Hip, chic, and trendy are great for clothes and cars. But when your product is designed to last for generations, you tend to be a little skeptical about what's hot and what's not. As a result, the home building industry has a reputation for being open-minded, yet cautious, in its propensity to accept change and try new things.

But some changes are good. Home buyers want them and are willing to pay extra to get them. Builders who turn their backs on them are missing out on opportunities to increase profits and customer satisfaction.

To find out what design elements are resonating with today's buyers, Builder interviewed production, semi-custom, and custom builders, architects, real estate agents, and interior designers nationally, as well as Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president of research for the NAHB, to create our own top 10 list.

We hesitate to call them trends, because they're more durable than that. Far from fleeting whims, they've been around long enough to become hallmarks of how much a house can be, even as lot sizes shrink. Instead, we view them as essential elements of design that meet the wants and needs of buyers, address the realities of a changing business landscape, and add to the builder's bottom line.

Many of the top 10 are a consequence of people leading very busy lives. Tight schedules (and tighter densities) have led to homes built to feel larger than they are, to take advantage of every usable square foot of the lot--and to reduce the amount of work involved in home maintenance. Make it easy to take care of, and buyers will come. Oh yes, they'll come.

Another set of dynamics exists in how home buyers view their most valuable asset. Once considered an enclave from which to escape from the world, the home is now seen as a place to gather in one's loved ones. Buyers are clamoring for spaces that showcase the kitchen and eating areas, and outdoor living spaces are designed to accommodate guests. But for all the desire to share their homes with friends and family, homeowners have responded extremely well to floor plans that give them at least one place (and not the bathroom) where they can be all by themselves.

And so, without further ado, we present the BUILDER top 10 elements of design.

Nine-foot ceilings on the main level make a house feel larger, even when the lot size requires shrinking the footprint. Varied ceiling heights add to the sense of openness.
Credit: Jean-Francois Gratton Nine-foot ceilings on the main level make a house feel larger, even when the lot size requires shrinking the footprint. Varied ceiling heights add to the sense of openness.

1. Increased standard ceiling heights, from at least 8 to 9 feet on the main floor, and a shift away from the two-story great room to more effective use of second-floor space.

This was the top trend identified by the NAHB's Ahluwalia, and one echoed by builders across the country. The reasons are simple: It makes the house look a little bigger than it actually is and helps promote a feeling of openness. Depending on the market, ceiling heights on the main floor are generally 9 or 10 feet, with architectural details that provide some variation from room to room.

But while ceiling heights have been boosted a notch, home buyers have made it clear that they'd rather have--and will pay extra to get--more usable space upstairs than a soaring, two-story great room that's murder on energy efficiency.

"I don't think we've designed a production home in the last 18 months with a two-story space other than the front foyer," says Rob Bowman, president of Charter Homes in Lancaster, Pa.

The one place that 18- or 20-foot ceilings are still being used is in the entryway. Long a staple in higher-end plans, the stately foyer, Ahluwalia says, is "percolating down" to the average house.

Interior designer Stella Koop says the push toward giving the second floor more space was long overdue.

"I'm surprised that the enormously high living room/family room lasted as long as it did," says Koop, vice president of Baltimore-based architecture and design firm RTKL Associates. "People would rather have more bedrooms than heat a big living room."

Ease of maintenance ranks extremely high with home buyers, whose busy schedules leave little time for labor-intensive chores such as painting and replacing damaged exterior boards.
Credit: Courtesy Charter Homes Ease of maintenance ranks extremely high with home buyers, whose busy schedules leave little time for labor-intensive chores such as painting and replacing damaged exterior boards.

2. Low-maintenance/no-maintenance materials, especially on exteriors.

When was the last time you got a warm, fuzzy feeling about repairing rotting fascia or scraping peeling paint at your house? You're not alone. Pressed for time and longing to relax, home buyers are looking for every possible shortcut when it comes to home maintenance.

"There is a great trend toward not wanting to do anything," Ahluwalia says.

Not surprisingly, ceramic tile and stone floors are popular, as is the latest generation of wood laminate flooring, which approximates the look and feel of hardwood floors without the upkeep.

As far as exteriors go, brick is the lowest maintenance material there is, but with the expense it adds to construction, only about one-fourth of the nation's homes are brick, Ahluwalia says. And most of those are only bricked on the front facades.

ICI Homes in Daytona Beach, Fla., does "an awful lot of vinyl soffits and fascias," says Judy Lawrence, vice president of customer relations. For the stucco exteriors that are standard in Florida, ICI has opted for an elastomeric acrylic paint that provides more durability and longer-lasting coverage.

