Developers Discover The Outdoor Room
By Tom Lassiter
One of the model homes at Briar Chapel, a planned community near Chapel Hill in central North Carolina, has every upscale amenity one might expect to find in a new home – plus one more.
Let’s check them off:
- Nine-foot ceilings in a spacious, one-level floor plan
- Granite countertops
- Stainless-steel appliances
- Hardwood floors
- Outdoor Room with gas fireplace
That last one is an attention-getter. No doubt about it.
The Outdoor Room isn’t grand. Not so many years ago, we would call it a screened porch, because that’s what it is. The fireplace wouldn’t “Wow” anyone familiar with what’s available in high-end products from the hearth industry. But the space is sufficiently large to comfortably hold a deep-seating group, and it’s quite inviting when viewed through the big picture window in the family room.
Yes, the mere presence of a fireplace-equipped Outdoor Room in a model home is stunning. Just as significant is that Newland Communities, developer of Briar Chapel, recognizes that outdoor living is very important to home buyers. The company bills itself as the nation’s largest developer of planned communities.
Designated outdoor space that integrates well with a home’s interior now is a requirement if a new house is to capture the attention of many in the buying public.
A 2013 survey by PulteGroup, developers and builders with a nationwide presence, found that 63 percent of renters ages 18 to 34 say that outdoor living spaces and decks are extremely or very important when selecting a home to purchase. A survey by the National Association of Home Builders, also completed in 2013, found that a patio is considered “essential or desirable” by 80 percent of homebuyers.
Astute developers and builders pay attention to such data, which explains why outdoor living space no longer is an afterthought when ground is broken for new homes.
Prospective buyers of new homes expect a house to offer outdoor living space that integrates well with the home’s interior. According to a National Association of Home Builder’s 2014 survey, it’s on their “most-wanted” punch list along with a laundry room, Energy Star-rated appliances and windows, a walk-in pantry and ceiling fans, and a bathroom linen closet.
Developers today must provide for “the complete lifestyle,” says Shannon McSwiney, Marketing director for Briar Chapel. That lifestyle includes offering Outdoor Room choices. The more Newland communities have been demonstrating “the complete lifestyle,” she says, “the more successful they have become.”
Briar Chapel’s concept emphasizes an active outdoor lifestyle, with 900 acres of permanent green space and 24 miles of trails for hiking and biking. The community’s master plan provides for 2,389 homes, with new sections still to come. The preferred lifestyle of the community’s targeted homebuyers, determined by market research, calls for residences that incorporate space for outdoor living.
Most homes at Briar Chapel have front porches, giving each streetscape a welcoming ambiance. Most porches are large enough to accommodate a rocking chair or two with a small table for morning coffee or drinks at day’s end. Screened porches facing the rear of the property are a popular option, and several builders’ model homes feature gas fireplaces in the Outdoor Room. One model has a two-sided fireplace, allowing the homeowner to enjoy the flames from the living room or the Outdoor Room.
Except for high-end custom homes, building an Outdoor Room as part of new home construction is a relatively new concept. Previously, Outdoor Rooms with fireplaces generally came about as part of a remodeling project. Until recently, it’s been rare to find a true Outdoor Room among a builder/developer’s standard offerings.
Interviews with developers with a national presence, including Newland Communities and PulteGroup, confirm that consumers’ outdoor lifestyle interests are driving this trend in home design.
Numerous consumer surveys conducted over the last few years by the National Association of Home Builders, real estate trade groups and other organizations repeatedly have noted a rising interest in outdoor lifestyle features and amenities. That major developers have taken these findings and altered their product lineups accordingly should be heartening news for the Outdoor Room industry.
(Some in the Outdoor Room industry might add that it’s about time developers noticed and acted).
PulteGroup regularly conducts market research, says Angela Nuessle, national design director. The company’s research finds that consumers coast to coast place a high-priority on outdoor lifestyle amenities.
“One of the Top 5 ‘must haves’ is outdoor living space,” Nuessle says, noting that the demand is consistent across all generations of homebuyers. “Fifteen years ago, that wasn’t a focus.”
PulteGroup takes into account regional tastes, climate and other factors when considering how to best provide outdoor living options in its home designs.
