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We live, learn and work differently: How COVID is changing new home design

Home offices are here to stay, entryways will change, in-law apartments will become popular, and air quality is a concern.

Stacey Freed
Special to the Democrat and Chronicle

Since March, the pandemic has changed the way we live in our homes: Office workers type away at their dining room tables. Kids attend classes from the sofa. Young-adult children have moved back into their old bedrooms. We’re all more concerned with cleaning and disinfecting and indoor air quality. And according to a recent study from the National Kitchen & Bath Association, the way we’re using our homes now will have a substantial influence on design going forward.

It’s no surprise. For example, first floor powder rooms near the front door became popular in the early 20th century as a way to prevent the spread of diseases. Before the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, most people had clawfoot bathtubs, but with their intricate feet and exposed underside, they were difficult to keep clean. After that pandemic, bathtubs were built against the wall. Toilet bowls also got upgraded from wooden seats to lacquered seats that were easier to clean and seemed more hygienic.

Today, designers and builders across the country are already responding to the new needs.

The quadruple-duty home

“Home offices are here to stay. Entryways will change. There will be even more emphasis on outdoor spaces,” says Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki, a marketing and branding expert at Tst Ink.

Slavik-Tsuyuki, consumer strategist Belinda Sward of Strategic Solutions Alliance and architect Nancy Keenan, president and CEO of Dahlin Group, conducted the America at Home Study in April and then again in October. They gathered insight from 4,000 respondents across the United States about what home meant to them (the answer for 91% of respondents: a safe place), how they were using their homes and what they would be willing to pay for in a new home.

More:Home offices are expensive: Study says most people didn't have one before coronavirus

The study led to a design charrette with Dahlin Group, an architecture and planning firm based in California, and the regional Raleigh, North Carolina-production builder Garman Homes. Using a “model” family of two adults — one of whom leaves for work elsewhere each day and one who works remotely from their home — and two young children who might need workspace, participants designed a 2,600-square-foot home that would be “attainable for most” in the Triangle area of North Carolina where the homes will be built, says company founder and CEO Alaina Money-Garman.

The house, which combines modern and traditional aesthetics, has a garage off the back, near the owner’s entry, since that’s how most people enter their home.

On the front of the house is a porch and guest entry. With an eye toward germ and dirt containment, this entry was a major focal point of the design discussions, Garman says. “Our research showed a high preference for a standalone guest suite.”

Inside the front door is a vestibule, a scaled-up mudroom where visitors can store coats and shoes. It sits next to a guest suite, and the whole area can be isolated from the rest of the house. “We tried to create opportunities to control the flow of people and germs,” Garman says. 

The rear entry also has a mudroom area and a powder room and can include laundry facilities as well as a refrigerator. “It’s a good place for children’s backpacks to live. And it’s another way to protect the main living spaces.”

Other major features include a main floor flex room, envisioned as a school space or playroom, and there are two dedicated home offices, one of which is a pocket office tucked in the back of the kitchen and can be closed off.

More:Home is where the school — and work — is during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's how some are making do

The open-floor-plan kitchen has an L-shaped island; one side is an eating area and the other holds a sink that faces into the family/living room for visibility of most of the downstairs. “We need this space to perform for us so we can be parents, schoolteachers, and do our jobs,” Garman says.

Upstairs are three bedrooms. The primary suite (no longer referred to as the “master bedroom”) in back includes a small bonus room for a private away space; two bedrooms in the front of the home are next to a large “family” bathroom. “We wanted to make the space extraordinary for kids, so they don’t want to come in and use the parents’ bathroom,” Garman says.

A beautiful in-law apartment is part of this recently constructed Webster home.

Rochester designs in progress

Locally, David Riedman, president and CEO of Riedman Cos., a home and apartment builder, says that he’s been watching the trends and is preparing for the future. “The way we’re looking at flex space is going to be heavily influenced by the pandemic, and it’s going to be driven by different lifestyles,” he says.

He foresees more home gyms, dedicated home office spaces and pocket offices — “a small space tucked away where you can be on a private video call and not be in the dining room,” for example. 

These design changes are already happening for Greater Living Architecture clients, say GLA president Joe O’Donnell and Chris Keil, GLA’s vice president of residential design. Since the pandemic began, GLA has seen a huge uptick in business.

Not only is GLA repurposing garages and basements into home gyms and learning centers, but also the company is building new or remodeling spaces to be in-law suites. “People don’t want their parents going to nursing homes now,” Keil says.

An open concept in-law apartment ishown in this newly constructed Webster home.

He points out that in-law accommodations can be tricky based on town regulations. For example, a Brighton client had to scrap plans for a second-floor garage apartment because the town would allow only a bedroom — with no running water or sewer capacity. “That wasn’t going to fit our clients’ needs,” Keil says. “But in Greece you can put in a kitchen within the footprint of an existing house with a privacy door connecting the two spaces.” 

The bottom line is if you’re thinking about an in-law suite: first check with the planning or zoning board in your town.

Architect Amanda Costanza at 9x30 Design says she too has seen more families remodeling to “include home offices, in-home gyms and in-law units,” but she’s also seeing trends in the creation of “staycation-type environments with pools and pool houses and covered and/or screened porches for entertaining and areas for home vegetable gardens with southern exposure to decrease trips to the store. People are also asking for less-open floor plans, as families need to maintain separate spaces for parents and kids working from home.”

A comfortable bedroom in this in-law apartment of a Webster home.

Air quality control

One other area that’s on the mind of many homeowners is indoor air quality, particularly now because of the aerosol nature of the COVID-19 virus.

Phil Lane, vice president of Bayshore Mechanical Services in Rochester, says more homeowners are coming to him asking about higher levels of filtration, temperature and humidity control. “ASHRAE recommends that an HVAC system should be operated in a normal range of 68 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 to 60% relative humidity,” Lane says.

More:Ventilation and air filtration play a key role in preventing the spread of COVID-19 indoors

As for COVID-19 concerns specifically, “higher level MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) filters will address some viruses, but the CDC recommends a HEPA filter to really absorb coronavirus.”

While commercial entities use those, they are financially unfeasible at the residential level. But, Lane says, “(an HVAC) professional can install the highest rated filter for your existing system along with an air purifier or a non-ozone-producing ion generator, which capture bacteria and viruses.” He suggests that if you install a new system you should also purchase an ionizer.

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