After Months Of Staying Home, Here’s What Buyers Want, And What Changes The Game For Builders Beyond 2021

To look forward—to get a best glimpse now at the future of single-family housing in America—first look back. SARS-CoV-2, a novel coronavirus in 2019, would be the force that shockingly upended, then turbocharged homebuilders’ worlds in 2020. But who knew that this time last year?

So, for those who’ve weighed in with top-10s on the future of housing in 2021, with due respect, this is about a quartet of women whose Raleigh-area concept home—due to break ground in the next few weeks in a sizzling community, a 22-mile dead-shot west of Cary—sets its sights and plan of action rather on shaping a future than simply talking about it.

These four women determined—from the zero-hour throes of the pandemic’s calamitous early going—to hand-dig a foundation of learning and hand-weave a collaborative fabric of people, operations, business, and investment for an idea development house. Designed for a hypothetical older Millennial family, where one parent works from home and the other works outside the home; two small kids, one in elementary school one a little younger, the project comes the closest homebuilding and residential real estate get to product research and development.

Their “show home” project delves, not only into the cultural genome of home and community living, but the bulwark of design, building, and construction’s culture as well. The concept’s developers aim to construct a physical-world reality that would stand as a more than modestly prescient proposal for future homes, of which over a million of the single-family, detached, market-rate type is forecast for permitting and start in 2021.

Here’s how.

Home As A Story Of Who Lives There

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Earth movers will break dirt this month or early next, after nine months of discovery, planning and prep. After about a 6-month build time, the effort will bring to life a two-story, single-family 2,600 square foot idea house on a 45-foot of frontage lot in Chatham Park. The home comes complete with a name, a story to tell, and a future to shine on. Project architects’ intentions—a concept home that listens and learns on a plane equal to what it shows and tells—speak of longer-now forces and drivers at work, not just those in the deep, narrow gorge of the moment, running between the enormous walls of pain endured on one side of the crevice, and barely calculable worry about all the future unknowns on the other.

The pandemic’s time-warp effect for households essentially changed what they expect of and how they use each square foot of living space inside a home. In today’s new-home market feeding frenzy, a median newly-built house prices in at around about $312,800, measures about 2,274 square feet, and is being sold at a rate faster than newer ones are being produced.

Looked at slightly differently, today $140 a square foot will pay for the 18,000 pieces—about 600 separate SKUs—the 210 or so days in the building lifecycle, reeling in 25 separate construction trade crews, and a plot of property buyers in droves consider worth the price.

So, at the outset of 2021, $1 per square inch—the rough amount people ante up for newly built American homes in the median sense of the measure—has its work cut out for it. Homebuilders, developers, manufacturers, investors, and their partners produce those just-shy of $1-square inches in batches of $140 square feet, at a rate of about $1,500 a day for about 210 days on average. The result: a kit of parts human household members regard as an answer for what they’re running from or running to in their lives.

A smart, healthy, operationally-sound, high-performance, environmentally-friendlier sheltering haven—one where inhabitants preferably do not die, get sick, nor suffer harm, and don’t do so amid a relative feeling of well-being as their property-value meter runs—sounds just about right to ring in any new year. Bedrooms, a kitchen, bathrooms, living areas—they’re the essential kit-of-parts that make a house. What Slavik-Tsuyuki, Keenan, Sward, and Garman seized on—and why it affords a glimpse at the future of housing—is that it’s a merger of a home’s parts and the story of people who live there, striving to prosper, that makes up today’s biggest challenge in home design, engineering, construction, and real estate.

“The actual concept home is called No Little Plans – Barnaby,” says Teri Slavik-Tsyuki, a community development strategist and visionary, who sparked the idea in the first place. “The quote inspiring this name is from [famed 19th Century American architect and urban planner] Daniel Burnham,” she says.

