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Architects, Builders Talk Best-in-Class Home Features for Back-to-School Families

September 30, 2016

When students return to the classroom each fall, many parents begin to re-evaluate the functionality of certain areas of their home and, in some cases, even the neighborhood in which it is located. Experienced builders and architects agree that at this time of year in particular, their clients pay close attention to how well their home can accommodate busy back-to-school schedules, gravitating to family-friendly features and locations that save them time and make home life more manageable. From grab-and-go kitchens, to dedicated study spaces, to proximity to community amenities, today’s buyers want a home that works harder and smarter.

High Marks for Efficiency

With multiple members of the family rushing out the door at the same time at the start of the day, the morning routine can feel like an experiment in controlled chaos. That’s why those building or renovating a home look for ways to manage “rush hour,” said Elissa Morgante, co-principal of Evanston, Ill.-based architecture and interior design firm Morgante Wilson Architects.

“Efficiency is key for families, and one thing we frequently create for our clients is a ‘grab-and-go’ kitchen,” said Morgante. “With features like separate refrigerator drawers so kids can easily access their lunch bags and favorite snack and breakfast items, and plenty of low cabinets and drawers to keep children’s cups and plates within reach, a kitchen designed with the whole family in mind helps kids be more self-sufficient. And that’s one less thing parents have to do for them.”

The same idea applies to the mudroom, where separate cubbies and bins for each family member keep everyone’s belongings organized and accessible when heading out the door. Morgante noted that with kids more tech-savvy than ever and increasingly having their own phones, tablets and laptops, she also likes to equip each cubby with its own charging station.

Study Hall 2.0

Speaking of electronics, another important factor for parents is monitoring screen time and internet usage. That’s why more parents are moving away from setting up devices or a computer in a bedroom or home office in favor of a more open – yet quiet – homework station, said Priscilla Schumacher, director of sales and marketing at Edward R. James Companies. Both the rowhomes and single-family homes at Westgate at The Glen, the builder’s 171-unit residential community in Glenview, Ill., feature an upper-floor loft space adjacent to two bedrooms and a full bath, providing the perfect study area.

“Families love the idea of setting up a homework station in the loft because it’s easy to keep an eye on what children are doing online,” noted Schumacher. “Plus, kids prefer to feel connected to the rest of the family while doing homework. This space allows for that connection while minimizing distractions.”

An A+ Location

Families, of course, seek homes near great schools, but there are other important location factors, too, according to Patrick Ryan, senior vice president and managing broker at Chicago-based Related Realty.

“It’s a given that families want access to excellent schools, but our clients also place a high priority on proximity to their children’s after-school activities,” said Ryan. “Parents don’t want to drive long distances for various practices and lessons. It’s an added bonus to live near a great grocery store, dry cleaner and even the public library so those errands can be accomplished more quickly on school nights and weekends.”

Likewise, being near family members and friends is an important consideration too, according to Ryan. “With parents juggling full-time work schedules and a full slate of their kids’ school obligations and extracurricular activities, they often want to be near extended family for extra support and help,” he said. “They also want to live in area where they know their kids will have friends right in the neighborhood.”

Easy access to public transit is as much of a priority for families as it is for younger buyers, added Ryan. “When you live in an area with great public transportation, it can help trim costs by only having one vehicle,” he said. “Plus, it gives older children a little extra freedom to take the bus to and from their activities.”

Extra Credit for Family Time

When busy families do have downtime, most would rather spend it relaxing or doing a fun activity together than worrying about exterior maintenance or yard work, said Brian Hoffman, an executive with Northbrook, Ill.-based Red Seal Homes. For that reason, maintenance-free communities like Red Seal’s Willow Lake, a collection of 52 semi-attached homes in Lake Forest, Ill., are popular among families, he said.

“Yard work and mowing the lawn are fairly time-consuming chores that many parents are happy to take off their ‘to do’ list,” said Hoffman. “Instead, families have more free time to spend together and enjoy favorite activities. In the case of Willow Lake, that could mean more time for everything from a walk together in a nearby forest preserve, or fishing, canoeing or kayaking on one of the two private lakes in the community.”

Hoffman also noted that buyers also appreciate the family time that happens organically thanks to popular open floor plans frequently offered in new-construction communities. “A layout with an open kitchen and family room configuration can really foster a sense of togetherness, even with a very sizable home such as those we offer at Willow Lake,” said Hoffman. “Across all of our communities, we’ve found that families want a real heart of the home where everyone can gather to do homework, prepare meals and simply relax at the end of the day, and open floor plans are a great way to accomplish that.”

According to Evanston, Ill.-based Morgante Wilson Architects, a kitchen with “grab-and-go” features like refrigerator drawers in the island help families get out the door quickly and encourage kids to be self-sufficient.

According to Evanston, Ill.-based Morgante Wilson Architects, a kitchen with “grab-and-go” features like refrigerator drawers in the island help families get out the door quickly and encourage kids to be self-sufficient.

A maintenance-free community, such as Red Seal Homes’ Willow Lake in Lake Forest, Ill., allows busy families to remove yard work and exterior maintenance from their to-do list.

A maintenance-free community, such as Red Seal Homes’ Willow Lake in Lake Forest, Ill., allows busy families to remove yard work and exterior maintenance from their to-do list.