Like what we drive, where and how we live reflects our lifestyles and stages. The needs of each stage differ and require varied physical accommodations that are life stage appropriate. Individuals and households are in constant motion, moving from one stage to the next; some steps just last longer than others. This “circle of life” repeats itself with every successive generation such as Gens X, Y, and Z. About every 14-18 years the cycle begins again. Because cycles overlap, we always have all stages to comprehend and design for simultaneously.

Starting out with limited means, it may make perfect sense to dwell in a micro unit in an urban core, close to transit and the attractions that make this life stage so much fun. One might choose a suite in a themed urban co-living building, which in addition to its affordable rent, comes with built-in community. From here, life often leads one into a special relationship that progresses to a partnership, which forms a new household, often followed by offspring, which represent yet another kind of family unit. Ultimately the offspring leaves the nest, which one might hope, resulting in a new life stage which resembles a previous one, but with more resources! Many folks arrive at this mature stage, and, romancing the memories of a previous cosmopolitan life, downsize back to an urban loft. And so, the cycle repeats.

The nuances of how to appeal to each life stage adjust with changing times, and the evolution is subtle. To stay abreast of the morphing norms is the task of the residential designer, as augmented by marketing research and by paying critical attention to the broader culture. Designing in all housing genres simultaneously creates an imperative to not only stay abreast of the needs of the various life stages, but also to encourage cross pollination from one type to another, understanding the specific product distinctions.

Approximately 65% of Americans occupy single family houses; there are a billion variants of these homes, including size, appointments, and proximity to neighbors and a town center. A detached home is prized for its desirable qualities—it gets light from all sides, usually includes some kind of yard or other private outdoor open space and has a distinct sense of autonomy. As resources are more abundant, these properties become larger and farther apart. Projects on the high end of this spectrum stretch the design team to embrace the perks that luxury affords—which means spending a lot of time in possibility thinking, the inventions of which can be re-interpreted and applied to all types.

Recently we have seen the advent of smaller, more closely spaced single family homes, which appeal to first time buyers, especially when money is cheap and there’s a pandemic to escape. The production pace of this type of dwelling was blistering in 2020 and has accommodated many younger families searching for the sublime combination of ownership along with a yard for the puppy and kids. Forecasters are predicting the boom will continue at least through 2021. These houses, particularly if they are only two stories, are about the least expensive construction there is. Design thinking in this context is a vastly different enterprise than with luxury product—in these smaller, more value priced homes, everything must be considered with a great sensitivity to the bottom line, so simplicity and efficiency become very key drivers.

With the advent of Accessible Dwelling unit laws in California and other states, experimentation and invention in the single family space has really accelerated. Introducing a “granny flat” into a new build detached house doubles the density of the neighborhood, provides attainable housing opportunities, and creates a mini “circle of life” situation where the residents of the primary house and the ADU (assuming all are extended family members) may swap spaces over a long period of time. These new ground-up homes with built-in ADUs are a gateway to multifamily housing.

Multifamily communities, especially 2- and 3-story wood-framed walkup apartments, have been hot in the suburbs and exurbs, because they are the most affordable homes to construct, and the value of the underlying land is typically less. The fire has been fueled by the recent exodus from dense urban cores. As is the case with single family homes, there is a broad range of product types in this category, driven by the desires of target residents. Some people live in these properties for a very long time; others are merely passing through on their way to ownership of a single family home!

Because the amenities in a low-rise multifamily community are shared, great care must be taken by the design team to incorporate elements that specifically appeal to the anticipated residents. With the recent surge of working from home, and the ability to have an abundance of goods and services delivered directly to our dwelling, the traditional community clubhouse needed to be reconsidered. Today’s “resident services hub” reflects the “live/work/play” lifestyle of its residents by having at its core the spaces and services that support working from home—like an alternate place to work when one needs a break from her apartment or to gather with other WFH colleagues, and a place to enjoy with friends all the stuff that’s being delivered. Think about food and beverage trucks or traveling entertainment, all which would satisfy one’s needs.

The big dogs in multifamily properties are those with structured parking: “wraps,” podiums, and high rises. While these communities accommodate a much higher number of persons per net land area, they are the most expensive type to build and are typically located in proximity to an urban core, making the land base more expensive. As a result, they tend toward “luxury” product and command higher rents or sales prices in the event of condominiums. These communities are vertical in nature, with residents living much closer to one another, so random encounters and shared experiences become a desirable aspect of life, as do the thoughtfully planned common spaces in the building, which are evolving in the same way as the suburban “clubhouses”. Relationship of the property to its cultural context is also critically important because many residents spend more time outside their flats than in them, as they take full advantage of the perks their neighborhood offers. Because the cost of these projects is so high, efficiency in plan and skin is a perpetual driver of the design team’s solutions.

So many different conditions, yet with so many elements in common—all influencing one another! The driving intention for all residential design is to create as much comfort and value as possible for a resident relative to what she can afford. Designing tight spaces, such as the micro unit previously mentioned, refines the team’s ability to make the most strategic use of every available square inch of area, wasting nothing, which becomes a strategy applicable to the entire spectrum of homes. Imagining day to day experiences in the dense urban core is quite different than anticipating open space, trails, and rambling amenities in a suburban walk-up location or single family neighborhood, together with the shared spaces, both interior and exterior, that provide seamless transitions from one to the other. What is learned from one experience always helps lead and refine the others.

Today we find ourselves in the situation where the demand for housing has outpaced production for such an extended period of time, making the resultant deficit of homes feel nearly insurmountable. In this environment, it is simply necessary to have more housing, of all types, everywhere it can reasonably go. There is no one product that will on its own make a dent in the deficit; we need more of everything, and an industry energized to imaginatively and intentionally design and deliver it.

Danielian Associates has more than 50 years of residential experience, both domestic and international, that has covered the entire range of residential types from single family detached to high rise, plus the common spaces that support them. In all those years, and in all those products, we have learned the basics of the types, but even more importantly, to listen to our clients and understand which approaches work best for the project in mind.


Daniel Gehman, AIA, LEED AP

Author Daniel Gehman, AIA, LEED AP

More posts by Daniel Gehman, AIA, LEED AP

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