Burnham’s quote:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

Foundations In Collaboration

The home’s bones and structural pedigree were designed for Garman Homes’ product family tree by San Francisco Bay Area-headquartered Dahlin Group, as part of a newly-unveiled branch of offerings, The Nonfiction brand. Within that brand line nests a floorplan and elevation portfolio to be unveiled this year, Garman’s Quotables Collection of homes—for each floorplan and elevation draws inspiration from quotable authors.

Slavik-Tsuyuki says, “the concept home itself will be called ‘Barnaby,’ after my big sweet rescued blue standard poodle who we lost in June this year and whose love inspired me at the start of COVID to keep asking ‘how might we’ make a difference in this challenging time. He gave selflessly.” She further notes that the three other plans in The Quotables Collection include: Constant Calibration (from a quote from Michelle Obama, Becoming); How Wonderful It Is (quote from Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl); and Be The Change (quote from Gandhi).

Along with Slavik-Tsuyuki, drivers of the project are builder Alaina Money-Garman, architect Nancy Keenan, and consumer insight specialist Belinda Sward. They form a nucleus of a broader team of tech and marketing advisors, building scientists, product manufacturers, researchers and the like for the Chatham Park, N.C., initiative. They bet decades of experience and harvested a recent series of polls of people participating in the discovery-lab of widespread—largely involuntary—home confinement. They wagered that COVID-19 will be central to the story of homebuilding and development in 2021, as well. For that matter, very likely beyond this year, through the current decade.

Garman is CEO of North Carolina Triangle-area homebuilder Garman Homes, and a founder and CEO of the firm’s Fresh Paint by Garman Homes line of homes and communities. Slavik-Tsuyuki, after many years as chief of marketing and creative services at one of the nation’s leading residential developers, Newland Communities, runs her own strategic advisory firm tst ink, which consults with developers and community builders. Slavik-Tsuyuki initially teamed up with Nancy Keenan, president and CEO of the Dahlin Group architects, and a former Newland colleague, Belinda Sward, who’s headed up her own branding, community planning, and development consultancy Strategic Solutions Alliance, to hatch the study.

They surmised that a massive percentage of sheltering-at-home households were caught in reactive, defensive, and tactical mode, based on the immediacy of present risks, threats, and uncertainties—and that the moment to understand these fears, motivations, and sense of urgency could amount to a goldmine of insight.

It fell to them to take stock of a future beyond the profoundly imposing wall of pandemic worry, where new investment in home design, engineering, featuring, structure, and community plan need to be focused, not just on immediate rates of new-home sales absorption. To unpack the kinetic frisson of today’s new-home demand, and in so doing, chart the steepness and duration of its trajectory into 2021, they thought it best to think in verbs, not nouns. Verbs like eat, sleep, relax, play, work, learn, disengage, (“do one’s business”), and more complexly, solve personally for real-world challenges, to spot opportunity, and ultimately, to flourish.

Amid the heady rush of the current new-home market, too few people may share that sense. And what mortal living soul knows exactly how that plotline will impact what, by all lights, looks to be a year of continued, even growing momentum and promise for new residential development and investment?

It may be enough to observe that, although many may prefer coronavirus to go down as 2020’s defining story, it has bled into this year, and perhaps next year, and the one after that. Nature—in the form of the viral pandemic—has its own plans. Nature makes short work of geographical boundaries, ideological divisions, social segments, economic strata, race, color, creed—every construct we humans could imagine to throw in front of it.

Moreover, it’s likely that Covid will trifle with our collective wish to box up its duration and ongoing impacts to a single calendar year. Garman, Keenan, Sward, and Slavik-Tsuyuki entertained no illusions that the measure of a year would signal the end of the pandemic’s grip on public health, the economy, the collective psyche, and societal behavior.

Pent-upness: What Releases It?

That grip—we knew too well—was no metaphor. It clenched, literally. Shelter-in-place, stay at home, locked-down, pent-up—these were the Ground Hog Day realities of household and collective experience. These measures left individuals, communities, society, and culture bursting at the seams. Wall Street Journal sage Peggy Noonan writes, “The great comeback of 2021 is surely coming, at least according to the new picture I have in my head, and it will be led and fed by the idea of pent-upness.”

