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How Porches, Towel Warmers, and Floor Tiles Explain Our Changing Society

How Porches, Towel Warmers, and Floor Tiles Explain Our Changing Society
Mark Byrnes

The American Institute of Architects conducts a quarterly home design trend survey that tracks what architects on the ground are hearing from their clients. Turns out that in the aggregate, individual orders for marble countertops or fiber cement exteriors start to reveal something broader about the economy, and changes in society on the whole.

Pour through these trends, and you can start to see shifts like when flipping houses went out of fashion and conserving energy went in, or when baby boomers became empty nesters and the economy caved in. Kermit Baker, chief economist for the AIA and a senior research fellow at Harvard, is the primary researcher on the survey. He walked us through some of what changing demand in porch construction and bathroom renovation can tell us about our times.

"Homes are a reflection of demographic trends and economic trends and things like that that are going on," Baker says. And in some ways, homes do a better job of this than, say, offices do, because they offer a window into deeply personal decisions about how we live, what we’re willing to spend our money on, and when our values evolve. "The economy turns a lot faster than fundamental home design trends do," Baker adds. But these little details are still revealing.

Most of us can recognize a product of the 1990s McMansion boom when we pull into a subdivision and see one. But these trends suggest that 10 years from now, a keen eye will be able to identify the homes that were built - or renovated - during the recession. Their hallmarks? Infill location, simpler detailing and more durable, low-maintenance exteriors. And porches. People are pretty into porches right now.

"I always interpret it as of one of the obvious manifestations of the New Urbanism movement, where there was more outward emphasis on homes integrated into a larger community, homes where people would interact more with their neighbors, going back to small-town living," Baker says. "Rather than isolation and security and safety, where everyone had their own privacy, their own big yard with big fences around it, where they were trying not to interact with others."

The rise of the porch, in other words, may suggest a decline of interest in the heavily fortified privacy that was promised by the McMansion.

The AIA’s survey data only goes back to 2005, but Baker has been following these trends for longer. During the housing boom, he says, many people clammored for something of an anomaly: the big custom home that was not particularly customized.

"The old way of thinking about it was that once you were in a custom and luxury market, that home was designed specifically with your needs in mind," Baker says. You’d sit down with an architect. You’d talk about where your family likes to eat dinner. The housing boom replaced this concept with the cookie-cutter home, which, Baker says, is probably destined to be a period piece we’ll never see again.

These homes said something interesting about the people – a whole generation of them – living in them: they weren’t planning on staying. After all, if you design a home for your needs, it’s a lot harder to sell to other people who don’t share them.

The products inside the home have changed, too. The AIA survey used to ask a question about the demand for in-home "towel-warmers." (We had to look up exactly what this is, since it apparently does not refer to simply draping your towel over the radiator while you take a shower.) Demand for these has cooled – alongside pleas for wine cellars, fitness centers and media rooms. And as a result, the AIA has largely stopped asking about them.

As simpler facades have come in, luxury touches have gone out. And if you knew nothing about the broader economy, the disappearance of the domestic towel warmer would probably tell you a lot.

Equally interesting are what these design preferences say about trends beyond the economy, in our demographics and values. The AIA has recently been tracking the rising interest in energy efficiency, which turns up in peoples’ homes in the form of solar panels, water cisterns and automated lighting controls. Baker also has his eye out for the next emerging product: home charging stations. “At what point," he asks, "is the electric vehicle popular enough that it’s starting to become a standard feature that is being designed in homes?"

Carmakers and environmentalists may want to consider that as the tipping point to mass adoption.

The other primary current shaping home design trends can be traced, as most societal shifts these days can, to baby boomers. As they get older, they won’t only be aging the American population; they’ll be aging American homes. Baker has begun looking for accessibility ramps and elevators in homes, first-floor master bedroom suites, non-slip floor surfaces and handles and faucets that are easier to use.

Such features didn't exist in large numbers in the 1990s, or the 1970s. They'll be a product of their time, a reflection of the changing face of the country as revealing as the three-car garage and the fortified backyard once was.

 Photos courtesy of (clockwise, from top left) Flickr users Zieak, Stantontcady, Gary Leruden, and Stewart.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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