mudroom designed by Wilkinson includes a desk as well as a window seat that becomes a breakout space for reading. While cubbies are still in the mudroom for school materials, Wilkinson created extra storage space in the garage for other items that had been stored in the mudroom.

KTGY tweaked a garage design to provide for two cars as well as allow space for exercise equipment or a home office.

“By [rearranging] the garage, you can have one car in the garage, one car in the driveway and the other garage space for a Peloton bike or a private office,” says Ramsey.

Outdoor space has become increasingly important to home buyers for years, but during the pandemic homeowners with the ability to get fresh air and sunshine without interacting with people outside their home were particularly fortunate. “California rooms,” which are typically an extension of an indoor space that is open on one or two sides and has a roof, are gaining popularity in numerous markets, says Melissa Hazlett, vice president of sales and marketing for Baldwin & Sons,  a builder and developer in Newport Beach, Calif.

“These spaces have already been popular with our buyers, but amid the pandemic, they have definitely become one of the ‘must-haves’ for even more buyers,” says Hazlett. “Homeowners can create a more luxurious experience with a California room than with a deck or other type of outdoor living space. Our California rooms often have outdoor cabinets and fireplaces.”

While California rooms range from $15,000 and up, other outdoor options that are less costly but expand indoor-outdoor living to multiple seasons include fire pits, fireplaces and heaters.

Essential workers returning home from a day at the hospital or grocery store quickly learned to head directly to a shower or at least a handwashing station before greeting family members. While installing a shower in the garage may not be practical, architects and designers are adding a space for a sink where possible and a shelf for hand sanitizer near home entrances.

“For one of our single-family home designs, we’re offering the option of a utility sink in the garage or in a mini-mudroom so people can wash their hands before they go into the rest of the house,” says Ramsey. “It’s a relatively small adaptation to floor plans that already have a drop zone or mudroom.”

Mudrooms have been getting more and more “tricked out” with places to leave shoes and laundry and old-fashioned “slop sinks” surrounded by cabinetry, says Zuber.

“The sink works for washing your hands, but it also provides a place to wash the dog,” says Zuber.

Builders such as Thomas James Homes and others are also emphasizing their use of air filtration and water filtration systems that provide health and wellness benefits to homeowners.

“We’ve seen accelerated interest in this but we’re not sure yet if these will be standard or optional features,” says Beadel.

In larger homes, exercise spaces are being expanded and swimming pools are being added where possible, says Zuber.

“Even in smaller homes, people are asking for a ballet barre in the basement or a prefabricated sauna,” Zuber says.

Another issue that became bigger for homeowners during the pandemic is package deliveries. While a variety of solutions such as package bins near the garage or front door and Amazon deliveries into a garage exist, KTGY also designed a permanent solution: a two-sided drop box with a door to the outside for deliveries accessed by a code and a door on the inside of the home to retrieve the package.

The pandemic has left some homeowners with a renewed appreciation of the flexibility of their home to accommodate new functions, while others long to move into a newly designed space that’s ready for an expanded life at home.

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