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When the coronavirus arrived earlier this year, Bari Kessler and Dave Marantz, Minneapolis, were in the process of designing and building a new house in Deephaven’s Cottagewood neighborhood. But the shutdown experience prompted them to revise their plan.

“The biggest thing for me was workspaces,” said Kessler. The couple have three young sons, the eldest of whom switched to remote learning when schools closed. “The whole family might be working from home if we’re ever in this situation again.”

So, in addition to the office they had planned for Marantz, “we changed the layout and added a studio for me,” said Kessler, an interior designer, and also added a built-in desk in the den. The boys all have built-in desks in a hallway between their bedrooms.

Recreation also became a higher priority. Their new home will have a pool, a nature play area outdoors and a space in the basement with a window and counter, for indoor activities. “We ended up including a sport court. I’m glad we did,” Kessler said, envisioning the possibility of a Minnesota winter with three boys in quarantine. “It’s been hard lately. We haven’t been to a playground in five months. We live a block from a park, but we haven’t let them play on a single piece of playground equipment.”

Infectious disease outbreaks of the past, including the 1918 influenza pandemic, have had a lasting impact on our homes, ushering in features that are common today, such as closets, subway tile and powder rooms, according to a recent story in Architectural Digest (see related story).

Now the life-altering COVID-19 pandemic is changing how Americans live, as we adjust to spending more — if not most — of our time at home.

Before the pandemic, the average home size had been shrinking slightly. But bigger may look better now that homes have to function as workplaces, schools and playgrounds. According to a recent survey by Zillow and Harris Poll, 27% of Americans now say they would consider moving to a home with more rooms.

The pandemic also has accelerated nascent home design trends, such as accommodating working from home, said Chris Crooks, director of asset management for Watermark Equity Group, Chicago, which has developed several single-family rental housing communities in the Twin Cities, including Mills Creek in Maple Grove, Beacon Ridge in Plymouth and Canvas in Woodbury.

Watermark had developed home plans that included both a study and a pocket office — a small, 5- by 4-foot room with a window and a door, just big enough for Zoom calls or homework, Crooks said. But since the pandemic, the company has added pocket offices to every plan. “Working from home has exploded, and it’s a trend that will probably continue.”

A workspace for every family member has become a priority for many clients, said architect Ryan Lawinger, Rehkamp Larson Architects, who designed Kessler and Marantz’s new home.

“It doesn’t have to be much,” Lawinger said. “But it needs some separation away from the main hub of the home. And many of today’s homes, with their open floor plans, are not ideal for having multiple people trying to work.”

Today’s home offices need doors that can be shut to keep out intrusions of kids and pets, said Dan Nepp, architect with TEA2 Architects. He recently designed an office in a pantry, close to the kitchen and the hub of the home, but with sound privacy for conference calls.

Offices are the most obvious way homes are changing in response to pandemic-era life, but storage has become another priority.

“We’re all going out less and stockpiling more,” said Lawinger.

Pantries are increasingly a must-have, and they’re getting bigger.

Pantries help contain kitchen clutter and stockpiles of food; this pantry in Minneapolis was designed by architect Dan Nepp, TEA2 Architects.
Pantries help contain kitchen clutter and stockpiles of food; this pantry in Minneapolis was designed by architect Dan Nepp, TEA2 Architects.

Corey Gaffer Photography

“We’ve seen that trend progress for 10 years,” said Nepp. “Kitchens are more social and open, and there’s not room for a lot of cabinetry for all the equipment” of food preparation. The pantry is the place to hide day-to-day items like food processors and coffeemakers.

Homes also have increased need for bulk storage. Some of Watermark’s home plans include “an Amazon room — a large room where you can store 10 months of toilet paper,” said Crooks.

With online purchases way up, there’s also greater need for a secured spot for package deliveries, whether it’s a gated entry with a hopper or bin, an exterior closet tucked out of sight or an opening in a garage door where packages can be dropped.

Outdoor spaces

Patios, porches and decks have taken on new importance.

“Homes need a well-designed outdoor space for entertaining, social distance and fresh air,” said Lawinger.

And now that we’re spending more time at home, we’re also seeking ways to make the best of it. Lawinger suggests thinking about your daily routine and things you enjoy and finding fresh ways to enjoy being at home.

“A breakfast nook where you can watch the sunrise. A sunset patio. A front patio where you can say ‘hi’ to your neighbors and socialize,” he said. “A colleague had us design a built-in coffee station. She loves it. After she stopped going to her favorite coffee shop, she can have the same sort of experience at home.”

The pandemic prompted one Duluth couple, Kate and Dylan Mills, to get the home sauna they’d always wanted.

A home sauna can help ease pandemic-era stress; this free-standing sauna was designed by Cedar & Stone Nordic Sauna, Duluth.
A home sauna can help ease pandemic-era stress; this free-standing sauna was designed by Cedar & Stone Nordic Sauna, Duluth.

Angela Jo Photography

“We are both essential workers. He’s a firefighter; I’m a nurse anesthetist,” Kate said. “We are exposed. It’s so stressful for everyone. Stress relief, for us, is ‘Sauna!’ ”

Kate grew up using a sauna at her family’s cabin near Ely, and it’s an experience she wants to share with their sons, ages 10 and 8.

“It’s always been a special place in our hearts, and it’s fun to bring it to our house,” she said. “The end result is a beautiful area our family can be together in.”

The company that built their sauna, Cedar & Stone Nordic Sauna, has been getting more inquiries about its free-standing custom saunas, which sell for $35,000 to $45,000 on average, said founder/CEO Justin Juntunen.

“With the pandemic, there’s been a ramp-up of demand,” he said. “Anxiety and stress are way up, and sauna is one of the best ways to relieve stress.”

Grateful for home

Even the concept of “home” has greater importance in a coronavirus world, said Nepp.

“With the reclusive nature of the pandemic, [home] takes on a new protective overlay,” he said. “It’s a safe and insulated environment. People want to feel enjoyment at home, have the house give back, and not feel cooped up.”

That’s what Kessler is aiming for in their new home.

“We’re trying to create more of a haven, an escape that’s restful, peaceful and serene,” she said. “Now that we have the possibility of being in the house without the opportunity to leave, we want to make the house a place you don’t want to leave.”

The pandemic has given her a deep sense of gratitude for just having a home, she said.

“There’s definitely an element of guilt for me, building our beautiful dream house. How many Minnesotans will be homeless by the end of COVID? It’s a luxury that we can afford to be self-contained. It makes me think about how to give back. Home means a lot to me. It’s hard to know so many people don’t have that.”