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Daring Design or Danger Zones? Some Buyers Are Wary of Ultra

Jul 07, 2023

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Homes that blur the lines between indoors and outdoors are notably punctuated by wall-free layouts, fire and water features, and floating staircases—in other words, a young parent’s nightmare.

Many features of contemporary architecture are as sculptural as they are functional, enhancing the openness while allowing natural light to flow through the space. These often bespoke houses connect homeowners to nature and supply plenty of eye candy for design enthusiasts. That’s until toddlers enter the picture.

“As a parent, it’s difficult to imagine the perfect solution to keeping children safe while maintaining contemporary design,” said Elizabeth Sesser, studio director of interiors at Kligerman Architecture & Design in New York. To Sesser, it’s a personal choice. She explained that people have different comfort levels, and some children are more active than others, ultimately impacting families’ design and home-buying decisions.

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Depending on the potential purchaser, marketing homes with features that aren’t so child-friendly can get tricky. Jaclyn Bild, a real estate broker with Douglas Elliman in Miami, said the buyer pool narrows if a design needs to be child-proofed.

“The newer construction homes have floating staircases, and when you get to the second floor, there are holes or gaps,” Bild said of the contemporary residences she sees in the Florida housing market. Young moms frequently express safety concerns for their children or even a little dog. “Those features keep buyers with small kids away.”

Lauren Ravitz, a Los Angeles-based broker with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services California, said floating staircases fall in the same category as cliffs, deck space or lack thereof, and even homes with all hardscape and no grass, which can be “a huge problem for families.”

However, parents of small children could consider a compromise if they have their hearts set on a contemporary showpiece. Likewise, people building with an eye to sell, including developers, can make a contemporary design more saleable to families from the start.

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Carlos Agelet de Saracibar, senior lead designer at OBMI in Miami, said child gates are a primary staircase solution. Still, often they’re thought to take away from the house’s architectural integrity. “We like to make it an opportunity to become part of the language of the home and not an afterthought,” he said of incorporating child gates.

Adjusting the layout to be family-friendly is another option. “When possible, we like to have the kids’ bedrooms and play areas on the main level, reducing the need to take the staircase,” Agelet de Saracibar added.

Luke Olson, senior associate at GTM Architects in Bethesda, Maryland, said residential building codes address concerns about stairs. He explained that the so-called “baby head” rule requires that all stairs and railings not permit a four-inch sphere to pass through any of the openings. But a child getting their head stuck is only one scenario. Slips and tumbles rank high on the list of worries.

“A closed stringer on the ends helps close down the opening where the stair meets the railing for further protection,” Olson added. “Horizontal rails are popular but provide a ladder kids can climb. I opted for a cable-rail system in my own house to make it more difficult for my child to be able to do so.”

For additional security, he recommended tempered and laminated solid-glass railings for “continuous, non-climbable fall protection that also has a sleek modern look and open, airy feel.”

Sesser suggested creating natural barriers in an open floor plan when kids are in the picture.

“This could look like using large seating pieces such as sofas to block a direction if you don’t want traffic to flow or using area rugs to define spaces as kid-friendly or adult-only areas,” she said.

And if decorative solutions aren’t enough, an open staircase design can be tailored to appeal to contemporary home admirers with little ones. Sesser said that instead of a completely floating stair, installing vertical planking creates an open feeling while preventing a child from jumping or falling.

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Other architectural details that might seem risky for kids include water and fire elements, from fountains to pools to fireplaces. But there are remedies for these components, too.

“Linear direct-vent fireplaces fit well with contemporary designs and provide a pane of glass between the livable space and the fire element for protection,” Olson said. “Many brands also have started introducing cool-touch glass so that you won’t get burned if you touch the glass face of the firebox.”

Agelet de Saracibar said modern electric fireplaces are the safest option indoors and outdoors. “Because the flame is not real, there is no real danger,” he said. “The design of these has evolved so thoughtfully that it has become hard to tell if they are real.” Likewise, he noted vertical water features inside a home are child-friendly, including fountains or wall cascades with reduced troughs.

Fences and auto-covers are often required by law for outdoor pools in the US. But even so, Olsen said chimes or alarms can alert a parent that a door opened.

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Agelet de Saracibar mentioned a recent trend: designing above-ground, infinity-edge pools that are playful yet childproof.

Bild said a water feature typically isn’t a deal breaker because buyers can simply remove it. Similarly, many fireplaces are controlled by a switch, which can be installed at a height a child can’t reach. Staircases are tougher to overcome as they’re not so easily removed and rebuilt. The cost to revamp would be substantial, plus the construction process would be invasive.

Whatever the concern is, if removing or tweaking the feature is an easy fix, it probably wouldn’t deter the sale. Otherwise, the need for childproofing could be an obstacle. “If it’s too much work to change a feature, most people say there must be another home out there for me,” Bild said.

Though contemporary homes with floating staircases might linger on the market while waiting for a buyer, Ravitz said “there’s a lid for every pot,” recalling a home she recently sold.

“For the family who lived there and designed this house, it wasn’t an issue for them as they had older kids,” she said, describing a home with open-riser stairs, glass on one side and a built-in bookcase skimming the other. “And the family that bought [the house] thought it could have been an issue, but they overcame it because they loved the whole house so much.”

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