American Housing: Building with Culture in Mind

Adaptable floor plans aim to expand the American housing market and please the growing demographic of multi-cultural homebuyers.

| Spring 2016

Knowing that nearly 10,000 Vietnamese families live in Lincoln, Nebraska, I hired Andy Vu, a Vietnamese real estate agent, to represent my building company. At first, he had difficulty selling my floor plans to his countrymen, but one day, he began moving houses at an extraordinary clip. I thought that the good Vietnamese people of Lincoln had suddenly wised up and realized the value of my homes—but I was wrong.

Without telling me (to avoid offense), Vu had hired a Vietnamese remodeling contractor to adapt my homes to Vietnamese cultural tastes. For an extra $3,500, the contractor would retrofit an outdoor-vented range hood and erect walls around the kitchen so that it wouldn’t remain open to the family room. When I got wind of this, I asked Vu to make a list of all Vietnamese preferences so that we could design a plan to suit them better.

By asking around, I discovered that some other ethnic groups in Lincoln also disliked the standard North American floor plan. I arranged a series of lunches with friends from various cultures and asked them what they wanted in a house. Soon, I had a list of cultural preferences by nationality. I couldn’t design a house for each cultural group from Iraqi to Iroquois, but I could combine elements into a handful of multicultural models. 

 If the census bureau is right, immigrants and native minorities will account for half the U.S. population by the year 2050. The increasing size and affluence of North America’s multicultural community also defines the biggest growth segment for homebuilders and remodelers. According to a report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, minorities may represent nearly half of all new homebuyers in the coming decades.

In cosmopolitan areas such as Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, lenders, real estate companies, and major builders have grasped the situation and are trying to cater to this multicultural niche. Banks are setting up minority lending services, real estate firms are hiring bilingual agents, and builders are merchandizing their models for the multicultural market.

These accommodations are not motivated by fair housing laws, but rather by the realization that those who pay attention to emerging markets will thrive; those who don’t, won’t.