Be It Ever So Humble?

Be It Ever  So Humble …… There’s No Place Like Home, Especially When Previewing Products at the International Builders’ Show

By Elizabeth Goldsmith

Green and steamy.
No, I wasn’t transported into the heart of the Amazon jungle. But those were two words I heard a lot in February at the International Builders’ Show in Orlando, a massive annual exposition created to show builders what to expect in model homes and stores and how to entice wallet-conscious consumers.

No doubt about it, the slow economy is affecting the new housing and remodeling market. But that didn’t stop most manufacturers and 92,000 participants from thronging the Orange County Convention Center – and much of the talk centered around environmentally friendly, “green” building practices and products and a variety of appliances that employed the cleaning power of steam.

The show always includes talks on trends, and Dan McGinn, a writer for Newsweek magazine and author of “House Lust,” says there will continue to be a desire for homes that are new and customized. When it comes to housing, “some aspects are transcendent and will sustain even though times are tough,” he says. “People with good incomes can still get a mortgage and finance a home.”

Television shows on cable networks such as HGTV “have become a cultural force, like fashion magazines,” McGinn says. Being from the East, he says he is used to the idea of remodeling and living in older homes, but he noticed in his book interviews that, for many people, having a new home is important to feeling “totally fulfilled.” The title of his book refers to that home image problem some homeowners have in which they feel dissatisfied and seek the perfection they see on HGTV.

The top-of-the-line-type perfection also could be seen on the exhibit hall floor, where everything is shining and displayed to the best advantage. Throughout the hall, hammers were pounding, drills whirring and oven doors opening and shutting. Builders entering the exhibit hall immediately were faced with a Kohler-sponsored “Cirque du Soleil”-type stage show. An exhibitor told me that after figuring in design, construction, transport and rental costs, his display cost more than $3 million.

According to a 2008 consumer research study by Better Homes and Gardens, a separate, convenient and sizable laundry workroom is one of the top five priorities in buying a new home or remodeling a current home. The other priorities involve new kitchens that look great and are fun to work in, the right amount and type of storage, a master suite that feels like a luxurious hotel room, and well-designed spaces that can be personalized.

“What we’ve discovered is that home continues to be our emotional center and the sweet spot of everyday life,” says Gayle Butler, editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens.

“Economic uncertainty aside, we won’t stop spending, improving and dreaming when it comes to home.”

Green All Over
The theme of the show was green and sustainability. Although this is nothing new, this was the first time in an international show of this size that it was clearly evident builders are taking this seriously across all product lines – from foundations to roofing. The trend, evident in coastal communities such as the sustainable Alys Beach on Scenic 30A, is to offer entire subdivisions with green certifications.

Research by Energy Pulse, a forum for power industry professionals, reveals that environmentally conscious sorts – who they call “greens” – don’t want to own the only house on the block with solar panels. They want to have “greens” as neighbors. In these new-generation neighborhoods, all the homes will have energy-saving building materials – and not just as options, as has often been the case in the past.

At the show, GE launched an ecomagination Homebuilder Program with a panel of builders from Florida, South Carolina and Texas. The homes are a bit more expensive to build (some estimate $12,000 to $16,000 more per home), but they use 20 percent less energy and water, so in the long run the homes will be more cost-efficient and better for the environment.

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman describes these types of homes as “high-performance homes.” At the show, he announced the Energy-Smart Home Scale, or E-Scale, which compares homes’ energy performance.

About Appliances
The new buzz word is “steam.” Steam was used in dryers from Whirlpool and Maytag to remove wrinkles, in dishwashers from Jenn-Air and Maytag, and in ovens from KitchenAid. The oven steam function is for light cleaning. Lock the oven door, push the steam button and then, when the cycle is done, and it is safe, the oven door can be opened so you can sponge down the walls.

Tired of white, black and stainless appliances? By summer, watch for classic red and racing green-colored washers and dryers. Prefer subtle? How about oxide? It’s a gray shade with brown in it.

The laundry is the action room. Front-loaders are hot, claiming 35 percent of the market of new sales compared to 10 percent a couple years ago. Their popularity has brought prices down. Amana is offering front washers for $599 and dryers for $549 (pedestals not included).

Creating a Dream
Jack Thomasson produces the HGTV Dream Home, the centerpiece of HGTV’s annual Dream Home Giveaway. “It sounds simple, but each year I look for what would be a dream home, and what the dream is keeps changing,” he says. One of his guidelines is that the house fits the location, so this year’s Florida Keys home was totally different from his previous Lake Lure, N.C., and Colorado mountain homes.

With the sluggish economy, some exhibitors chose not to come, but most of the famous American brands did, joined full force by Chinese makers of building materials and high-end German appliance makers such as Gaggenau, Miele and Bosch.