“In California and Arizona, we do a lot of open pergolas,” Nuessle says. Homes in areas with few insects may have sliding doors that create openings up to 15 feet wide, erasing the barrier between indoors and out. “In Raleigh, we do a lot of screened porches.”
Developers and builders serving state and regional markets also have embraced these trends.
Georgia’s Edward Andrews Homes will have 10 communities under construction by year’s end. The projects range in size from 12 homes to more than 100, says Lauren Sample, marketing director. The footprint allocated for patios has increased in size recently, creating more space for homebuyers to place furniture, grills and fire pits. Home designers consult with buyers before construction begins, making sure there is adequate outdoor living space to accommodate existing furniture or furniture they plan to buy.
Fire pits and fireplaces have become commonplace, Sample says. “In some of our communities,” she says, “up to 75 percent of buyers opt to have an outdoor fireplace or fire pit included in the construction package.”
Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki is vice president and chief marketing officer for Newland Real Estate Group and its Newland Communities. With 28 communities under active development across the nation, Newland is “the largest and most diverse master plan developer in the country,” she says. Projects are located from the Pacific Northwest, home of the 9,000-home Tehaleh community in Pierce County, Washington, to Florida.
Slavik-Tsuyuki says the company’s consumer surveys indicate marked shifts in priorities over the last six years. The company samples anywhere from 7,000 to more than 20,000 consumers each year.
In 2008, some 13 percent of those sampled said they liked to spend free time relaxing and entertaining at home. That number jumped to 32 percent in 2014.
“Home and community are more important to people today than ever before,” she says, adding that research “drives everything we do.”
Newland focuses on developing the overall community, Slavik-Tsuyuki says. Builders selected to construct homes in one of Newland’s planned communities may have a national presence, such as D. R. Horton (which has billed itself as the nation’s largest home builder for more than a decade) or Pulte. Builders also may include a home construction firm operating only in that market. Newland signs off on the various plans offered by each builder, thereby maintaining design standards while avoiding cookie-cutter uniformity.
“Our shoppers tell us they will pay more for certain features, such as private outdoor living space attached to the home,” she says. “That wasn’t the case five years ago.”
Newland’s Briar Chapel welcomes buyers of all ages, though some Newland communities have neighborhoods reserved for buyers of a certain age, usually over 55.
Builder Del Webb was among the first to construct age-restricted communities. That company now is a division of PulteGroup and continues to focus on age-restricted developments.
Buyers in Del Webb communities are very socially oriented and want to take advantage of all kinds of outdoor living opportunities, says Nuessle, PulteGroup’s Design director.
Couples moving into a Del Webb community often are downsizing and probably purchasing many new furnishings for their new home. It’s likely that products for the Outdoor Room are on their shopping lists.
Pulte’s research indicates, not surprisingly, that greater interest in entertaining coincides with greater interest in “fireplaces, fire pits and an outdoor lounge that pulls people outside.”
Nuessle and her design team are responsible for outfitting 400 model homes in PulteGroup communities. The models are furnished down to the smallest detail, including towels in the linen closet. She says the company believes that a realistically outfitted model is more convincing to prospects. This means the Outdoor Room gets as much attention as the master bedroom.
“We are responsible for making interiors cohesive with the exteriors,” she says. “Our designers determine what patio lines we’ll use to correlate with the interior.”
Nuessle says members of the design team visit the High Point and Las Vegas furniture markets to stay abreast of design trends and select furnishings for PulteGroup’s models.
The company’s leading vendors for outdoor furniture, she says, are Sunset West, Frontgate, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Woodard and Gloster. She was not aware of the Casual Market in Chicago.
Retailers located in or near markets with large planned communities might consider giving special attention to those developments with targeted marketing. Rarely do homebuyers in such developments bring along their timeworn furnishings. The emphasis, indoors and out, is on new.
Retailers who understand who the homebuyers are, and the types of Outdoor Rooms present in their neighborhoods, have an opportunity to persuade those trend-conscious shoppers that there are alternatives to catalog sources for outdoor furniture.
Each new home – whether occupied by a young family or empty nesters – represents a potential sale. With hundreds or perhaps thousands of home sites, a large planned community provides fresh sales opportunities for years to come.