Stuff You Can Live With

New, New ThingsInternational Builder’s Show Offers a Million Square Feet of Stuff You Can Live With

By Rosanne Dunkelberger

The annual International Builder’s Show is big – really, really big.

It’s so big, in fact, that Orlando is one of the only cities in America with enough convention center space to hold its 1,900 exhibitors and one million square feet of exhibition space; so big that the television stations advise the locals to take another route so they can bypass the 100,000 people converging to attend the four-day event in February; so big you can run yourself ragged for three days straight and still not come close to seeing it all.

I should know. I was there for three days. I did not come close to seeing it all.

While the event includes educational seminars,  “state of the profession” reports from the sponsor, the National Association of Home Builders, and the wooing of business from building professionals, it also is an opportunity for manufacturers to show off their new products – both to builders and to the media that converged on the trade show.

Some of these new, new things could revolutionize the future of home building. Others are just fanciful little tweaks in lifestyle and décor. And still others are duds that never will make it past the prototype stage. The fun is trying to figure out which is which.

Many are wildly expensive and far out of reach of the average consumer. But the common wisdom is that if a trend catches on in the high end (cases in point: stainless steel appliances, solid-surface countertops and multiple showerheads), ultimately it will make its way into the homes of the hoi polloi.

The following is just a smidge of the trends and new products to be found at the 2007 event.


The (Oil-Rubbed) Bronze Age

This finish was everywhere, especially in kitchen and bath fixtures. (You were hard-pressed to find anything in a shiny brass finish. It’s apparently way out.) One of my favorite new uses of the oil-rubbed bronze finish was in a spankin’ new suite of kitchen appliances by Jenn-Air. The look is warm and distinctive – and a lot easier to keep looking pretty than stainless steel. (At one manufacturer’s booth, there was a fellow whose job was to make his way around the display, polishing fingerprints off the stainless appliances.)

The finish will be available on gas and electric cooktops, wall ovens, warming drawers, refrigerators and dishwashers. Choose the entire appliance package, suggests Jenn-Air, or use them as accent pieces to balance the look of stainless steel or black appliances.


Environmentally Friendly Products

By far, the most frequently mentioned color at the show was “green.” We’re not referring to the verdant shade, or the making of money; the green we’re talking about relates to building practices and products that tread lightly on the Earth.

Manufacturers endlessly banged the green drum, touting their Energy Star-rated appliances, cabinets made from tapped-out rubber trees, insulations with higher and higher R values, countertops with no off-gassing, solar photovoltaic systems and on and on … .

But consumers need to do their homework and look beyond manufacturers’ claims in their quest for Earth-friendly products, according to James Hackler, who has made a life’s work out of writing about and consulting on green issues. (He walks the walk – literally. Hackler, who lives in Atlanta, doesn’t own a car.) It’s not always easy to figure out the most environmentally sound choice. Take, for example, the emergence of bamboo as an Earth-friendly flooring alternative to hardwoods. Although fast-growing and a very renewable resource, he said bamboo loses some of its appeal when one considers the environmental cost of loading the product onto a boat in China, where it is harvested and produced, and shipping it to the United States.


Goodbye, Germs

Manufacturers are hard at work making sure their products resist mold, mildew and bacteria. Amana, for one, has added Microban to the agitator and tub ring of its Traditional series top-load washer. And while Silestone’s quartz surfaces are more naturally resistant to contamination than more porous countertop materials such as granite or concrete, the European manufacturer also has added Microban to its 50-plus colors of surfaces.



The concept behind light-emitting diodes has been understood for a century, and they are widely used to illuminate everything from digital alarm clocks to traffic lights to JumboTrons. But, because they only came in red, green and blue, there wasn’t much use for LEDs in home lighting – until now. The white LED now is a reality, and the technology slowly is finding its way into home applications.

