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5 New Home Trends

From its framing to its appliances, the American home is being reinvented. Here are five trends to watch. The revenge of the building scientist may be at hand. Plying a complex trade, these experts on the inner workings of the American home have never had much luck in getting the public at large excited about what they do, but James and Delores Williams could help change that. The Atlanta couple will spend only about $300 a year to heat and cool their new house. Designed as a whole-house system instead of a collection of unrelated parts, the house looks conventional but represents the best of what's ahead for residential construction. "One of the big things we promote is the concept of systems thinking, that is, thinking of the house as a system," says Mark Newey of the Southface Energy Institute, one of several organizations involved in the design of the Williams' new house. "That's something that's destined to be the future of home building, because it only makes sense." Energy-efficient mechanical systems and appliances and a wider use of engineered wood products are keys to the performance of the demonstration I Have a Dream House, which the Williamses eventually purchased. Its recycled carpets give off low doses of volatile organic compounds, and its plastic decking only looks like wood. Walls, roof and floors are structural, insulated panels instead of assemblies nailed together on the site. "People say, "Why do we have to do this? People built homes for thousands of years. Why all of a sudden do we have to learn building science?'" Newey says. "The reason is that we're demanding a lot more out of homes than we ever used to." Not everyone will build a house like this, but the technology has arrived. In the short term - the next five to 10 years - the thinking that went into it is likely to gain wider circulation, even in houses that do not meet all of its performance or design standards. Building components are increasingly sophisticated. Solid wood lumber in everything from floors to roofs is being replaced by engineered products. Wiring is being upgraded to handle high-speed Internet access and home entertainment systems. Kitchen appliances are both smarter and more energy efficient. Still, there's a catch. Even as these newer building components filter into mainstream construction, American homebuyers still haven't lost their appetite for super-sizing. They may demand low-maintenance houses that are easier to heat and cool, but at least at the moment, they're not interested in giving up square footage to get it. So, what can we expect to see in the near future? Here are the trends in some key areas. Design: Bigger all the time Architect Sarah Susanka's acclaimed book The Not So Big House made a compelling case for smaller, more thoughtfully designed houses. Her frontal attack on bloated trophy houses became a bestseller soon after its 1998 publication. But is anyone really listening? Case in point: this year's New American Home, a showcase house built to coincide with the National Association of Home Builders' annual convention in Atlanta. A sprawling mix of Georgia and Caribbean architecture, the house covers more than 6,400 square feet. Plans include a craft room, home office, massage zone, billiard room, a wine bar and recycling center. "I used to be considered a small-house specialist," says project architect Melanie Taylor. "It just seems like the wish-list house is getting larger and larger and larger with more specialized rooms." Statistics gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau show the average new home is far more modest than that but getting bigger. In 1987, the average new house was 1,905 square feet. By 2000 it had grown nearly 20 percent, to 2,273 square feet. Only 6 percent of new housing units were 1,200 square feet or less, about half the number reported in 1987. What is smaller is the size of the lot. On average, it dropped from 17,600 square feet to 12,910 square feet. "Baby-boomer retirees are used to buying more elaborately," says real estate development and marketing consultant Chris Parker. "They're used to having more services. They grew up with more mobility in their jobs and their lives, so they're more apt to move and purchase a new home. When they do purchase, they tend to buy all the frills." Parker sees the trend toward larger, more elaborate houses and rental units whenever he travels. "They're going to have a huge impact not only on purchasing in general in the United States but in particular in the new home business," he says of the post-war generation. "They want bigger homes." Many of the houses that Jim Wentling's Philadelphia-based architectural firm designs are 2,500 square feet or less. But Wentling also sees more pressure from buyers for big houses. "It's the bipolar nature of the American psyche," he says. "We are continuing to move to more and more square footage per capita. It's not a good trend, but that's the