VAIL—Along with community gardens, working from home, and car and bike sharing, Builder Magazine identified “smaller living” as a trend to watch in the industry last year.
Downsizing in the home market is happening on a large scale in Colorado mountain communities, where there’s less focus on maximizing building envelopes and more on design and details, according to Kevin O’Donnell, president ofBeck Building Company. O'Donnell says home size in the Vail Valley's new construction market has dropped by about half since the recession — from 10,000-15,000 square feet to 5,000-8,000.
The trend is evident in many of Colorado's luxury markets.
Beck Building Company last year built a luxurious cabin in Grand County under 3,000 square feet. Three-quarters of the company's current business involves homes half the size of what they might have been pre-recession.
These decisions to buy less are driven by the bottom line — consumers are still watching their spending, even in luxury purchases — but there’s also an altruistic side.
“There’s a notion towards responsibility in size that gets to sustainability,” O’Donnell says. “More energy efficiency also means less operating costs. All those things are entering the conversation more than they were before.”
Interior design firm Slifer Designs, with locations in Edwards and Denver, is seeing the smaller home trend on the Front Range as well as in the mountains. It started with the modest return of home building after the housing market crashed, company President Yvonne Jacobs says.
“The first thing we noticed right offthebat was the square footage in homes definitely going down,” Jacobs says. “Normally for years and years it was 10,000 square feet and you’d filled it up with whatever you could. Swimming pools, media rooms and all that. Now people are building about half the size and saying, ‘OK, we don’t need all that.’”
Both O’Donnell and Jacobs say homeowners are choosing to leave out the many rooms once considered standard in second homes. Media rooms or home theaters, extra bedrooms, swimming pools, sitting rooms and studies are out, as families express a desire to reconnect and downsize.
“People are not wanting all the costs of the upkeep of a home of that size, especially a second or third home,” Jacobs says. “They want to feel a little more freer about their purchase.”
Along with savings in size comes a keener focus on design, which makes home building that much more interesting for industry professionals.
“In the McMansion era people in America forgot about design, but I see that coming back in a big way,” O’Donnell says. “Who wants to build boring houses?”
Jacobs agrees, adding that home purchases are no longer quick turn-around investments but something to hand down to the kids.“So they’re customizing to the way they really want it," she says, "instead of doing it to sell in the future. Which is nice, a little more thoughtful.”
The result is a higher attention to design than seen in many years. From architectural details such as an ornate staircase, to kitchen countertops with custom tile, homeowners are spending more to appoint living spaces they see themselves really using.
Energy efficiency is also on the agenda of new homeowners, who have begun to realize that long-term utility savings will outpace the initial costs of better windows, insulation and mechanical systems.Smaller homes also are easier to place on a property so they’ll benefit from natural thermal efficiencies, O'Donnell notes.
While “green” or “smart” home building concepts have been around for years, upgrades that reduce consumption are more popular than alternative energy choices such as solar power.
“Solar panels are sexy from the green perspective but they may or may not be appropriate for the building location, especially when building in the mountains,” O'Donnell says.
The basic home footprint — its size —remains the largest factor driving home efficiency conversations.
“If you buy less to begin with by building a smaller home, and then you make it more efficient," O'Donnell says, "then you’ve done more to reduce your energy load than you will when you add a solar panel to the roof."
Photos by Brent Bingham Photography www.brentbinghamphotography.com and Gibeon Photography, www.gibeonphotography.com