In the calm after the storm, development opportunities shift from volume to quality - by Thomas House

September 02, 2016 - Northern New England
Thomas House, THA  Architects Thomas House, THA

It’s almost autumn. Time for the New England’s bounty of color, a signal that the season is about to change.

And for architects and developers, it is indeed a new season. It may be hurricane season meteorologically, but the up-again down-again economic indicators of the past few months ironically indicate a kind of market calm.

The vertigo-inducing two year plunge that began in 2006 (yes, it has been a decade) is over, as is the dead cat bounce off the bottom.

All the curves are leveling on the lower side of normal-ish levels of prices, rate, and home ownership rates, offset by higher rentership rates (and rents).

Wait...what? Please, remember, 2006 was not normal – go back yet another 10 years for that. Let’s hope the next growth phase is a lot less wild, as millennials slowly enter the buyers market.

So calm is where we’re at. Instead of designing and building for quantity, the opportunity amid the calm is in quality. And quality especially means kitchens.

At the moment, we’ve seen the return of the pantry, and we are witnessing double islands, wine storage, multiple undercounter appliances, 6 and 8-unit rangetops with double ovens, digital work areas and charging stations…and a much larger footprint than previously.

All of this is usually well framed (if not deceptively concealed) in a wide palette of materials - from quantum-era modern to natural and traditional surfaces.

The additional space indicates that the kitchen is the room that gets the most living - family gathering, recreation, and entertaining. This is where homeowners are investing attention - and money.

Energy efficiency and the Jevons paradox

Part of the trend toward more (and bigger, sometimes much bigger) appliances is driven by energy efficiency.

There is no question that efficiency programs such as Energy Star and LED lighting is part of this trend.

But before we congratulate ourselves, we need to consider the role of the Jevons paradox in these upscaled appliances. They do after all, consume power.

Instead of putting the increased efficiency in the bank as savings (or leaving it in the ground for future generations) we instead consume the difference in bigger and more appliances, bigger cars, bigger homes.

Jevons was a mid-1800’s English economist who developed a model for this effect, and predicted that increased efficiency - rather than reducing energy consumption - would inevitably increase it.

Your 10-year-old magnetically sealed refrigerator is being replaced by a double-wide Viking. And was the old refrigerator recycled? Or is it in the basement chilling beer and soda?

It is the challenge to the designer and the architect to be aware of the Jevons effect, and to overcompensate wherever possible.

Fenestration for solar gain, better insulation, high quality materials, smart systems to minimize peak-demand use, and when it’s possible, solar panels - these are among the things developers can do to leave some of that energy in the ground for our grandchildren.

These, of course, are the same grandchildren gathering in the new living room – or has the kitchen even become a kind of rumpus room?

We’ll write more on the paradox in a future issue.

Power to the people

Of course, the kitchen is only the most visible and well-trafficked feature of a well-developed home.

The laundry has for a while now been a major consideration. The old white-goods top loaders in the basement (next to the old refrigerator) pale in comparison to new front-loading units more conveniently and ingeniously tucked away in the main living area of the house.

And probably no Jevons effect here  – these devices are more efficient, and they aren’t much bigger.

The bath, or bath suite, is making what was once a functional space into…well, it’s still a functional space. But does it have to look like one? Not if your client has some imagination, and you’ve left enough in the budget to do something special in a room people spend a lot of time in.

Spacing out

That kitchen we were just discussing might not contain any interior walls – the height of desirability is for an open floor plan, into which that kitchen flows.

It’s the height of trend for the living floor to be open from one end of the house to the other.

And from there, depending on siting and circumstance, it might even flow to an outdoor room - which today might again feature a kitchen of its own. This is possible to a degree even in multifamily housing, at least on grade-level floors.

Dreaming up that dream house

In a calmer marketplace, the development opportunities shift from volume to quality.

It is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this business I’m in that whether it’s some place small (I have a client asking about doing something with shipping containers right now!) or something more grand, I’m part of a process – and a team of developers and builders – that helps someone dream up a dream home - or business.

More about that last item next time.

Thomas House, AIA, is principal of THA Architects, LLC, Stratham, N.H.


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