Seeking to appeal to younger buyers with a taste for life’s finer things, Gaggenau offers a “First Professionals” package of five stainless steel appliances for $15,000. Pricey, to be sure, but 23 percent less than their higher-end set. The outfit includes a 30-inch-wide convection oven, a 36-inch-wide refrigerator with bottom freezer, a dishwasher and a glass ceramic or gas cooktop with matching hood. A matching microwave oven is available as an option.

Rather than the imposing large cooktop vent hoods that are an upscale kitchen favorite, Miele’s Jet Vent Hood is extremely powerful in a slim, sleek form that pops out when you need it and retracts when you don’t. Designers like the way it looks more like a lighting fixture than a vent hood. They also like the MasterCool, a refrigerator with no exposed hinges or ventilation that allows it to fit flush with surrounding cabinetry for a beautiful look. Inside, the design lighting system illuminates every corner and provides a clear, bright white light.

Miele’s dryers include a patented Honeycomb Drum pattern proven in independent tests to help clothes last four times longer. Instead of the usual little holes inside a conventional dryer, which can snag clothes, this pattern with small bumps is gentler. Miele is known for its washers and dryers in Europe, but U.S. customers are more familiar with its high-end dishwashers.

Stainless steel continues as the leading upscale finish, and most manufacturers, including Bosch, offer a fingerprint-free finish. Also popular – and now at a lower price – are the French-door refrigerators with water and ice in the door and the freezer on the bottom.

Trend Report
On the floor, much was going on of a construction or exterior nature. Architectural stone veneer by Eldorado Stone adds texture and character to front exteriors and backyard outdoor kitchens. Archways, planters and fireplaces were shown in every color combination imaginable. Adding stone to brick or to cement-based siding adds character, and there is a decided trend to use more stone in homes’ interiors and exteriors.

In cabinetry, Angela O’Neill of Wellborn says that “maple is dominant and still growing, and reeded glass in the doors is second to clear glass.” If oak is used, it has a straight grain, as seen in Wellborn’s light and smooth Milan Oak cabinets. To personalize the kitchen, creative mixing of woods continues, with upper cabinets made of light oak and bottom with darker maple.

“In our family of accent paint, black is No. 1, often used for the island,” O’Neill says. Stark white cabinets are not completely out, but they are more muted, with a worn, antique look.

In wood floors, the hand-scraped dark wood floors highlighted in the HGTV Dream Home are popular, according to Lumber Liquidators. The standard in most homes is 2¼-inch red oak, so to be different, consider Brazilian cherry or walnut.

Want to be really different? Kohler, always a leader in design, is offering a square toilet.

The Asian influence in vanities is evident. A whole powder room can be redone in high style for less than $1,000. That would include a new toilet, a vanity with drawers or cabinet, and a mirrored medicine cabinet on top inset deep enough to hold toilet paper rolls – providing more storage in the powder room than the conventional pedestal sink and flat mirror.

Another new trend is “hydrotherapy” showers with features such as temperatures you can set while you’re outside (most folks prefer 100 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit) and water jets everywhere. The idea is to have a luxurious shower experience as part of your daily routine rather than just relaxing once a week or so in the soaking tub.

Carson Looney of Looney Ricks Kiss Architects has joined forces with Haven Custom Homes to offer more-modular home designs in the eastern United States. Modular design can save on energy and the environment by having plumbing, walls and nearly everything else done in a factory and then moved on site for final assembly. This approach also provides quality control and economies of scale.

Improvements are being made beneath the surface. LP Building Products introduced 80 new products at the show. Rick Frost, the CEO of LP, says that “builders are demanding products that are easy to install, and green building and energy efficiency are on everyone’s mind.” LP Building Products is shifting to more easily replaced younger trees and focusing on enhancing curb appeal with its exterior cladding trim in the LP Smartside line. Frost talked about the importance of products such as LP Topnotch sub-flooring, which offers more than the usual 10-year warranties. Now is the time to expect better products and warranties.

Inside, there still is room for a little luxury, as evidenced by what builders dubbed the “Barbie dressing suite” by Wellborn. This would be perfect for a girl’s fantasy bathroom. It featured vanilla-painted, furniture-like cabinets with crystal handles, soft specialty lighting and a large pink velvet-topped ottoman with sparkly trim.

The good news is that innovations continue, and appliances and overall home design are responding to how people want to live. More and more, the response will center on green solutions that save energy, conserve water and trees, and support indoor air quality. The tightening of the economy is giving those in the building industry a breather to pursue functionality versus gimmicks and to design and test-market with an eye toward high performance and lasting value.