Americans dream of ever-grander homes

'Great rooms,' big kitchens, porches thrive. But formal dining rooms?

I have built a Dream House
Cozy little dream house
Happiness is there, hiding ev'rywhere.

By one historian's account, those cheery lyrics from a popular 1926 fox trot mark the first reference to what had already become a golden goal in America: the perfect single-family dwelling.

The vision grew increasingly suburban as time went by, a home pristine on a plot of green.

Today, just squeezing into the housing market has become a dream for many first-time buyers, while for some who jumped in before prices spiraled in much of the nation, "cozy" and "little" are hardly the right adjectives for the current ideal.

Try "sprawling." "Showy," even.

Architectural tastes evolve with each generation and vary by region. Custom-built homes remain largely the province of the affluent, though mass-market builders continue to broaden their arrays of modular feature options - choose your dormers or gables, for example.

Traditionally, "a lot of new developments pre-sell their homes, so you go into the sales office and they say you can have model A, B, or C and trim packages one, two, or three," says John Archer, professor of cultural studies at the University of Minnesota and author of "Architecture and Suburbia."

As always, small counterculture trends offer alternatives. Condominiums, still a relatively small segment of the housing industry, have gained, serving both as starter homes for couples who want to delay having children and as havens for empty-nesters.

Even in the realm of the free-standing home a small-is-beautiful movement is afoot, some experts say, as renovators and new-home buyers become more receptive to more creative uses of smaller spaces - a more sophisticated tack than the competitive, more-is-better mind set.

"It's a kind of personalizing that people are looking for but have a hard time articulating," says Sarah Susanka, author of several books on home design. She advocates smaller homes with well-used space.

Still, a few transcendent trends - some long-running, some newer - have emerged in the evolution of the American "dream house." Among them: ground-floor master suites (and more single-floor houses) opening onto landscaped grounds; walk-in closets; the continued erosion of formal spaces inside, but more exterior flourishes (even front porches) that project grandeur; inviting kitchens; dual-sink bathrooms with plenty of elbow room.

That's according to two surveys on Americans' architectural wishes released last month - one an annual poll of consumers nationwide, the other a first-ever survey of hundreds of architectural firms by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in Washington.

"Everyone's looking for that first-floor master bedroom, whether it's a single or two-story house, and even [if they have] kids who will be leaving home soon," says David Hughes, principal of David Hughes Architects in Columbus, Ohio. He's a member of the AIA advisory group that put together the Design Trends Survey.

Whether the main motivation is ease of mobility in later years or just convenience and simple access to the grounds is difficult to know, Mr. Hughes and others say. "But that's really the big trend," he says. The next-biggest trend is the elimination of "wasted space or space that doesn't get used like it used to in the past," he adds. Parlors and formal living rooms "are kind of going by the wayside."

"The 'great room' [open-concept design] keeps gaining in popularity," says Stephanie Paddock, a spokeswoman for Associate Designs, the Eugene, Ore., firm that has run its national Home From the Heart survey since 1992.

Ms. Paddock also cites the ground-floor master suite trend and the decline of formal spaces, though she says the formal dining room, at least, seems to have inched back this year from the brink of extinction.

Broadly speaking, it's a space race.

"You have homes that look almost like lofts" with their high ceilings, says Diego Saltes, the AIA's director of economics and market research. People also like split foyers or "anything that has a shock-and-awe effect when you open the door of the house, that makes the house look bigger."

Outside, Mr. Saltes cites "intensive use of the land." Even as houses eat up a greater proportion of increasingly expensive lots, hefty resources are being poured into landscaping - and into the facades of the houses looming over the lawns.

Saltes points to heavy investments in costly stone, brick, or mixed-material facades, a preference echoed in the Associated Designs wish-list poll. "The visually appealing material says 'This is a solid building, and at the same time fashionable,' " he says.

Better materials (and a rising economy that drives sales and allows builders to bulk-order such materials) continue to broaden design possibilities, says Professor Archer. Result: a broadening of the traditionally short A-B-C menu he cited earlier.

"Instead of getting an architect's pattern for an Italianate villa, you get a brochure from the developer, and it has 15 different [options], and you're free to associate however you want with those things - 'This makes me look elegant,' or 'This says what I want to say about family values,' " he says. "It's kind of a rhetorical catalog where you can pull out a whole set of messages that you want to project."

That can lead either to a cacophony of mismatched "veneers" or to the kind of architectural sameness of which suburbs are often accused.

"Developments do faux bungalows in the Midwest," he says. "Occasionally an interloper gets in there. In Virginia and Maryland [you tend to see] faux Alexandria, and Victorians stand out like sore thumbs in a sea of Federal-style homes."

Still, Archer says, the love of do-it-yourself design is inherent in America. In frontier days, it was requisite. In the early 20th century it was facilitated by Sears "kit" houses. Today the trend is clear from the fact that 80 percent of those polled by Associated Designs want to build, not buy.

"We're seeing people who are really interested in planning properly," says architect Hughes, "who see the value of doing a proper job of planning spaces" for the way they live. For one current client, Hughes says, that means a half-court basketball gymnasium. More often, he says, it takes the form of "a really nice kitchen."

"The more architects that are able to help people make good houses of all scales and at all price ranges," Ms. Susanka says, "the more people are going to see [the new standard of self-directed design] and say 'That's what I want.' I think it's happening."

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