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.
"Sixty percent of our buyers say they want a single-story house, but they don't all want to pay for the extra foundation, roof and lot costs it requires," said Jeff Mezger, CEO of KB Home, a national semi-custom homebuilder based in Los Angeles.
Gibson said the two-story house with a first-floor master is a regional preference.
"The master bedroom is more often on the first floor, especially in the South, Southeast and West," he said of Toll's two-story homes. "But the Northeast tends to stick with the traditional plan with all the bedrooms upstairs."
Many buyers want a first-floor master for other family members.
"Today's household is more likely to be multigenerational," said Debbie Beaver, vice president of Schaumburg, Ill.-based William Ryan Homes, whose specialty is the under-$300,000 house for buyers ages 30 to 45.
"The mother-in-law lives with them so she can babysit the kids while mom and dad work. Or their grown kids are still home."
As for the other bedrooms, the pros report a "Honey, I've shrunk the kids' rooms" trend.
"They're small by intention," said Broberg Smith. "Kids want safe, intimate spaces."
Interest in specialty rooms, which clustered like barnacles onto new houses in the 1980s and 1990s, wanes, said Baker.
"The exceptions are the home office and mudroom, which buyers consider essential," he said.
The mudroom is major, Broberg Smith's clients tell her.
"It has cubbies, pegs, an adjacent bathroom and maybe a dog shower," she said. "And it's situated so the kids can't get into the house without dropping everything there."
Depending on the buyer's budget, the mudroom may or may not double as the laundry room. Buyers want a first-floor laundry room plus another one upstairs if they can afford it. Broberg Smith saves her clients the expense of a second one upstairs by building in a laundry chute.
The home office is downsizing because its occupants no longer need rows of filing cabinets or outdated equipment like fax machines.
If the buyer can afford to tack another specialty room onto his house, it must be flexible.
"It may be a playroom now, then homework space, then a TV room," said Elder. "It needs to change with the family."
Specialty rooms such as yoga rooms and exercise rooms are out, said Broberg Smith. Her clients are more likely to head to the local fitness center than steal this valuable square footage from family living.
The architects institute survey also points to a growing demand for finished basements, which add space without increasing the house size.
"Basement floor plan" is no longer an oxymoron, as more buyers plan this space from the get-go, said builders.
What will future new-home floor plans reveal? Will plans return to the compartmentalization of the 1950s or to the surplus square footage of the 1980s?
Neither, predicted Baker. "Usually, when the economy improves, houses get bigger," he said. "But I don't think it will happen this time."
"Now we have a more value-conscious consumer," said Mezger. "Even if they can afford more, they buy just what they need."
The McMansion, so named because of its extra-large, one-size-fits-all floor plan, is a "closed chapter," said Baker.
"Now, buyers want practical and flexible space that will fit their families," he said. "Our lifestyles and values have changed."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun