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Home builders aim new design ideas at growing `empty nester' market

If you are an ``active empty-nester'' - age 55 and up - the housing industry is angling for your attention. You are part of the fastest-growing segment of the population, and builders are already courting you. They know that many of you don't want to leave the home town where you have lived for years, where you have friends and family, and where you are deeply involved with cultural and civic affairs.

They also realize that, with children grown and living on their own, you aren't so keen about maintaining a big house, including, perhaps, a swimming pool, an extensive garden, and sweeping lawns. You are willing to let those responsibilities go to someone else.

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According to a Builder magazine survey, what you say you want is a detached, single-story house that has comfort, style, and plenty of amenities, but doesn't require much in the way of upkeep, inside or out. Builders have concluded that what you most want is a carefree house that makes it fun to wake up in the morning, gives you the pampered feeling of being on vacation, and enables you to entertain dozens of friends at one time with great ease.

Two such ``idea'' houses, designed for these more senior home buyers and representing two different scales and innovative approaches, were especially built for the recent National Association of Home Builders' convention here. The purpose of each was to demonstrate what's new in housing design and products. Both claim to be ``what dreams are made of'' - homes where one spends ``quality time,'' enjoying the aura of a seven-day weekend and the expectation of good things happening.

The 2,200 square foot NEST (New Expanding Shelter Technology) house is priced at slightly more than $200,000; it's small, colorful, and more youthful than the other, much more expensive choice, the New American Home. Just 39 feet wide and 80 feet long (it was designed for a small lot in a high-density neighborhood) it has two bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, and incorporates modular principles with conventional construction. It is intended to be a house for pre-retirement and retirement couples living in the Northeast who choose not to move away to the Sunbelt, but who would enjoy a new approach to living.

``Before I sat down at the drawing board,'' says architect Todd Clark, ``I did weeks of research and spent lots of time talking to my parents and to their friends about housing. I got the feeling that what they really wanted wasn't so different from what younger people without children wanted - a vibrant, visually exciting kind of house - a sort of art form in itself that would be a great place to entertain and a fun place to live. No old folks home, certainly.''

What he came up with is ``an exhilarating house'' for couples who want to celebrate the freedom that comes with having a family raised and out of the nest and are open to new living and entertaining possibilities.

Designed as part of a class project by this 25-year-old student at the Southern California Institute of Architects, the house has two greenhouse enclosures, one that wraps over the entryway, and another over the kitchen/dining nook, as well as a circular family room.

``Even on the coldest day of winter,'' says Mr. Clark, ``that rotunda family room is the activity core and comfortable Florida room at the center of the house. It is flooded with light from the clerestory windows and skylights, and filled with plants.'' The family room connects to all other parts of the compact house - including the veranda, indoor/outdoor patio, media room, and spa with its giant-sized jacuzzi tub and exercise equipment - making for an easy traffic flow.

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The one spare bedroom, with its pull-down bed, pull-down desk, and built-in wall desk and storage units, provides plenty of floor play space when grandchildren come to visit. With its sense of relaxed informality, the house is virtually maintenance-free both indoors and out. Up to 50 guests could circulate freely for casual entertaining. Chicago interior designers Jack Childs and Gene Dreyfus emphasized a year-round vacation mood and life style by furnishing the house informally, and by using an upbeat color scheme of bright canary yellow, periwinkle blue, and pastel mauve.

Still, this NEST house makes room, too, for memories and whatever family treasures an occupant may bring along. The facade appears conservative and classical in form, but the interior bursts into a play of different and sometimes surprising forms and materials.

The larger of the two homes built for the convention, The New American Home '87, is obviously for the more affluent consumer.

Designed by Clark's teacher, architect Barry Berkus of Santa Barbara, Calif., this upscale, urban, 3,500-square-foot brick home was built in Caruth Homeplace, an existing Dallas patio home enclave. The open floor plan has rooms without borders and a free flow of space broken only by large, classic Greek columns.

The master bedroom suite has ``his'' and ``hers'' baths, double walk-in closets, media center, and sitting area. All interior colors are low-key pastels in desert tones, and furnishings are sparse but lush. A sense of dignity and grandeur prevails. The sound of rippling water from a manmade stream and flowing fountains not only conveys a feeling of tranquility and of being far away from the urban scene, but also neutralizes big city sounds.

The house has marble and polished granite floors, and luxurious appointments throughout. Mr. Berkus claims that the architecture for this house, which is priced at about $845,000, is ``an abstraction of Greek classical forms and the forms seen in traditional Texas houses with their parlors, foyers, and airy high ceilings.''

Lots of big windows relate the indoors to the outdoors and make it appear light and bright. All windows use new energy-efficient Sungate coated glass from PPG Industries, which is almost totally transparent and not visibly reflective.

``I would consider a house like this to be one of the rewards of growing older,'' says architect Berkus. ``It makes you say `wow!' when you step over the threshold.

Both houses aim to nudge empty-nesters toward a livelier, but easier, life style.

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