Charter wraps all of its fascias and soffits in aluminum, and it recently introduced composite trim boards.

"We're seeing a lot of metal trims and we use a lot of extruded materials," Bowman adds. "We've pretty much eliminated exposed wood."

Taking a cue from active adult communities that have long offered fee-based exterior maintenance services for their residents, Charter Homes is now taking over that same responsibility for the owners of its townhouses and carriage homes.

"We're planting flowers and shoveling snow and billing for it," Bowman says. "It's point and pay. People point to an item and say, 'How much would it cost to do that?' That's a huge trend. They're people in their 20s or 30s who say, 'I don't want to be attached to this.'"

Today's laundry rooms are truly multipurpose. Frequent add-ons include cabinets, counter space, and extra outlets for TVs and computers.
Credit: Courtesy Timberlake Cabinet Co. Today's laundry rooms are truly multipurpose. Frequent add-ons include cabinets, counter space, and extra outlets for TVs and computers.

3. Bigger laundry rooms with space to fold clothes or engage in a hobby.

With time constraints on their schedule, who would have thought that people would actually want to spend more time in the laundry room? Well, if it were just to do laundry, they probably wouldn't, but it's a space that's gone well past the functions of wash, spin, and tumble-dry low.

"It started with counter space to fold clothes," says Kathy Courtney, director of sales and marketing for the San Diego region of William Lyon Homes. "That's expanded to, 'I could do something more with this.' I think not many people have the luxury of a room just for this or that. It has to be a very multifunctional space."

To accommodate that mind-set, William Lyon began building drawer and cabinet space into the laundry room to store items that aren't used every day.

Many builders have taken that idea a giant step farther, expanding the size of the laundry room to include space for folding clothes or doing crafts, says Deb Zandt, vice president of design for McNeil Company Builders in Omaha, Neb. It might also have a desk area for a computer, a phone jack, a TV outlet, and space for an extra refrigerator.

"A laundry room is the No. 1 thing in the country," Ahluwalia says. "Everyone wants one. It's becoming bigger with everything included. I don't know how much time people spend in the laundry room, but it's amazing."

Credit: Epic Multimedia

4. Use of natural materials inside and outside the home.

No, we're not talking about building houses out of hay bales or rammed earth or recycled Coke bottles. But natural materials, such as stone, ceramic tile, brick, and wood, are making a strong appearance throughout the home. While the average production house once featured wall-to-wall carpeting, more homes today are being built with hardwood floors in the living, dining, and family rooms and the entryway.

"We're getting back into the classic materials rather than trendy stuff," says William Lyon's Courtney. "People love stone and brick and wood."

The use of stone is very big, adds ICI Homes' Lawrence, not only on floors but also on shower walls. They use granite for countertops even more than Corian or Jetta-Stone, she says, and have begun using pavers for exterior walkways.

"[Granite is] a natural product that doesn't need maintenance, and it doesn't stain like concrete," Lawrence says. Wood floors also are "coming on very strong, and tile that looks like wood in planks," she says.

While many builders shy away from using wood on a home's exterior because of maintenance issues, Bowman says Charter Homes is introducing wood on its front porches. There's an emotional response to it that can't be duplicated with another material, he says.

"As soon as people see it and walk on it, they get very attached to it," he says.

Buyers want cozy hideouts, such as this 4-foot-by-5-foot space that Charter Homes calls "the hub."
Credit: Courtesy Charter Homes Buyers want cozy hideouts, such as this 4-foot-by-5-foot space that Charter Homes calls "the hub."

5. "Me" spaces--small enclaves where family members can be alone.

As floor plans become more open and inviting, home buyers apparently still have a need for some spots to call their own. Reminiscent of Dad's den with its dark paneling and the aura of privacy, "me" spaces are getaways where family members can decompress.

"Because people are running like nuts in their jobs, sometimes they just need to come home and say, 'Leave me alone,'" says Courtney. "I'm inclined to think that in an open floor plan it's more important because you're always together."

It doesn't necessarily have to be a separate room, though. William Lyon Homes has tucked in the spaces on landings, incorporating library shelves and an electrical outlet so that owners can create a cozy reading corner with a comfortable chair and a lamp.

"Sometimes people use it as a computer niche, but I prefer it as a quiet space," Courtney says.

With the popularity of telecommuting, the "me" space often translates into a home office. If a buyer has had an office at work, it's particularly attractive at home, says ICI Homes' Lawrence.