Slavik-Tsuyuki, Sward, Keenan, and Garman wanted answers, harder evidence that would shed light on human adaptivity. They’ve asked for them, studied them, queried them in two separate waves of America At Home surveys, conducted in the Spring and Fall of 2020. Each wave took a pulse of upwards of 4,000 people, whose responses serve as a double-dip proxy of Americans’ pain points, preferences, aspirations, and resolutions during their extended “stay” in house-arrest-lite across the span of months following the advent of the coronavirus. What people say they want versus what they choose, what people suggest they prefer versus their behavior, what people value versus what they desire: that was the rub. The chaff was what people consider “nice to have.” The wheat? What people will pay for in their new homes.

The America At Home polls drew a bright line of evidence and rigor amid a storm of anecdotal, theoretical, and highly reactive “trend-spotting” that blew up in the early aftermath of COVID. The findings benchmarked the moving-target of both timeless, non-negotiable values and exponentially-rapidly-evolving beliefs and behaviors to secure those values, all within the learning lab of America’s nine-month 2020 home confinement.

Highlights of the two studies’ findings bring light to a populace across the sample-base that’s back-on-its-heels, reflexively protective and tactically insistent on conditions, controls, and solutions that stand for preserving baseline health—physical, emotional, financial, and mental—as what matters most.

The research’s two-waved topline data exposes baseline attitudes and behaviors for both the obvious and the meaningful, the fad and the trend. For instance, the No. 1 equivalency for what home stands for among respondents in both waves was safety, which is intuitive. Timelessly embedded values that give being at home—by choice or not—its core essence are terms such as freedom, financial stability, and simplicity. Again, not so surprising, but reflective of a widely defensive zeitgeist.

The America At Home study data points mostly tell of Americans who’ve had to invent new ways to batten down their hygienic hatches, out-migrate from danger zones, re-habituate in closer quarters for more household members of more shapes, sizes, ages, physical and emotional needs, for more time.

No Little Plans

“I saw the power of the insights in the data and thought they would be even more powerful if we could demonstrate how they come to life in a physical concept home. This would give us a real-life opportunity to see consumer response, and also to share our experience with the greater homebuilding industry. I suggested the idea to Nancy Keenan that Garman Homes join us and go through a series of intentional planning workshops, led by Dahlin, to envision, design and ultimately build a concept home. I called Alaina on a Thursday with the idea. She and Jim Garman and Rebecca McAdoo (Garman Homes regional president) met early Friday morning and called me back with a ‘hell yes’ that same day. Dahlin contributed the design and planning expertise, and Garman agreed to build the home. Doing this virtually was an exceptionally focused and rewarding experience.”

The enclosure, the software running through its mechanical, electric, plumbing, and digitally-mapped systems, and the experience across fluid barriers that both seal off and connect indoor to outdoor living space work together, Slavik-Tsuyuki, “on purpose” so that people who live in the home engage with the space and make their story. Features and functionality attest to two colliding forces fused in the blueprint, the collaborative process, and the physical house: profound know-how and an equally boundless need to learn. Make No Little Plans: Barnaby is a bright line across which new homes of the future must do more, better, more elegantly, simply, and economically. And make owners money while they’re at it.

Four Mega-Trends For Homebuilding

Longer-now upheavals—material macro shapers of our homes and communities of the future—started before COVID-19 and will continue long after this pandemic and its hold on commerce and culture subsides. These upheavals date back not just decades, but millennia, and are in constant, dynamically refreshed relevance. They qualify both as the same as it ever was; and like no other time before.

Like as not, it’ll be 2030 before we fully recognize, appreciate, and begin to truly distinguish between the fleeting fads and any more permanent patterns, i.e. will guest entries and separate guest vestibules become the 2020s’ answer to the entry powder rooms that trended in the wake of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic?

