How the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping home design

The reimagined home

A front porch, multiple offices, an exercise room, touchless faucets, soundproof walls—pandemic life is changing the features and floor plans that local residents want

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Illustration by Ellen Byrne

Mark and Donna Lewis’ thoughts about making some changes to their 5-year-old house in Bethesda Mews had been on the back burner. Then, after the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring, renovating became a priority. “We were at home so much and we had time to focus on it, so we said, ‘Why not just do it now?’ ” Mark says.

The empty nesters hired Cabin John-based Anthony Wilder Design/Build to expand the lower level living space with a large screened porch and hot tub in the area under the home’s deck. The couple intends to use it as a private outdoor place to unwind and a safe space to entertain friends at a distance.

Amid this spring’s stay-at-home orders from the state of Maryland and Montgomery County, people spent a lot of time in their houses. As the pandemic continues and daily life remains different than before, homes have taken on greater significance, serving as offices, schools, gyms, movie theaters and recreation centers. The repercussions of this crisis will change how people live for the foreseeable future, impacting what they will seek in a new home and how they will modify existing ones.

Thanks in part to low interest rates, the local housing market is strong. Sales of new and older homes are brisk, and remodelers are as busy as ever. “Despite the virus, the market is energetic,” says real estate agent Lisa Stransky Brown of Washington Fine Properties in Potomac, who only shows houses virtually or by appointment these days. “No one is tire-kicking right now; they are serious buyers.”

Now that commuting time is less of a consideration and distancing is a priority, people are looking for communities that are farther from urban centers. Suburban single-family neighborhoods are attracting families who want more space and value large lots and extra square footage. “Access to outdoor activities is also a priority, and buyers like Montgomery County’s western suburbs because they’re close to the C&O Canal and Billy Goat Trail for hiking, and the river for kayaking and fishing,” Stransky Brown says.

There will always be a segment of the market that wants the convenience of an urban lifestyle, but some consider multifamily buildings too risky right now. Concerns about sharing common spaces such as lobbies and elevators, and the quality of air that’s recirculating through ventilation systems, could impact the condominium market. “For those buyers, the shift may be to less dense situations than condos,” says Bob Youngentob, CEO of Bethesda-based EYA, which builds condos and townhomes. “An elevator townhouse with direct access from a private garage can be a more viable urban alternative.”

As people adjust to life at home, they are reevaluating their living situations and adapting their homes to meet current and future needs. Those
who’ve postponed a renovation are finding themselves with plenty of time to commit to home improvements. Builder Matt Covell, the founder of Structure in Bethesda, has been flooded with inquiries. “People have shut-in fatigue,” he says. “They’ve been sitting around staring at their houses for months, taking note of everything they want to change.”

Wormald Homes offers a “family command center” home office like this one, featuring two walls of sliding glass doors, in the Alexandria model in Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo courtesy of Wormald Homes

For many people, the first thing on the post-pandemic wish list is a home office. The telework movement has been on the rise for a while, but the stay-at-home orders made working remotely a necessity. It’s the new norm, and for many in the Bethesda area it could be a long-term arrangement. With at least one person working at home, and in many cases two or three, everyone would like to have dedicated office space with a door for privacy.

In new construction as well as remodels, a spare bedroom or a seldom-used formal living or dining room is often the first to be sacrificed. “Making a home office from a living room is a relatively easy conversion,” Covell says. “We usually close off one entrance and add some kind of glass door or pocket door to the other.”

Chris Lapp, principal of Claude C. Lapp Architects in Rockville, always includes a first-floor office in his plans for new homes. “But now people are adding extra offices in the basement or in a third-floor loft, and want insulation in the walls, floors and ceilings in those spaces.”

With multiple Zoom calls happening simultaneously, soundproofing is vital. Loud voices, and even noisy typing, can disturb others. “We are seeing a lot of requests for sound mitigation,” says Luke Olson, a senior associate at GTM Architects in Bethesda. Using spray foam insulation in the walls can reduce points of sound transmission, and installing solid core interior doors can help deaden the sound. An easier fix is to add decorative acoustic wall panels, rugs and window treatments to a room to absorb sound.