Charter Homes has given its "me" space a name--"the hub." The 4-foot-by-5-foot room, usually with a glass door, is just off the kitchen and is flooded with light, Bowman says. The maturation of the desk in the kitchen, which is exposed to all the activity of that space, the hub is an intimate spot to read the mail, surf the Web, or pay bills.

"This is, 'I want to be alone, thanks,' and, 'I don't want to clean it up,'" Bowman says. "When I was a kid, I had a junk drawer. This is a junk room."

On the second floor, the "me" space is a quiet corner near a window, a place where the owner can put a desk and a chair, curl up with a book, or talk on the phone. Distinct from a retreat off the master bedroom that is just for the owner, the quiet corner is accessible to everyone in the house.

"People clearly want some places to squirrel away," Bowman says. "Little spaces really mean a lot to people."

Another available space is the finished attic, which can be used as virtually anything, from a home gym to a teen suite. Charter merchandised one in a model for the first time in 2003, displaying it as an art studio.

"I think it's a touchstone back to anyone who ever had a finished third floor or an attic," Bowman says. "People just grab onto that. We're trying to push it into every product."

Credit: Jean-Francois Gratton

6. Decline of the living room and the increase in "special" rooms, such as home offices and media rooms.

A third of homes built in 2002 had no living room, Ahluwalia says.

One of the reasons they're on their way out, explains William Lyon's Courtney, is that as lots get smaller, houses don't have enough space for a huge room.

Chris Bove, vice president of construction for Nashville, Tenn.-based Southern Land Co., says the company doesn't really do formal living rooms anymore. On the floor plans, the space is described as a living room/study.

"The number of people with living room furniture is declining dramatically," he says. "They're making it a study or a home office and close it off from the rest of the house. It's a multipurpose space."

In Atlanta, house size hasn't decreased, but there's still little demand for living rooms, says Jim Webb, director of architecture and product development for Venture Homes in Marietta, Ga. The space is still there, but it's being used in distinctly different ways depending on the price point of the house.

"That room is still a key living area on the main level, but it's not used for formality," Webb says. "Maybe it's a home office or a sitting area that is more casually used. As we go up higher in price point, that room turns into a library."

People stopped using their living rooms because it just was never a comfortable place to hang out, says Richard Ruvin, CEO, Ruvin Bros. Artisans & Trades in Milwaukee, Wis., and Northbrook, Ill.

"People tend to be far more comfortable in a wood-paneled study than the sterile and intimidating nature of a formal living room," he says. "These spaces can also serve double duty as a home office or a billiard room."

Now we're talking.

The multitasking Whirlpool Polara refrigerated range is just one example of how technology is now a big part of the new-home sales package.
Credit: Courtesy Whirlpool The multitasking Whirlpool Polara refrigerated range is just one example of how technology is now a big part of the new-home sales package.

7. Technology advances.

Technology hasn't exploded in home building just yet, but we're "at the doorsteps," Ahluwalia says. It's common today for builders to prewire an entire house for everything from high-speed Internet access and surround sound stereo to central vacuum systems and lighting controls.

"[Prewiring is] a very good feature," he says. "Then you can add anything you want."

Keyless entry is coming, he notes, forever ridding homeowners of the dreaded event of locking themselves out of the house.

William Lyon Homes installs Category-5 (Ethernet) wiring in homes across its price points "because young people buying their first houses want it more," Courtney says. The wiring allows for transmission of phone, data, and TV signals.

Interior designer Stella Koop says that advanced technology is coming on strong in the kitchen with such appliances as stoves that refrigerate, cook, and hold food warm. She's also seen a strong trend toward advanced lighting controls that can turn on lights at different times of day. Computerized security systems are becoming more common as well, even in gated, guarded communities.

8. Outdoor living spaces to use for entertaining.

About five years ago, the folks at Barratt American in Carlsbad, Calif., saw the outdoor fireplace emerge as a new amenity. Since then, the outdoor living theme has expanded to include complete outdoor rooms, covered areas with full kitchens, home theaters, sleeping porches, and dining rooms.

"The desire to spend time outdoors is in reaction to the concrete jungle we are living in with our higher-density neighborhoods," says Cynthia Monaco, sales and marketing manager of Barratt Urban Development, a division of Barratt American.

William Lyon Homes is including outdoor living spaces in homes across its price points. Along with fireplaces, the space features an attached cabana just off the dining room that can be used year-round. ICI Homes is building summer kitchens on large covered patios, featuring built-in grills, sinks, and beverage centers.

