Tom and Rebecca Chow not only are living examples of the powerful demographic changes reshaping the United States.
Their housing choice offers a glimpse of the effects those changes are having on American home designs.
The Chows came here from Hong Kong as students and stayed. As immigrants from Asia, they are at the cutting edge of the single biggest wave of foreign homebuyers heading here, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. Though Hispanic and Latino immigrants have dominated population inflows for decades, Pew researchers forecast that the largest, multi-million person wave underway is coming from South Asia and the Pacific Rim. Asians — Chinese, Indians, Taiwanese, Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese and others — are expected to surpass Hispanics as the largest immigrant group over the course of the next several decades.
So what does this mean for home designs? Start with the fact that most immigrants, wherever they come from, bring the cultural preferences, tastes and practices of their homelands with them. When they attain enough prosperity to purchase a house, it’s not surprising that they favor home designs that speak to some of these desires.
A Home to House Many Generations
The Chows purchased a two-story, detached house built by Lennar that incorporates several of their cultural preferences. It has a wok kitchen with an adjacent sous chef prep kitchen, plus a multi-purpose, first-floor “Next Gen” suite with bedroom, kitchenette, full bathroom and a living/entertainment room. The reason for a wok kitchen may be obvious, but why the attached suite?
Like many Asian immigrants, the Chows not only have their own children at home, but family members and friends spread around the world, many of whom visit one another and stay for extended periods. The NextGen suite, one of Lennar’s responses to the needs of buyers like the Chows, serves as a separate study area, music practice room and getaway space for their own kids, but also as a built-in, ever-ready place to put up guests in privacy.
Flexible add-on designs are becoming increasingly popular across the country, especially in markets with large, multicultural immigrant populations. Lennar offers its NextGen designs in 13 markets with more than 100 different floor plan options, like the Independence Plan in Dallas. Several major builders beside Lennar offer their own versions of multi-generation space, including Toll Brothers, Pulte Homes and Pardee Homes.
Though Next Gen-type designs are also popular with growing numbers of American families — they provide space for relatives who need or want to live with their children or grandchildren — they serve the strong cultural preferences of ethnic groups where “extended family” residences are far more commonplace in their home countries than here. According to a report from AARP, the seniors advocacy group, Latinos and Asians in the United States are nearly three times as likely to have extended family living arrangements compared with non-Hispanic whites. In much of South Asia and Central America, extended-family living in a single residence or compound is commonplace.
A study of 1,000 Hispanic women who are potential homebuyers, conducted this past August by the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) and Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, found that 62 percent of respondents expressed a strong preference for what attracted the Chows to their home — “room for more people than currently live with them.”
A similar study conducted two years ago reported that 63 percent of Hispanics expect to have their parents, grandparents or other extended family members living with them at some point. Nearly 90 percent said they would like any home they buy “to be the main gathering place for family celebrations.” One out of three Hispanic women polled said family ties and contact are so important to them that they would buy a “less desirable” home over their “dream home” if its location allowed them to be closer to their relatives.
Asian immigrants have their own cultural preferences — even absolute requirements — and American homebuilders are listening intently. This is especially the case in California, Texas, metropolitan Washington, D.C., and other areas where there are significant concentrations of highly educated, economically successful populations from that part of the world. Just about everybody in real estate has probably heard of “feng shui,” the intricate philosophy that dictates where objects must be positioned in a space relative to one another to create harmonious energy flows and even foster good luck.
In Houston, C.C. Lee, who heads STOA Architects and is founder of the Feng Shui Institute, teaches a popular class at Rice University on feng shui design principles that attracts builders, developers, realty agents, interior designers and others. Lee’s classes touch on all the key elements of feng shui that builders need to grasp, from the orientation of the house on the lot, the materials used inside and outside, furnishings, lighting and color. Several major building firms in the Houston market, including David Weekley Homes, have successfully incorporated feng shui principles into their designs as the Asian population of the metropolitan area has surged.
Despite differences among fast-growing ethnic groups on certain elements of design, recent research from the National Association of Home Builders reveals that most buyers, no matter where they’re from, agree on some basic features they want to see in their new homes: Energy-star rated appliances are either No. 1 or No. 2 on the “most-wanted” list among Hispanic, Asian and white shoppers and an Energy Star rating for the entire house is ranked in the top five most sought-after characteristics for both Asians and whites; Hispanics rate it No. 7. Separate laundry rooms are a top priority for Hispanics and whites; No. 5 for Asians. Hispanic and Asian buyers put a higher value on separate dining and living rooms than whites. And just about everybody wants to see their new home lit up with exterior lights at night. Hey, who wouldn’t?
Kenneth Harney is a nationally syndicated columnist on real estate for the Washington Post Writers Group. His column, the “Nation’s Housing,” appears in cities across the country and has received numerous professional awards, including multiple Best Column-All Media awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors and the Consumer Federation of America’s Consumer Media Service Award for “invaluable and unique contributions to the advancement of consumer housing interests.”