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Talking Trade blog

The new house: End of open-plan living?

Published 14 May 2020

The four walls of your house feeling a little too close after weeks of lockdown? While work is already underway in imagining the long-term implications of COVID-19 on workplaces, offices, department stores and airports, the house may have received less attention, other than some early thoughts on changes in real estate markets.

Yet shifting patterns of demand from consumers will also likely alter home design in the coming years.  These changes will trigger a range of trade adjustments, including surging demand for some items and a collapse in interest for other products and services. 

The lockdown has driven an increase in television watching and streaming services.  One cable channel in particular, HGTV, which is focused on buying and remodeling houses, saw a 27% increase in viewers in early April. 

After watching a lot of HGTV lately, it seems that nearly every buyer or anyone looking to remodel a home on nearly every show starts with a similar request:  “I want something open concept with a big kitchen for entertaining.” 

Every remodel starts with smashing down walls to create lines of eyesight from every part of the house to every other part.  Buyers want kids to have nowhere to hide. 

After weeks of lockdown, however, “open concept” living is surely going to undergo an adjustment.  The same four walls look more repetitive than ever if they are always the same four walls with no way to escape to another room.  Having everyone always in sight sounds considerably less appealing when everyone in the house is in sight and earshot 24/7.

Consumers will likely be asking for a lot more walls and more doors in a post-COVID period. 

Another new “must have” item: a dedicated home office with a door.  This space will no longer be shared with the kids playroom or the guest bedroom.  It will now need to have an adequately sized desk, a comfortable chair for extended periods of work, decent lighting and sufficient power plugs to run a much wider range of equipment.  Office storage will probably surge as well, as people need to have more files, particularly for employees working from home for indefinite periods.  Desks will also make a return to children’s bedrooms.

Other design changes that seem likely include a return to having a dinner table.  Many families have opted to eliminate the dining space and eat at a breakfast bar or large kitchen island instead.  But sitting in a row is considerably less appealing when it includes three meals a day with everyone and limited ability to have conversations.  Plus, barstools are just not as comfortable as dining chairs.

Internet connectivity will become a critical first question for many homebuyers.  Houses with WiFi dead spots will not be tolerable.  Electrical systems with limited plugs, particularly found in older homes, will get upgraded as consumers grow frustrated with snaking extension cords running everywhere.

Ventilation systems will be upgraded and buyers will ask about airflow, circulation and filtration.  They will demand more outdoor space, including balconies in apartments and condos, and windows that can be opened for additional fresh air. 

Sound deadening products will be making an appearance in the home.  Home cleaning products will proliferate, with new types of storage needed to accommodate an expanded number of items often located in new locations, such as beside the front door to the home.

Entertaining may increasingly take place outdoors, leading to a surge in demand for patio furniture, playground sets, swimming pools, water features and other ways to make the yard a “destination.”  Since many potential buyers will have less cash on hand coming out of the economic crisis, many of these features will need to be offered at different price points, including more “entry level” products.

The demand for “spa-like” bathrooms is likely to continue, as homeowners look for ways to replicate travel experiences at home.

An increased trend for online delivery will also force a rethink of front doors, porches and mailboxes to include the ability for “contact-less” delivery of a much wider range of products in a much larger array of sizes and shapes. 

The shift in home living is not just confined to new demand for goods.  Services will also need to adjust.  To take just one example, the push to working at home will require new insurance products to cover risks of computer and other IT equipment now located outside of the office setting. 

Other services that should surge is a wide range of connected devices controlled by phones or tablets that limit the need for touching switches, doorknobs, and curtains. 

HGTV will end up with a whole new lineup of shows that track these latest buying and remodel requests.

What are specific trade implications of changing household desires?  Unclear at the moment, but there are some elements that are likely to hold true.                                        

The role of the house has changed and the supply and demand for goods and services that accommodate these new desires will result in new trade patterns.  To take just one trade-related change: desks and office storage pieces for the home, which had seen falling interest, are likely to rebound and even exceed previous levels.  Items like home office furniture are typically imported from a range of overseas suppliers. 

Household furniture for the United States is often imported from China, where it has been subject to higher tariff rates after the Section 301 case.  So far, furniture importers have received 13 exclusions for specific items with more possible after the latest round of comments have been received and evaluated by American officials.   

Something similar is likely to happen for whole categories of products like outdoor play sets, often imported whole or in parts and pieces, outdoor furniture, BBQ equipment and so forth. 

The stampede to online purchasing may provide entirely new avenues for services delivery from overseas firms for a wide range of new services to homeowners and home-bound staff and employees.  Some of these services will be delivered from far-flung locations.

Trade is not dead.  It will simply adjust to meet new demand in many areas, including revised concepts of what makes an ideal home.  

Going forward, more people will be shutting the door to watch the evolution of the home in future HGTV shows from their own “home theater” and plan their next moves.  What predictions do you have for your future house?

© The Hinrich Foundation. See our website Terms and conditions for our copyright and reprint policy. All statements of fact and the views, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s).

Dr. Elms is Head of Trade Policy at the Hinrich Foundation in Singapore.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the Executive Director and Founder of the Asian Trade Centre (ATC). She was also President of the Asia Business Trade Association (ABTA) and the Board Director of the Asian Trade Centre Foundation (ATCF).

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