reality of what's happening. That's what people seem to want to do. They should do the opposite, but they're not." Wentling, whose firm operates in a dozen Eastern states, says some communities discourage small houses because they bring in fewer tax dollars. Builders find it more difficult to build small houses profitably, he adds, so they are happy to accommodate demands for larger houses from a growing class of affluent buyers. So great is the desire for more room, Wentling says, that it may come at the expense of sound building practices. "We see the builders trying to skimp on some of the basic things," he says. "Houses that were built 50 years ago were made to last 100, 150 years, and I don't think we're doing that anymore. We're trying to make the 30-year mortgage the life that we're trying to achieve." Taylor concedes that bigger houses cost more, and that not everyone can afford large custom homes at $150 to $200 per square foot. She suggests the high cost of custom construction will push more first-time buyers into existing houses that can be renovated or into less costly modular housing. The forecast: Look for more square footage, expensive detailing in kitchens and baths and more specialized spaces like home offices, spas and kids' spaces. The Building Envelope: More engineered materials Even a generation ago, many single-family houses were made almost exclusively from solid wood: studs, joists and rafters were milled from softwoods like fir, spruce, pine or hemlock. Typically, one of the few manufactured wood products was the exterior-grade plywood used for wall sheathing, subfloors and roof decks or the particleboard used as a substrate for laminate kitchen countertops. That's ancient history. Plywood is giving way to oriented strand board (OSB) sheathing and an avalanche of other engineered wood products, the name given to a family of products made from a mix of natural and synthetic ingredients. A growing list of other building materials - from roofing to siding and flooring - are now assembled in factories rather than forests. Few traditional materials are exempt. An early innovation was the wood I-joist, now a mainstay of modern floor systems. I-joists consist of webs made from an OSB-like material of wood chips and resin plus top and bottom chords of either sawn or laminated lumber. Light, strong and dimensionally stable, they use as much as two-thirds less lumber than conventional joists with better performance. A variety of other structural building materials - parallel strand lumber, laminated veneer lumber and laminated strand lumber - also combine once-overlooked species of wood fiber and modern adhesives and resins. Open-web floor and roof trusses, while made from sawn lumber, also use less material than conventional framing lumber. "Most builders won't switch back to commodity lumber because it's such a pain in the rear to work with," says Dan Harris of Trus Joist, which pioneered the I-joist. "Most of the wood being harvested today is juvenile lumber. It's got wider growth rings, the cell structure is larger, and it's not as strong. It has a tendency to warp and twist and cup significantly, and it just makes for crappy floors." Ten years ago, Harris says, engineered products like I-joists were reserved for the high end of the market. Times have changed. "It's on fire," he says. "It's become almost an every-man's product line now, and companies are jumping on the bandwagon to make similar products." Engineered materials can now take the place of headers, beams, rafters and rim joists. Harris says the "new frontier" is for wall systems, still mostly nailed together from solid-wood studs and plates. Engineered studs are straighter and available in longer lengths. Nor is the trend limited to hidden structural parts. Siding once milled from clear grades of cedar or redwood is now made from engineered wood, vinyl or a mix of wood fibers and cement. Some of it looks nearly the same as the natural materials it replaces, but some of it will last longer than the original with less maintenance. Window frames made from extruded vinyl took off in the '90s, offering no-maintenance exteriors and thermal performance equal to or better than wood. Now manufacturers are beginning to embrace extruded cellular PVC, fiberglass, or wood and resin composites. The materials give consumers a wood look, and unlike vinyl, it can be stained or painted. Ditto for exterior trim, railings and posts. Synthetic versions may look like painted wood, but underneath it could be engineered or finger-jointed wood or even molded foam. The forecast: As stocks of top-quality lumber continue to dwindle, expect a greater reliance on engineered structural products and man-made look-alikes. Windows: Not just for looking through When first introduced, double-glazed windows were a breakthrough. They cut heat loss substantially and made houses less drafty. Then came low-E coatings, very thin layers of metal oxide or semiconductor films capable of reflecting heat back into the room