For remote workers who want to stay connected to what’s happening in the rest of the house, the Frederick-based Wormald Companies offers a “family command center” in their floor plans in Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. It features two walls of sliding glass doors and has been popular with parents of young children. “They like it because they can keep an eye on their kids while they are working,” says partner Ken Wormald.

Most teenagers can participate in remote learning from anywhere in the house with a laptop, but younger children might do best with a committed education spot for computer time, homework and craft projects. “Built-in desks were going out of style, but clients are requesting them again,” Lapp says. He’s placing them in open second-floor lounge/bonus rooms and adding sliding barn doors to muffle sound during Zoom classes or giggly FaceTime playdates.

Those who don’t want to give up a living room or guest room, but need to escape the din of family life during work time, are finding creative places for home offices. Chris Cahill, owner of Cahill Design Build in Olney, is adding an office above a client’s detached garage. It will have an exterior staircase and a pair of French doors with a small balcony overlooking the backyard and pool. “People have to figure out how to have a real workable space at home,” he says.

Remote working requires dependable Wi-Fi connections, and homeowners are now more conscious of high-speed internet strength and security. “We’re trying to future-proof our homes with smart house features like structured wiring systems and dedicated secure data lines,” says Joe Korzeniowski, sales and marketing manager for Rockville-based Mid-Atlantic Custom Builders. “Buyers are investing more in the features behind the walls.”
Avi Benaim, president of A.B.E.

Networks in Rockville, has seen a major increase in requests to improve and install new network Wi-Fi systems and help with residential videoconferencing setups. “People are realizing they can run their businesses over video calls rather than having an actual commercial office space,” he says. “I think that the home will become the new main office.”

In his business, Korzeniowski is seeing another trend. “In addition to multiple offices, houses must have multigenerational capabilities,” he says. Empty nesters have found themselves with full houses again, as adult children have boomeranged back from college, group living situations or jobs in New York City, and are home indefinitely. Some families have grandparents and young children living under the same roof. Whatever the makeup, they all need space to work and sleep, so flexibility is the key to satisfying everyone’s needs.

Builders and architects are looking to basements and third floors, creating spaces that aren’t clearly defined. Korzeniowski’s buyers are tailoring their new home plans for today, but also thinking ahead for evolving living and working situations. “We’re building attics that can be offices, au pair suites or guest rooms, depending on a family’s changing needs,” he says. Cahill says he’s even working with elements such as Murphy beds to maximize adaptability.

For a first-floor office, having a connected full bathroom allows for flexibility. “People want the ability to convert the office back to a bedroom suite if parents come to live with them,” says Lapp, who is also roughing in elevator shafts in larger houses to carry older parents to the basement or third floor, if necessary. Separation is important if someone is sick, or if elderly family members want to isolate. “Those who may be at higher risk need some degree of separation,” Olson says.

Mark Giarraputo, principal architect at Studio Z Design Concepts in Bethesda, is redesigning a family’s home to accommodate his client’s 80-year-old in-laws. “They wanted distance from the college students, so we designed a suite with a separate kitchen for them,” he says. In another project, a suite with a separate entrance and no direct access to the main house is being added above an attached four-car garage. “I think that families with multiple living experiences under one roof is here for the long haul,” Giarraputo says.

Dedicated space for a home gym—such as this exercise room in a GTM Architects project—is among the items filling wish lists. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg

The psychological benefits of physical activity are well documented, and especially important in stressful times like these. Peloton sales surged in the spring and summer when fitness centers closed and people started working out at home. Now, with people carving out dedicated home gyms, those machines are no longer relegated to the corner of a bedroom. “My clients are doubling the size of their exercise rooms to accommodate more and larger equipment,” Lapp says.

A typical new home has an open lower level with a rec room, guest bedroom and storage area. “Basements used to be an afterthought, but buyers are really planning them now and looking for upgrades,” Korzeniowski says. They are customizing basements with home gyms and rubber flooring, yoga rooms, media areas for kids to play video games, plenty of finished storage, and even bars. “If they are going to be home more, they’d better love it and get everything they want,” Korzeniowski says.

