3 Experts Share Their Tips for Designing the Perfect Second Home

Last month, the SPACES virtual event “Designing the Perfect Second Home” brought together three expert designers to discuss their experiences designing and building second homes. The conversation covered the latest second home design trends, tips for prospective second homeowners, and how clients’ thinking on second homes has changed in recent years.

The panels were: Chicago-based designer Mick De Giulio, well-known for his award-winning kitchens; Texas-based designer Donna Figg, who has extensive experience designing second homes in Colorado; and Jeff Hadley, whose family firm, Hadley General Contractors, oversees luxury building and remodels in Marin County.

Watch the full video of the event here:

Here are a few thoughts the panelists shared in response to questions from the audience and from moderator Liz Logan, the editor-in-chief of SPACES. 

How are clients thinking about their second homes differently than their primary homes?

second home modern stairway
The modern art and dramatic light fixtures in this second home designed by Donna Figg are an example of the boldness that can be brought to second homes, where, design-wise, homeowners feel more comfortable taking an adventurous approach. Photo courtesy of Donna Figg Design. 

Designing and building a second home is very different from a primary home, the panelists agreed. In their second homes, people “feel like they can be more creative and really express themselves more,” De Giulio observed. “Second homes tend to be more informal and open.” He described designing one particularly avant-garde home, in which the expansive foyer could be turned into a dining room. 

That kind of openness is particularly important because second homes are often multi-generational gathering places for families. “A second home starts as a basecamp for the many activities a family can share together. Second homes should be a place to rejuvenate, and also a second home should serve as a landing pad,” Figg added.

What design trends are you seeing in new second homes?

de giulio kitchen living area
In this open-plan kitchen designed by Mick De Giulio, the living area blends seamlessly with the cooking and eating area—so, the space is perfect for entertaining large groups. Photo courtesy of De Giulio Kitchen Design. 
de giulio kitchen back
Behind the main entertaining kitchen is a smaller, more hidden kitchen area where the messy work of preparing food can be kept away from guests. The oven is accessible from both sides. Photo courtesy of De Giulio Kitchen Design. 

One big trend is open floorplans, with more shared, informal space, De Giulio said. He shared photos of a home he worked on in the Hamptons in which the kitchen merged seamlessly with the living room, creating a communal cooking, eating and living space where the whole family can gather. What some call a “messy kitchen” is cleverly hidden behind the entertaining kitchen. De Giulio often refers to these kinds of kitchens as “layered.”

hadley glass wall
Seamless glass walls like this are in vogue for new second homes, says Jeff Hadley, whose firm build this home, but he warns that they can be incredibly costly to build. Photo courtesy of Hadley General Contractors. 

Hadley showed a few examples of window walls and big sliding glass doors that have been popular lately, especially in warmer climates. Indoor-outdoor living is paramount, but he warned that clients can be blindsided by the expense that comes with building large glass walls.

How has pandemic affected demand for second homes?

The height of quarantine was a time for people to reassess their priorities, and many decided they wanted to spend less time in the city and more time in relaxed areas with family and friends, which lead to a sharp rise in demand for second homes. “And we don’t see it slowing down,” Figg says. “People are more focused on spending more quality time together.”

Even among those who already had second homes, the pandemic shifted priorities, Hadley says. Since the start of COVID, he’s seen more demand for home offices and home gyms, as people adjust to spending more time at a secondary residence.

What advice do you have for people embarking on second home projects?

hadley glass doors
Adding structural support in large glass features can partially interrupt vacation-home views, but is sometimes a cost-effective way to renovate older homes. Photo courtesy of Hadley General Contractors.

When building a second home, Hadley talked about designers, architects and builders collaborating early-on in the process, to avoid getting stuck with overly ambitious designs that ultimately end up being too expensive. 

Figg has helped her clients select dramatic art and eye-catching light fixtures that make a strong impression in their second homes. The bottom line, she says, is “do something unexpected.”

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RB Smith is a freelance writer who was born in Chicago and raised in St. Louis. He has worked for The Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon and The Nome Nugget in Nome, Alaska.