during heating season and reducing heat gain during the summer. Now windows are sophisticated layers of glass, low-E coatings and inert gas all packaged in a frame with fewer thermal leaks than ever before. Among other advances cited by the Department of Energy are spectrally selective coatings, which filter from 40 to 70 percent of the heat normally transmitted through glass without cutting down on the amount of light that gets through. Around the corner are what the department calls "super windows" that use a variety of these technologies to achieve a center-of-glass R-value of 8 or 9. That's very close to the R-11 provided by typical fiberglass batt insulation not too long ago, although thermal losses around the edge of the window and through the frames reduces overall thermal performance to R-4 or R-5. Manufacturers also are tinkering with what they call chromogenic windows, whose properties can change, either automatically or on demand. When sunlight becomes too strong, for example, a photochromic window can alter its own light transmittance properties to help keep buildings cooler and reduce the load on cooling equipment. The DOE expects that within five years consumers will be able to buy electrochromic windows, which use a small electric current to alter light-transmitting characteristics on demand. (For more on these "smart windows," read "Seeing the Future Clearly" in our March/April issue.) In the meantime, Pilkington has a more down-to-earth innovation, whose advantages are a lot easier to understand: window glass that cleans itself. A special surface on the company's Activ glass reacts with ultraviolet radiation to break down, loosen and dissolve dirt and residue. Rain, or water from a hose, carries the junk away. Pilkington, which makes glass for manufacturers who produce completed window units, says the process virtually eliminates the need for window washing. The coating is color neutral and won't wear off. The forecast: Continued improvements in thermal performance. Glazing will be adjustable to allow more control over light and heat. Appliances: The 27-minute factor Kitchen appliances are getting faster and smarter. Pricey commercial-style ranges - the stainless-steel Vikings and Wolfs - are now ordinary fixtures in many upscale kitchens. Some homes also may have kitchen amenities like pizza ovens or wood-fired grills for leisurely weekends. What about the rest of the week? According to one survey, if a meal can't be cooked in 27 minutes, most cooks won't bother. So the appliance industry also is turning out a new generation of ovens, ranges and microwaves that allow cooks to put food on the table in the blink of an eye. GE's Advantium oven, for example, uses halogen lights and microwave technology to cook food eight times faster than a conventional oven, the company says, "with oven-quality results." Baked potatoes are ready to go in 10 minutes. A whole chicken? Twenty minutes. "Most busy consumers do not think about what they're going to have for supper until about 4:30 in the afternoon," says GE's Terry Dunn. "They want to come home and they want an oven-quality meal without having to take it out of a box or pick it up at a restaurant." Cooks with even less time in the afternoon might take a look at the Polara, a Whirlpool appliance that combines a range and a refrigerator. Throw a chicken in the oven the night before and program the device to cook it the next day. The Polara will keep the chicken safely chilled until it's time to cook it. Unexpectedly tied up at the office? No problem. The Polara keeps the food warm for an hour after its designated stop time, then switches back to a refrigeration mode if you're still not home. In addition, many new appliances are equipped with electronic brains that make them easier, safer or more convenient to use. Dishwashers, for example, can tell how dirty the dishes really are by checking the clarity of the wash water, then they adjust water temperature or wash times. One manufacturer's electric range senses the size of the pan that has been placed on the burner and then matches heat output to it. If the cook is distracted and removes the pan without turning off the burner, the stove takes care of it automatically. Tell the washing machine it's loaded with "whites" and walk away. Microchips do the rest. "All of our major appliances use electronics - motherboards, chips, all that kind of good stuff - that enable them to provide more functionality and operate in some cases quieter, more energy efficiently," Dunn says. "They're all smart. All of them." If appliances are more capable than ever before, they also use less energy. Manufacturers have been spurred by the government's Energy Star program, which sets energy-consumption standards. On a per-household basis, energy consumption was 27 percent lower in 1997 than it was in 1978, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Whirlpool boasts that its Conquest refrigerator, for instance, uses less electricity than a 75-watt light bulb. The