Keeping active kids busy is essential for everyone’s mental health, so design professionals are considering any available extra space for recreation zones. “If you can do a higher basement ceiling, 11 or 12 feet, you can actually build a sport court on a lower level,” says Giarraputo, who is also helping clients repurpose three-car garages as indoor play areas, and adding heaters so they can be used year-round.

With all that private space, homeowners still value places to convene when work is done. The family dinner is back, and the kitchen/informal dining room/family room concept is going strong. Covell’s clients are maintaining a focus on designing welcoming entertaining areas to host family and friends. “It’s their expectation that gatherings are going to resume sooner or later,” he says.

With everyone cooking and eating three meals a day at home, space for multiple cooks is important. And if they have the square footage, buyers want supersize islands. “People value having a lot of space on these islands to spread out,” Wormald says. “Look for kitchen islands of 10 feet or more in length.” They also want bigger pantries for long-term storage of bulk items, and hygiene-centric features such as touchless faucets and impermeable stone surfaces that are easy to disinfect.

In the quest for more elbow room, the outdoors counts as additional living space. “We’re hearing the word oasis quite a bit,” says architect JP Ward, director of business development at Anthony Wilder Design/Build. “Everyone is stressed out from the news and wants to chill.” With vacations canceled, homeowners are finding ways to relax on back patios or screened porches and enjoying amenities such as outdoor kitchens, spas and pools.

Traditionally, many homebuyers considered residential swimming pools a hassle to maintain, and even a liability. But that’s changed since the pandemic, with public pools and neighborhood swim clubs either shuttered for the season or open with lots of restrictions. “A pool wasn’t always seen as an asset,” says real estate agent Dana Rice, an executive vice president at Compass in Chevy Chase. “Now it’s definitely a benefit.”

In the late spring, Cahill, who also owns the landscape design company Botanical Decorators, was getting 10 times the normal number of calls for pools. “Everybody wanted it, and they wanted it tomorrow,” he says. But when some learned that a high-quality concrete pool project costs upward of $150,000, the reality check came quickly. If a pool isn’t in the budget, there are other more practical options for outdoor living. “A pool is sort of a knee-jerk reaction to summer entertaining,” Cahill says. “When we do a beautiful yard, patio, fireplace and kitchen area, we help clients achieve something they can enjoy through several seasons.”

In the luxury townhome market, roof decks are the place to be for private outdoor space. The sky’s the limit for upgrades, such as retractable awnings, fireplaces, wet bars and built-in grills. “Everyone is longing for more indoor-outdoor spaces,” says Wormald, whose company offers four-season indoor/outdoor rooftop rooms with air-conditioned space and retractable walls. “We need a break from that cooped-up feeling many of us experience during a quarantine.”

Anthony Wilder Design/Build created this indoor/outdoor space. Homeowners can look to outside spots to add useable living areas. Photo by John Cole/Courtesy of Anthony Wilder

With so much family time, people are missing the connections to friends and neighbors, and finding new ways to socialize safely. As soon as the weather warmed up, area homeowners dragged their Adirondack chairs out front to convene in yards and driveways for socially distant happy hours. The demand for front porches increased as people sought comfortable places to hang out on the public side of the house.

“We always use a front porch or oversized portico as a design element to affect the scale of new houses in older neighborhoods,” Giarraputo says.

“It works for the architecture, and now the social aspect is just as important.” People are sitting on front porches for morning coffee, evening cocktails, to watch a neighborhood car parade, or wave to neighbors walking or biking by. “A porch needs to be a minimum of 6-feet deep to be usable,” Ward says, “but the bigger the better to accommodate rocking chairs and even a swing.”

Slowing down their fast-paced, overscheduled lives has allowed people to reevaluate and reprioritize what is really important to them. In uncertain times, home is a haven. “The essence of home has never been closer to people’s hearts,” Ward says. “Families are back together and they want to be where they feel safe.”

Carolyn Weber lives in Silver Spring and frequently writes about architecture and home design.

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