Apple uses its extraordinary design and engineering talents to reinvent entire industries. I think the housing market will experience a similar transformation as soon as some smart company creates home designs that make sense in today’s world. Imagine how stimulated the economy would be if everyone who could afford a more expensive home really, really, really wanted one. That’s a big change from now. Moving to a new home is such a hassle that you won’t bother if all you hope to gain is an extra guest room or bigger closets. But in the same way that the first iPhone was more than just a better cellphone – it was a whole new product – I think an extraordinarily well-designed home would also be seen as an entirely new product category. And consumers would wait in line at the bank for mortgage applications.
At the moment, there’s almost no such thing as a design premium for homes. A home’s value is, for the most part, determined by its location and square footage. Sometimes the home’s age and its view enter into the price. But mostly it’s about size. That tells you that design has been relegated to a low priority. Home design is somewhere between an afterthought and a generic process anchored in the past.
Suppose a company decided to make a real science out of home design. They could build a number of prototypes and have test families live in them, taking notes about what they like and dislike. This imagined firm could continue tweaking the design until they discovered what mix would command a premium price. I’m talking about home designs so awesome that people who thought they were happy in their existing homes would get buyer’s lust, the same way people lust after iPhones.
An important part of the home design would involve figuring out ways to reduce or eliminate ongoing operating and maintenance costs. Ideally, you’d want to avoid any Homeowners Association Fees, and you’d want to reduce cleaning, energy, and repair costs as much as possible. We already know how to build homes that will never need exterior paint. We already know how to bring energy costs to nearly zero. We know how to install artificial turf that needs no mowing and no water, and we know how to design landscaping that needs little or no irrigation. I don’t think we need to invent anything new.
I’m a big proponent of rooms that have multiple uses. For example, a home office might have a fold-down bed in the wall cabinetry so the space can double as a guest room. And if you design your dining area right, with casual cushioned chairs, for example, it can double as your home theater space for dinner and a movie.
If you paid a surprise visit to any typical American family on a weekday evening, you might find each person in a different room using a different computer. The kids might be doing homework, or surfing the web, while one parent is catching up on work, and the other is sending out an Evite. Perhaps modern homes should have a comfortable and attractive space near the kitchen and living room, designed for multiple computer users who need ample desk space and comfortable chairs. That way the family can be together while doing their own things.
When I walk through model homes, I’m blown away by the lack of thought that goes into locating the fireplace and the TV. Putting the flat screen TV over the fireplace is a design no-no. That’s a box over a box. The ideal home would involve an L-shaped couch with one view facing a fireplace and the other facing a TV. That configuration looks right, and it’s perfectly functional.
Ideally, the kitchen would be designed from the ground up as a gathering place and not just a work space. Everyone ends up in the kitchen anyway, so you might as well make it comfortable. The perfect kitchen would have a center island with stool seats, and be open to both the dining area and living room.
You often see bar serving areas in high-end homes, located in nooks off the living rooms. That seems like a good idea until you start carrying ice and glasses and beverages back and forth from the kitchen. Why not make the bar an extension of the kitchen so everything is handy?
After my wife and I built our current home, I was surprised to discover that some spaces are naturally inviting and others feel lonely. You can feel the difference as you walk from one room to another. Our minds and bodies have very specific preferences about space, and that’s the sort of thing that can be tested with prototype homes. You can’t guess how a home will feel by looking at blueprints.
Case in point, when we entertain, everyone crowds into a little triangle that technically isn’t even a room. It’s more of a transition between two spaces. But you could do the experiment at our house a hundred times, with a hundred different groups, and they’d all end up standing in the same little triangular area to socialize. None of that could have been predicted by the floor plans.
We put a ping pong table in one end of our garage, with a good sound system and some used furniture. The space is framed by storage closets, tools, a minivan, and a water heater. The garage is dusty and unfinished. But when we have friends over, especially kids, it often turns into the center of activity. Everyone feels comfortable in that sort of space. As a bonus, the ping pong table makes a great utility table for all sorts of temporary projects.
We designed our house to be pet friendly. The dog has her own little outdoor space with artificial grass to do her business unattended. The cat has her own cat box facility off the laundry room, with a raised platform so we don’t have to bend over to clean the cat box. Pets are like little love batteries for the home; you give them affection, and later they return the favor when you need a lift. Homes should be designed with pets in mind.
I can imagine homes designed for particular lifestyles. For example, some people are bicycle enthusiasts, and you can imagine designing the garage and workbench area in a way that would make a cyclist drool. Other people might be into art or crafts, or need an awesome home office.
A few years ago, I bought a massage chair. It does its job well, and I think I love it, but there’s no elegant place for it in the house. It doesn’t go with our other furniture, and because it reclines, it’s inconvenient to keep it near a wall. Why not design a house with an inviting and convenient place for a massage chair? And while we’re at it, let’s make the master bath area more like a lovely escape than a mere extension of the bathroom decor.
Now imagine that the well-designed home has screaming-fast Internet connections, high end sound systems in every room, a home theater, and advanced lighting controls. You’d never want to leave the house. But wait, it’s all too expensive, right?
Imagine looking at this model home in the early evening. The lighting creates a tranquil scene in each room. The high-end ceiling speakers surround you in music streamed from the Internet. You see the gathering area in the kitchen and imagine the fun you would have cooking and socializing. You walk past the area specially designed for the massage chair and wish you were in it. You pass the master bath, with the waterfall flowing into a warm bath in a spa-like setting. You see the computer nook that comfortably seats four. You see the home theater that doubles as a dining area just a few steps from the kitchen, with its three microwaves for movie night popcorn production. The house’s price is 30% more than you’d pay for the same square footage in an ordinary house. But you lust for the house anyway. It must be yours. That’s the design premium. I think good design could revitalize the entire housing industry.