By Owen P. Meyer, AIA, NCARB – Froogel Architects, PLLC

As the remarkable year of ‘2020’ came and went, homeowners across the U.S. developed a deeper relationship with their homes, thus getting a better understanding of their dwelling’s strengths and weaknesses. Were the average homeowner prompted for a one-word benchmark they measure against, phrases such as ‘family’, ‘friends’, ‘comfort’ and ‘safety’ would likely be heard most. Whether or not a home came through last year as a success may depend upon which family member you ask, though rest assure that most opinions heard are based upon an unprecedented amount of observation and experience.  

The preexisting trends of homebuyers continue, with ever-increasing square footages, grander kitchens and spa-like bathroom retreats dominating wishlists. Incredibly low interest rates and the seemingly-mass exodus from metropolitan areas have potential buyers overflowing into our area – just ask any homebuilder! However, for all the physical comforts that come with the modern home, last year brought to light many of our shared emotional needs not completely satisfied by the current housing stock. Responding with creative solutions can bring unique opportunities for adding value (and potential profitability) to an already-hot housing market.    

People desiring better in-home guest accommodations are as abundant as ever. The strong bonds missing between separated family members, loved ones and caretakers range from simple inconveniences to meeting critical mental and physical health needs. Improvements starting as kitchenettes, growing to separate quarters containing true living space or even detached accessory dwelling units (where allowed) all provide opportunities for continued, controllable, uninterrupted relationships regardless of external pressures. Expanding the scope of work to include accessible design features, such as wider doors, roll-in showers and similar, benefits both those now with restricted mobility as well as the current – and future – elderly.

The need for a proper home office needs little introduction, and multiple studies suggest more will be needed due to a growing remote workforce. Proper data and communication systems are often lacking in many homes, and any planned work should have the flexibility to accommodate our ever-changing technologies. Often overlooked acoustical upgrades – including a mix of cavity insulation, doubled gypsum board and window/door upgrades – are easily implemented during construction.

Going to fitness facilities – to some an avoidable chore, to others a daily ritual – suddenly became a memory when the gyms were ordered closed. A significant portion of over 61 million fitness club members in the U.S. were deprived of the mental and physical health benefits from exercise at a time when stress was elevated and movement constrained. Fully stocked, dedicated home gyms – the kind usually reserved for upper echelons – are likely still high on enthusiasts’ lists, though quite costly and not necessary to reap many of the rewards.  A dedicated, flexible room reinforced to carry heavier loads (if needed) provides options now and in the future. Also, having the ability to condition a garage area as needed for comfort opens up many other possibilities for fitness or otherwise. As with the home office, acoustical treatments here may benefit the entire household, in general.

Record sales of home defense products clearly reflect a new reality emphasizing increased safety measures. Fortunately, both fears of home intrusions and severe weather share a common solution: premanufactured Safe Rooms – a ready option though their initial costs and dedicated space requirements often meet resistance. Perhaps more attractive and cost effective is a thoughtfully planned room serving double duties. Reinforced concrete and/or masonry walls placed during foundation work could provide not only affordability, but blends in seamlessly when finished correctly. The quick accessibility to such internal rooms – when compared to mainstream alternatives placed in garages or outside– is a major advantage, financial and spatial concerns aside.

Confidence in electrical utility availability was shaken due to a combination of factors. Record home occupancy created rolling blackouts during summer cooling as well as post-2020 winter storms, abandoning millions and millions of people when needed most. Notwithstanding arguments regarding supply sources, the core problem is an aging, insufficient infrastructure, at a scale which will not be remedied for years – if ever – even with the best of intentions. The proactive response of installing either a whole-house generator or solar array system is unlikely to catch much traction soon, primarily due to upfront costs and fading tax credit incentives. However, a sub-6 or 7 kilowatt system focused upon dedicated comforts – such as food preservation, lighting and some level of temperature regulation – is not only less-intrusive aesthetically, but easier to justify financially. Prewiring homes to receive portable generators is certainly safer than waiting to plan until an emergency. When not serving its critical intentions for emergency power, a solar-based option provides a perfect complement to the growing EV (electric vehicle) home-based charging stations.

This list would not be complete without addressing improved reliability for water supplies.  Government data from 2015 suggests the 43 million Americans (or around 15% of the population) that rely upon private wells has grown since. Practically all wells rely upon electrical pumps for lift, which ends abruptly from events such as unexpected mechanical or electrical grid failure. An intermediate, low-cost cistern ensures a reserve that can lasts from days, weeks and beyond. An added benefit is the smaller pump transfer systems within the cistern require much less electrical consumption than the subterranean pump, assuming emergency power is available. If not, simple gravity provides the low-tech energy for aboveground applications, with manual pumps serving underground systems in a pinch. The perhaps more-confident urban homeowner would benefit from a ready, onsite supply should a severe weather event or otherwise result in a loss of service. Rainwater collection – often only thought of for irrigation – is another potential option made safe with the numerous, low-cost filtration methods now available.

The homebuilder showing an awareness of evolving needs should expect a higher level of confidence from potential buyers. Increasing one’s understanding of the emotional comforts of ‘Home’ should be exciting and enriching as well as profitable. While there is little doubt many existing homes will be retrofitted to include some of the solutions mentioned here, the attractiveness of dispersing those costs in a low-interest, long-term traditional mortgage upfront are obvious.

If you have anything to add to this conversation, please feel free to contact me.