The Escape Home: Why vacation homes have become more work and less play

This article is reprinted by permission from The Escape Home, a newsletter for second homeowners and those who want to be. Subscribe here. © 2021. All rights reserved.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live and work – and that’s prompting changes in the way custom builders are designing new vacation homes.

Rustic log cabins, tiny bohemian abodes and wine cellars have become less popular in the pandemic era as vacation-home buyers want more of the following amenities: 

  • More bedrooms and ensuites to accommodate extended families

  • Multi-function rooms that can be used for home-schooling or for quarantine

  • Mud rooms, also called “drop zones” to decontaminate

  • More outdoor living space

Bedroom with ensuite in Durango, Colo.


Classique Builders, Durango, Colo.

Outdoor fire pit in Durango, Colo.


Classique Builders, Durango, Colo.

“People are calling it the COVID design,” said Frank Enea, president of Classique Builders in Durango, Colo. “People still want that resort feel, like they’re away,” but because they are spending more time in their vacation homes than in the past, they also want some of the features of their primary home. Like:

  • Two home offices, one for each spouse

  • Ample storage space for recreational equipment such as mountain bikes, kayaks and skis

  • Bigger mud rooms to isolate clothing and backpacks from the rest of the house (Mud rooms are such the rage, we list them twice)

Mud room in Durango, Colo.


Classique Builders, Durango, Colo.

Interior designs are becoming more refined. For the past 10 years, the most popular design for Classique Builders was “mountain modern,” which was part rustic and part modern. But now, there is growing demand for what the company calls “mountain sophisticated,” which blends some LA-inspired design with rustic styles. In other words, vacation-home buyers still want elements of rustic, but not too rustic. Smooth walls, not log walls.

“Mountain sophisticated” living space in Durango, Colo.


Classique Builders, Durango, Colo.

The biggest request, though, from buyers of custom-built vacation homes is outdoor living space where families can still socialize — at a distance.

“Not everyone has a million dollars to build the big outdoor living room,” said Mr. Enea, “but maybe they want a really nice deck with a firepit.”  

Outdoor deck in Durango, Colo.


Classique Builders, Durango, Colo.

It all means that vacation homes are growing. In some cases, the vacation home is now bigger than the primary home because the property is blending three different lifestyles: work, school and play. As a result, home builders are redesigning their most popular models to include additional rooms and space. 

A decade ago, popular room additions included nonessential features such as wine cellars, but architects say that’s changed. “Now we’re seeing much more functional room additions,” notes Kermit Baker, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects, “reflective of the emerging lifestyle that we’re experiencing in the pandemic.”

Multi-function space in Durango, Colo.


Classique Builders, Durango, Colo.

Each year, the institute surveys residential architects and home building companies about home-design trends. The most recent survey published in September — the first since the COVID-19 crisis — finds:

  • 68% of respondents said the popularity of home offices had increased in the past year, up from 29% in 2019

  • 61% of respondents said demand for outdoor living space had become more popular, the same as 2019. 

Office space in Durango, Colo.


Classique Builders, Durango, Colo.

Two features that didn’t even show up in the 2019 survey, made the cut in 2020: 

  • Multi-function rooms, which can be used for different needs including as a quarantine room

  • Exercise rooms, which reflects continued avoidance of public gyms and health clubs.

On outdoor space, Baker said the category “was growing a lot in 2019 and now it’s growing a lot again.”

Even in the northeast, where the winters can get extremely cold, vacation-home builders are designing more outdoor living space that can be used for several seasons.

Jason Beane, a designer at Blue Water Construction & Development, which builds custom homes in the lakes region of New Hampshire, said his company has traditionally built vacation homes that were used mainly in the summer. But now the buildings are designed to be used year around.

“The outdoor kitchen and outdoor living space has always been a big design feature in our vacation homes, but now the outdoor space is being designed for three seasons, not just one season,” he said. That means adding more heating elements inside and outside. “We’re even heating up the garages now,” said Beane.

A popular feature is the three-season porch, a screened-in room off the main house typically with lots of windows and skylights. For comfort in colder months, the rooms are designed to include gas heaters or fireplaces and glass inserts that replace the screens in the fall.  “Screened-in porches have always been popular, but we’re seeing more of that than ever.” Blue Water specializes in Adirondack timber frame homes.

Outdoor living space in Durango, Colo.


Classique Builders, Durango, Colo.

The big question now is whether these design trends — and our embrace of spending more time outdoors in the cold — will be long lasting or just a temporary response to the pandemic. If so, the basement office can always be turned back into the wine cellar. 

This article is reprinted by permission from The Escape Home, a newsletter for second homeowners and those who want to be. Subscribe here. © 2021. All rights reserved. 

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