Here are four technology- and data-enabled quickly evolving trends people in 2030 will look back on as non-negotiable needs, attitudes, preferences, and values that took shape, starting now, through the early 2020s, with the coronavirus pandemic as an accelerant:

  1. Agency: homebuyers want non-negotiable “say” in how and when homes perform their nesting-doll set of needs, ranging from flexible floor-space, to mood-lighting, to pure and comfortable air and water, to sanctuary and disengagement. As measures—akin to MPG-efficiency ratings for cars—become the known currency for households to equate to value in their homes, property valuations will adjust accordingly.
  2. Accountability: The end of an epoch of property-as-a-snapshot-in-time-transaction is ending as consumers of all goods—durables and non-durables—begin to be both more insistent and capable of quickly gaining transparency into the provenance, the source-code, the “making-of” whatever’s being sold. Stake-holder value—versus equity growth to owners or shareholders only—may appear to be consultant-speak now, but it’s developing as a non-option for businesses that expect to be around for a longer haul future.
  3. Home as a solution: People no longer settle for isolated gizmo fixes; they demand homes declare themselves as a place to prosper, put in capital for the home portfolio and achieve returns, and to solve for humans’ need for protection and nurturance. Livability is the new pursuit-of-happiness.
  4. Community as a solution: Communities—technology-enabled, circularly-economic, socially equitable, educationally-mobile, diverse and inclusive, and multi-factorial—give human souls at the household level a platform to play on offense, build fiber, heal pain, and develop resilience. A community whose individual members develop a story that maps to a working, evolving fabric for a holistic array of stakeholders becomes a case-study for the future of housing.

Might there be a better “man-plans-God-laughs” set-up than this doorstep into 2021? Housing, because of its raw, one-of-a-kind, common-denominator essence—squarely in the crosshairs of people’s need for shelter, a multi-trillion-dollar economic flywheel, and a very big, if still largely disaggregated, construction and real estate business—and COVID now intertwine. They’re a double-helix. Simply, one of the two helices is Mother Nature; the other is human society’s evolution.

Mother Nature makes the rules, keeps making them, changes the rules if it chooses, breaks the rules, and reinvents the definition of rule-making non-stop as time passes. People? Well, people adapt to the rules Mother Nature makes—as we currently hope to do as we “learn to live with” COVID-19, and to prepare ourselves to live with coronaviruses and other pandemics in the future—or don’t. And we know how well that works out.

The thing about adaptability is its constancy, for humans as for all of nature.

Human adaptability adheres to the same set of rules that suggest we never step into the same river twice. Because the very basic value of life, a healthy one at that, and a prosperous one if humanly possible, is timeless, homes and communities that protect, nurture, and enrich life are a perpetually adaptive, freshly emerging trend, year in and year out.

Safe, healthy, flexible, durable, and affordable homes—and, more broadly, communities—are the next big thing, always, because the future of housing is forever about what has been all along. Becoming. Adapting. Evolving. The path that buckles what we’ve experienced and what we know to what must be learned to be fit for tomorrows.

The Storyteller

On its surface, the Garman Homes’ No Little Plans – Barnaby concept home’s job is as an attention-getter. As such, it works as a shiny, bright, crystalline confluence of fresh architectural ideas, structural improvements, new products and materials manufacturers and distributors are keen to showcase in a real-life vignette, and systems integrated to perform smarter, more efficient functions.

Below the surface and behind its walls and beneath its foundation, the home’s purpose is as a storyteller and a listener.

Charles Darwin, as noted by author, NPR commentator Lulu Miller in her book, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life, said “Man can act only on external and visible characters; nature cares nothing for appearances … She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life.”

Rules are a construct humans gravitate to. They handily lend meaning to a deep-felt need. Looking at what has not happened yet, but could, we need ways to increase the likelihood of reward, and to reduce the odds of risk, or worse, punishment. It’s been said, “the pandemic doesn’t obey rules.” The rules are a work in progress.

We just don’t know yet what they are.

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