The Custom Home - Five Trends to Watch

The Hunt

Carla Westerman

01 December 2012

What could be more rewarding — and all-consuming — than having a one-of-a-kind house designed and built just for you? The economy may be uncertain, but for some people the time is right for forging ahead with the house of their dreams. We asked several area architects and builders about what clients want and what drives their decisions. Though each custom project is unique, these professionals are gaining insights as to how people live. Here are five trends that they
see in the current market.


How big is big enough? It’s a question people weigh carefully these days when designing a custom home, according to architect Richard Buchanan of West Chester-based Archer & Buchanan Architecture. “So often the house you build next is a reaction to the one you’re coming from. If it was too small, your goal is to have more room. But people tend to overestimate the space they’d like to have. So we are often encouraging them to build less, but better,” says Buchanan who co-founded the firm with Peter Archer in 1996. “Nobody has ever complained that we’ve designed too small a house for them. And nobody complains that we’ve designed too many closets either!” he adds. In the world of custom residential architecture, a small house would be in the range of 4,000 to 6,000 sf. Buchanan cites the example of a 45-year-old couple with two school-aged children wanting to build an 8,000 sf house. He might encourage them to consider cutting back to 6,000 sf so the house won’t be too big once the children leave for college.

Custom home builder Tim Dewson says the uncertain economy has people asking themselves “what do I really need” instead of “what do I want.” “The homes of yesteryear may have been 10-15,000 sf; today the same families might be building 7-10,000 sf,” says Dewson, president of Wilmington-based Dewson Construction.

His clients are focusing on the rooms they use the most: kitchen, master bath, family room, and mudroom. “They are probably investing more money in those areas because they are building more efficiently with regard to square footage,” he says. Operating costs are another factor that influences total square footage. “People want to know how much it’s going to cost to heat and cool the home,” Dewson says. Energy-conscious clients are investing in geo-thermal heating and cooling systems, on-demand hot water systems, and solar panels.

Is the great estate home a thing of the past? "Not entirely," says architect Richard Buchanan. “We currently have several in design or construction that are 18,000 sf,” he says. “There are some folks who aspire to that. Our goal is to educate people on the benefits of building less and better.”


People are building houses with the idea of living in them comfortably for as long as they can. They want a home that meets the needs of their family as it grows and then transitions to the empty nest phase. “Probably half of our houses have an elevator, generally going from basement to attic,” says Buchanan. The elevator may not be installed during construction, but stacked closets allow for it to be added later. This approach solves the problem of access to the second floor master bedroom as homeowners age in place.

Sometimes a master bedroom is designed for both the first and second floors. When the children are young, the parents can be within earshot upstairs. The first floor suite is perfect for grandparents, a nanny, or visitors. If the children move back home as young adults, the parents can retreat to the first floor, or simply move there as they age.

Another emerging trend is his-and-her master bedrooms. “Nobody wants to talk about it but we see that a lot more than you might think,” Buchanan says. “People don’t want to acknowledge they’re living in separate rooms, but frankly it makes for a more tranquil life for a lot of clients who are over 55.”


While people may be opting for less square footage, they are not scrimping when it comes to quality of materials and finishing work. The kind of craftsmanship associated with the great homes of the past is still very much alive today, according to custom builder Bob Griffiths of Chester Springs. “You hear people say they don’t build it like they used to. Baloney—they build it better than they used to. We have better technology and better equipment,” says Griffiths, who has been building custom homes for 32 years.

A well-built house means homeowners are not replacing systems, materials, or exterior surfaces in 10 or 15 years. “The houses we build are supposed to be renovated 200 years from now,” Griffiths says, only half-joking. His clients generally are not concerned with trends or what sells on the market. They want a house with unique design features that only the skilled artisan can create. “We make light fixtures. We design and make hardware. We cast knobs. We still plaster our houses. We do some wonderful plaster ceilings. You’re not going to see any of that stuff in a tract home,” says Griffiths.

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