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“The Barnaby” might be a strange name for a home of the future, but that’s what this four-bedroom demonstration house claims to be.
Located in a small town in South Carolina, it’s the size of an average new house in Australia and looks pretty normal from the outside.
Inside, the differences are obvious: a front-door “vestibule” for no-contact home delivery, two “pocket” home offices (neither of which is a bedroom), a school room, a quarantine room, a “secret room” behind a bookcase (for being alone), and a whopping four bathrooms.
In case you haven’t guessed it yet, this is a design shaped by the pandemic.
The team of architects, social researchers, and marketing experts that dreamed it up say every detail is informed by insights from a survey into the impact of COVID on homes and communities in America.
What about in Australia? Here, the property industry is seeing demand for features like those of The Barnaby (though not four bathrooms).
The dedicated home office is king, and there’s generally greater appreciation for good design and quality of construction.
COVID shone a light on all the pre-existing problems with our housing and asked us to do more with our houses, including working from home (WFH).
So, what does an ideal post-COVID Australian home look like? And will any actually get built?
Enter the ‘flex space’
The Barnaby’s design choices were informed by the America at Home study, which surveyed more than 6,000 US adults in 2020.
It found that Millennials and Gen Xers wanted relatively uncommon features such as germ-resistant countertops and flooring, greater energy efficiency, more storage for food or water, touch-free taps, appliances and toilets, and space for more than one home office.
“Post-pandemic, people have realised their homes can do more and that better design matters,” said Nancy Keenan, president and chief executive officer of Dahlin Group Architecture Planning, the California-based firm that helped design The Barnaby demonstration house.
Key to making a home do more is something called “the flex space”, or a room with multiple potential uses.
What this boils down to is an open-plan living room and kitchen, and then lots of “acoustically secure” (ie. decently soundproofed) medium-sized rooms that could be home offices, bedrooms, media rooms, and the like.
Along with this, there’s a scattering of tiny “pocket flex spaces” that could be used as smaller studies or walk-in wardrobes.
The idea is that a whole family (The Barnaby was designed for a Millennial couple with two young children, where one parent works from home) can use the one house for lots of different things, all at the same time.
“Providing spaces in the home that can be used in many ways is key to a successful floor plan, especially when designing to smaller square footages,” Ms Keenan said.
“Our clients are also exploring the viability of optioning flexible furniture systems and moveable walls to enhance space flexibility.”
From study nook to home office
These trends can be seen in Australia.
Every two years, property developer Mirvac surveys customers about what they’re looking for in a house or an apartment.
The most recent survey showed a clear shift in thinking, said Diana Sarcasmo, head of design at Mirvac, which has $26 billion worth of assets under management in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.
“Half the people we spoke to in the survey said they were looking for a hybrid working arrangement going forward,” Ms Sarcasmo said.
That change is reflected in demand for home offices.
The surge in pet ownership during lockdowns means people are willing to pay extra for doggy doors and dog-wash facilities.
And hours spent WFH has made people aware of “sustainability upgrades” like thermal insulation.
“People have always wanted sustainability upgrades, but weren’t willing to pay for them,” Ms Sarcasmo said.
“Now 64 per cent say they’re willing to pay extra. That’s a massive shift over the last couple of years.”
George Massoud, design director at Frasers Property, another large developer, agreed.
He’s also seen people placing greater value on “things like quality of light, ventilation, and acoustics”.
And the home office with a door you can close is here to stay.
“The mediocre study nook doesn’t cut it anymore.”
The end for inner-city apartments?
Of course, it’s harder finding space for all this in an apartment.
Since the onset of COVID, house values have out-performed those of units.
And dwelling values (houses and units) in regional areas have increased much more than those in capital cities.
Eliza Owen, head of research at CoreLogic Australia, said the need for space was a contributing factor.
“Larger, more spacious homes allowed for a home office, and larger properties in regional Australia even allowed people to create their own oasis for entertainment and recreation amid the pandemic,” she said.
So are Australians ditching the inner-city apartment?
No, Ms Sarcasmo says.
“There was a feeling during the middle of the pandemic that people would be driven further out of the city,” she said.
Mr Massoud, agreed: the picture was more complicated than Australians buying large houses in regional areas.
Size matters, but so does, increasingly, location.
People want to live in urban environments that are within walking distance to parks, cafes, pubs, restaurants, and the like.
One reason for this may be the rise of WFH: We’re taking greater interest in our local community.
“In homes and the apartment space, people are really assessing what’s beyond their four walls,” Mr Massoud said.
He also believes homes won’t get much bigger.
“I don’t see larger homes being a trend, but I do see major improvements in quality.”
So what do these future homes look like?
Though Australia doesn’t yet have its own version of The Barnaby , architects are working at imagining how our houses and apartments might be better designed to suit our needs.
In March this year, a Brisbane exhibition featured the work of 10 Australian architects who had been invited to develop new concepts of the home and residential environments.
The designs included a much greater focus on community and connection, including shared amenities for apartments, as well as verandahs, walkways, and verge gardens to connect neighbours.
The exhibition itself was the idea of the Architecture et Cetera Lab, formed by three Griffith University design academics and practising architects, Cecilia Bischeri, Zuzana Kovar and Jessica Blair.
“COVID put what we consider normality under scrutiny,” Dr Bischeri said.
“Residential space is becoming a habitat, in the sense we are going to function 24/7 in this space.
Residential architects have seen a big increase in demand for their services, said Shannon Battisson, national president of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA).
In Canberra, where she works, public servants have been spending money on their homes, rather than on overseas holidays.
“One of the big things COVID has done has made people think, ‘Hey, we might spend a lot of time here in the future and it’s worth doing it well.’
“We went from having a six-month waiting list for our projects, and then that blew out to two years.”
Will any of these homes actually get built?
What people want isn’t the only factor that decides what gets built.
Most new apartments, for instance, are built for investors rather than owner-occupiers, says Tom Alves, head of development at the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.
“The shape and form of those apartments is not driven by need, but by global investment,” he said.
Houses are similar: Less than 6 per cent of new houses in Australia have architectural involvement.
So far, COVID hasn’t had a big impact on the regulation determining the minimum standards for houses and units, Dr Alves said.
The 2021 update to the Victorian Government’s 2017 Better Apartment Design Standards addressed problems with poor acoustic and visual privacy, a lack of natural light, and an inflexible floor plan.
Outlining the changes, the Victorian Government website states:
“More than ever, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us that all homes need to have access to air, nature, sunlight and personal space.”
Other states and territories have not updated their apartment design standards since the outbreak of COVID.
The National Construction Code, which sets minimum performance and quality requirements for new housing in Australia, is in the process of being updated to ensure homes are better insulated and energy efficient (though this was set in train well before the pandemic).
COVID will change design in Australia, but it may not be as widespread as we might like, Ms Battisson said.
“I think we’ll be quick to revert to our usual ways.”
But there is one sign of hope, at least in her opinion: fewer people are asking for home theatres.
“We’re really against things like home theatres — it’s a room that’s pretty big and dark and can’t be used for anything else.
“In COVID, not a single person asked for a home theatre.
“I’m kind of hoping they won’t come back strongly after the pandemic.”
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