Diane Grady, a real estate agent with Premier Properties Realty Group in northern Florida, says she's seeing bigger pools, with waterfall Jacuzzis and koi ponds, summer kitchens, outdoor TV with surround sound, and fountain effects in the pool area, "making the outside a most desirable place to socialize and entertain."

While decks and patios are still strong in some regions, the screened porch has gained renewed prominence in parts of the country where there are concerns about mosquito-borne illnesses. Ruvin says, "We have been outfitting most of these spaces with a fireplace to extend the use of those rooms on cooler days."

Outdoor living spaces aren't limited to the backyard, either. Functional front and side porches provide additional areas for entertaining, says Kelle Mobley, director of operations for the Lake Erie Land Co. based in Chesterton, Ind.

Credit: Courtesy Charter Homes

9. Mixed products on the same street.

Standard operating procedure for most neighborhoods is that single-family homes don't mix with townhouses, which don't cozy up to condos, and so on. They could all get along nicely in a master planned community as long as they stayed on their turfs. No more. Smart-growth initiatives are promoting design that mixes product types on the same streets.

The commingling is part of a backlash against suburban sameness, says Thomas Kopf, a principal at DTJ Design in Boulder, Colo., and master planned community project director. In McKay Landing, a community he helped design in Broomfield, Colo., several product types were mixed, including six-home townhome clusters, rear-loaded patio homes, and move-up single-family, front-loaded homes on the same block. "As you drive the street, you're continually viewing something a little different," Kopf says. "It makes a community a little more appealing. It doesn't look like everything else."

Westhaven is a 1,500-acre master planned community based on smart-growth principles in Franklin, Tenn. It offers townhouses (20- to 22-foot-wide lots), bungalows (38 feet), cottages (46 feet), village homes (56 feet), and manor homes (66 and 75 feet wide).

"Architecturally, you won't see houses in a row that are all the same width," says Brian Sewell, vice president of community development for Southern Land Co., which designed Westhaven and holds strict architectural control over the elevations. "You'll see a lot of variety on the same street."

The first street in Charter Homes' Millcreek Community showcased townhouses and single-family residences on the same block.

"Talk about new thinking in architecture!" Bowman says. "All the product types have to work together, which is pretty challenging. Plans that would sell really well and hit the demographics on the nose are out the window because they don't mesh with the house across the street."

While the building processes present some challenges, the design creates some intriguing opportunities, interior designer Stella Koop says, citing a project she worked on with single-family homes facing three-story townhouses on a single street.

"The opportunity it affords is [that] different types of people with different needs can move into the same neighborhood," she says. "You can have active adults who are more likely to be home during the day to enhance security. There are a lot of advantages to that kind of development."

Rear-loading the house creates a more appealing streetscape and gives better views from front windows.
Credit: Courtesy Charter Homes Rear-loading the house creates a more appealing streetscape and gives better views from front windows.

10. Rear-loaded homes.

Lots are getting smaller, houses are getting bigger, governmental planning bodies are getting pickier, and home buyers are buying more cars. With the tendency to have three-car garages (or more), a front-loaded garage is out of the question.

"If you have a 3,000-square-foot house and a three-car garage, the front yard looks like a parking lot," Ahluwalia says. "You need a side-entry garage, and you need a larger lot."

The problem is that in many communities you get neither one of those. Hence the emergence of the rear-loaded homes and alleys. "There are a whole lot of subdivisions coming up with alleys," Ahluwalia says.

They love alley-loaded product in San Diego, says William Lyon's Courtney.

"We've been doing quite a bit of alley product," she says. "It gives us the chance to do some nice porches. The street scene is great."

But first you have to get past the city planners. Eric Eckberg, president of TOUSA Homes Colorado, says the city of Broomfield had never issued architectural standards for alleys or rear-loaded product. "There was a lot of discussion about how those alleys would feel," he says.

His advice to other builders is to pay as much attention to the alleys as to the street in front of the houses. The alleys at McKay Landing are curved, with the garage placed on angles, to avoid having a straight line of garages backing up to alleys. Pocket parks were scattered in the alleys throughout the development and the maximum fence height was kept at 4 feet, so drivers don't feel like they're in a tunnel.

The end result has been tremendously successful for McKay Landing, with 75 percent of the homes in the community being alley-loaded.

Pushing back the garage makes streetscapes attractive, Rob Bowman of Charter Homes says, and it adds some architecture, helping to create outdoor living spaces that everyone wants.

"Most projects don't have a lot of woods, which leaves the backyard pretty exposed," he says. "By adding a carriage home, you create two or three sides of an outdoor room with architecture. It's a great space with a garden or patio and gives people a room they can walk out into."