next frontier is tying appliances to the Internet. Later this year, Whirlpool will begin selling Web-enabled appliances, as they are called, that can be controlled through a portable electronic tablet parked on the refrigerator door (GE has something similar). Initially, the device will be able to communicate with the dishwasher, the stove and the microwave, says Kathy Hayes of Whirlpool, with other appliances added later. The tablet can be used to program some appliance functions - such as start and stop times on the oven or dishwasher. "Mom doesn't have to disconnect herself from the family when she wants to take care of managing the home," Hayes says. "So if she's trying to look for recipes, she doesn't have to leave the kids unattended and move into the den and boot up the computer and look for recipes. She can take the Web tablet with her, still be supervising the kids and still be doing the things she needs to do -- If she's entertaining out on the patio, she doesn't have to run back inside and see if the lasagna is done baking in the oven. She simply picks up the Web tablet." In addition, Hayes says, the device can be used as a family message center and for general access to the Web or email. It communicates with the Web via a gateway device elsewhere in the house, which also can be connected with a PC, making remote access to appliances or the home calendar possible. A broadband connection will be required. In the future, expect voice-activated commands. Whirlpool isn't yet saying how much the system will cost. The forecast: Less energy use, more convenient features and Web access to help manage appliance functions remotely. Technology: Wired for the Web Wiring a house used to mean pulling several hundred feet of plastic-coated wire and installing receptacles and switches. It took skill, but it wasn't rocket science. Growing numbers of homeowners want a lot more than that. A thirst for high-speed Internet access, increased telecommuting and smart-home technology have created a need for sophisticated wiring and a new generation of specialists to install it. Structured wiring - the name given to bundles of high-capacity telephone, cable and sometimes fiber-optic cabling - is now common in new construction. The wiring allows homeowners to move computers and other equipment from one room to another or connect computers in a local area network without the hassle of rewiring. Upscale houses also may include home theaters and central controllers that distribute audio and video signals around the house and control heating and ventilation equipment. Sensing devices that monitor temperature, humidity, lighting, security and even water leaks can be plugged into the Web, allowing absent homeowners to check the home front remotely. Fretting whether the kids are having a wild party while you're out of town? Sign on your Web page and check it out. "That's not a fad," Wentling says of the structured wiring that makes all of this possible. "That's reality." He says some builders he's worked with install structured wiring in houses selling for as little as $130,000. Roughly one-third of the nation's builders now offer structured wiring as standard or an option on new housing. "The changes are already starting," says Kenneth Wacks, a consultant to a residential demonstration project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called House_n. (The "n" represents an infinite variable, suggesting that the house of the future is open to new interpretations.) "I would say about two years ago builders started to take the demands of buyers fairly seriously in terms of equipping the buildings to support Internet access." People were having trouble linking multiple computers in their homes. Old-fashioned wiring was not only buried in the walls and inaccessible once the house was finished, but it wouldn't handle high-speed data and local computer networks anyway. "Structured wiring is being motivated by something [homeowners] know they want," Wacks says. "Namely, they know they want to network their computer equipment together. They know they want to have very sophisticated media rooms and extend it to other parts of the house. So it's pretty classic in marketing that needs and benefits drive market formation." Some of those working in the industry suggest that whole-house monitoring systems accessible over the Web could be used to save energy. Electric utilities given limited remote access could control settings on water heaters, air conditioners and other appliances during periods of very high demand. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society have such a monitoring project underway. They estimate that equipping buildings with a network of small sensors called Smartdust Motes could save the state between $7 billion and $8 billion a year in energy costs. The forecast: As demand for high-speed Internet access gathers momentum, builders offer structured wiring even in starter homes, and electrical contractors respond with more specialized services.