By Barry DeLozier
In several Zoom meetings lately, I’ve heard the question raised, “What will you miss about this unusual time of COVID-19 when it’s over?”
While we’re all ready for life to return to normal, there certainly have been silver linings from this sudden societal shift: more family time, more quiet time, happier pets spending more time with their people. For anyone in the residential design/build industry, it’s also been a boon for business.
Catastrophic world events often lead to an American home renaissance. It happened after WWI when 1920s neighborhoods emerged across our country exhibiting worldly, eclectic architecture (English Tudor, Spanish Colonial). Again, after WWII with help from the G.I. Bill, ranch houses popped up like wildflowers in our landscape.
While the world has been at war with this virus, Americans have once again spent a preponderance of time, energy and money evaluating and reinterpreting our homes. Some design trends from this pandemic period will likely fade from popularity like tumbled marble, but some are so grounded in human nature, they could cast a long shadow over residential design.
Here are a few examples:
Outdoors Is the New Indoors
Feeling cooped up from lockdown? Head outside. In the South, blessed with our mild climate, we’ve always done this; it isn’t something new. Porches and outdoor kitchens were at the top of our lists for home improvements long before we ever heard of the new coronavirus. What’s changed is how often outdoor living spaces outweigh our demands for interior space. If a home has only one fireplace, it’s on a porch rather than in the family room. The appliance budget’s biggest ticket item may be a Teppanyaki griddle on the patio, not a commercial range in the kitchen.
Southern homes have a history of being graced with transitional spaces like wraparound porches, terraces and verandas, but we now blur the lines between what’s indoor and outdoor with telescoping door-walls. Our dining rooms and bedrooms have gained the capability of morphing into outdoor areas in 60 seconds. Further from the house, our backyards have had to replace theme parks as vacation destinations; the demand for pools and hot tubs is through the roof (only, there’s no roof).
Fresh air, vitamin D from sunshine and a socially distant conversation with a neighbor over a hedge are like vaccines from pandemic isolation.
My Home Office Is Really My Office
Once upon a time, if we were lucky, we had flexible space to gather mail and pay household bills, a desk off the kitchen with matching cabinetry or a guest room with a Murphy Bed. Some of us were caught off guard when a pandemic suddenly forced us to conduct all our work from our dining room table.
A home office that’s right-sized (not as big as a bedroom but bigger than an armoire) is now a common priority. Many families need multiple office spaces, with Mom and Dad both working from home and the kids not at school but in class on a laptop at the kitchen island. So where do we all spend the day when we’re trying to accomplish multiple priorities inside the same four walls?
We may not have the option of expanding our home’s footprint, so we have to think creatively, carving space for these activities in unfinished attics and basements, dormer windows and closets under stairwells. Fortunately, most of us do the majority of our work on a computer so we can operate in about four linear feet (a minimum of 16 to 14 square feet). Some of us (like me, needing a drafting table) require a room-sized space. With proper planning, this can be accomplished in about a 10-by-10 area, 100 efficient square feet.
If your work involves frequent consultations via internet meetings, it’s a smart idea to create a backdrop so your professional image doesn’t suffer from stacks of laundry or a cat jumping onto the back of your chair. If you’re in a noisy environment, consider setting up a Zoom corner separate from your office in a space with a door, like a guest bedroom. It shouldn’t require as much dismantling of the room’s arrangement as it would to use it as your full-time office and it may be as simple as purchasing a set of nesting tables to hold your computer and notepad. Just don’t sit on the bed for the Zoom meeting.
A Little Less Open, A Little More Compartmentalization, Please
For decades, the open concept floorplan has dominated residential design. Open the front door and you’re taking in a sweeping view of a living/dining/cooking space only defined by furniture arrangement and cabinetry. The coronavirus hasn’t killed this notion, but I’ve noticed a preference emerging for more compartmentalization. This dovetails with the need for home office and school space, but it also affects people regardless of their work situation.
One family member wants to watch television, another wants to play a game, someone else wants to talk on the phone and someone wants to read a magazine. It’s hard to do all of this within the same sound zone. Family rooms will likely maintain a strong relationship with kitchens for the time being, but that formal living room we thought went by the wayside years ago? It may reappear, reimagined with a less hollow name: a study, a library, a window seat.
The Dirty Work of Hide and Seek
Scullery kitchens are not a new concept but rather an old one enjoying a revival. Sculleries tend to be in larger homes, but not always; I drew five homes with scullery kitchens in 2020, two of them under 3,000 square feet.
If you’re not familiar with the term, this historical noun simply means a small kitchen or room at the back of a house used for washing dishes and doing other dirty household work. In modern homes, it’s really a pantry on steroids.
We take what once was just shelving and add cabinets, sinks, dishwashers, coffee makers, microwaves. The public kitchen, which is probably open to the family room, houses the essentials of a wide island, the main refrigerator, stove, sink and primary dishwasher, but it’s easier to keep tidy and presentable since the dirty coffee cups are collecting behind a door.
I can’t say it’s a trend, but I’ve had some fun making scullery kitchen/pantries also reinforced with steel to be a home’s safe room. If you get trapped inside from a storm, at least you’ll have something to eat while you wait for your rescuers.
One last design trend resurfacing lately has been a return to authentic building materials. It may always have been true in high-end housing, but it’s showing up in smaller homes, too. Cedar shake roofs and stone exteriors are two examples. In our frantic, pre-pandemic lifestyle, no one had time to stop and look up from their phone conversation to evaluate if they liked their fake stone fireplace. We were satisfied with imitation materials because it wasn’t like we spent that much time at home. Well, now we’re sitting on that hearth having a critical conversation with our business partner and it feels solid knowing the stone came from a quarry in Oneonta rather than out of a mold on an assembly line. With so much uncertainty, solid feels comforting.
Your Home, Your Nest (Egg)
The housing market has been blessed and cursed by this pandemic. There’s pent-up demand (note all the bidding wars, record low inventories and evaporating days-on-the-market) contrasted by scarcity of labor and materials. The dust will settle from this extraordinary pandemic experience and hopefully when things return to normal, whatever our new normal is, we’ll have comfortable homes that feel like safe havens, places where work happens efficiently alongside family gatherings and recreation.
When we were first emerging from lockdown, many of our first trips back into circulation were to home improvement stores and gardening nurseries. Turning anxieties over viruses and vaccines into creative projects around the house should pay dividends throughout our lifetimes.
Barry DeLozier is a writer and residential designer from Birmingham, Alabama. He’s helped homeowners and homebuilders create unique residences and neighborhoods throughout the southeast, including homes for ABC TV’s Extreme Makeover Home Edition, the Junior League of Birmingham’s Decorator’s Showhouse and Birmingham Home & Garden’s Inspiration Home. You can learn more about his projects and design philosophies at sowowme.com.