Because they don’t “burn” like a bulb, LEDs don’t waste energy as heat and, according to one manufacturer, use 85 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb and 50 percent less than fluorescent. They can last through 20 years of regular use. They’re also environmentally safe, since they contain no mercury, breakable glass or other toxic, harmful or hazardous substances.

The downside is a fairly high up-front cost for the bulbs, which, LED light manufacturers say, is more than recovered by not having to replace them as often as incandescent (which also makes them a smart choice for hard-to-reach places) and in electricity use.

At the International Builder’s Show, the LLF company was promoting a recessed LED can light that can be retrofitted into the standard 6-inch hole for a spotlight or floodlight simply by screwing the light into the existing socket and giving the housing a one-quarter turn.

Progress Lighting was showing a limited line of LED lighting, including can lights, accent lights and glass pendant fixtures.



From ovens to refrigerators, home entertainment systems and washer/dryers – even in the shower – it seems as though appliances all are sporting LCD displays that can be activated with a touch or a remote control.


Now We’re Cooking!

The array of features and styles for stoves, ovens and cooktops boggled my mind. I don’t think I ever will be able to keep all the steamers, inductions, convections and touch displays straight. Some of the innovations are revolutionary, such as Turbochef’s Speedcook double oven.

The bottom oven is a traditional convection oven, but the top has a colorful retro look and a modern technology that forces heated air at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, along with the judicious use of microwaves to cook foods up to 15 times faster. God’s honest truth, I ate a delicious hazelnut croissant that baked in two minutes. A 12-pound turkey, they claim, will be done in 42 minutes.

While the pricey ($7,500) Speedcook’s look includes traditional knobs, it also incorporates an LCD display that allows you to access preprogrammed recipes that can be activated with a few touches on the screen. No worries about converting traditional cook times to accommodate the faster cook speeds – the oven does it for you.

In fact, most of the high-end ovens with the new technologies had some sort of “smart” feature with cooking times programmed into the oven and/or a “favorites” feature that allows the cook to recall the settings for frequently cooked meals.

Other oven improvements are notable for their “Why didn’t somebody think of that sooner?” simplicity. For example, Amana has designed a rack with a notch in the center that makes it easy to get a grip on a flat pan when taking it out of the oven. (I have some scarred knuckles from trying to wrestle out a recalcitrant pizza stone).



OK, so this is an old, old thing, but it is being recast in some new ways.

Concrete was in the spotlight at the New American Home 2007, a house built specifically for the show to demonstrate the innovative use of materials, building techniques and cutting-edge design.

The exterior of the three-story contemporary Craftsman-style home was constructed with pre-cast insulated concrete walls. Covered with stucco and clapboard siding, you really can’t tell from the outside that the home is concrete, although several of the interior walls were left exposed and given a multicolored acid wash for a beautiful effect.

One booth drawing a lot of attention was offering a machine and other equipment that could stain and polish concrete, with the exposed stones within the material. While the concrete polishing technique has been available for large commercial projects for a while, the smaller machine makes it possible to do the same thing in the home for flooring or countertops.


Bringing the Hotel Home

A generation of women have joined the work force and many have jobs that require them to travel, exposing them to the amenities available in luxury hotels. At a press briefing on home trends, Better Homes and Gardens editor in chief Gayle Butler said women are “coming back from travel with ideas” to incorporate into their homes, most notably the spa bath.

And manufacturers have come up with myriad ways for homeowners to scratch the itch for an indulgent bathroom experience.

It can be as simple as adding an Inspirations by Moen’s curved shower rod, which gives you 6 inches more elbow room in the shower. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to install and fits a standard tub enclosure. Although it doesn’t have much to do with spa baths, manufacturers such as Moen are creating grab bars in stylish looks and finishes (including oil-rubbed bronze!), that aren’t as institutional looking as before.

Also, Moen has created a new installation system for the bars that can support significant amounts of weight without being screwed into a wall stud, making them appropriate for a retrofit.

To be sure, there is as much luxe available for the bathroom as you can fit in your space or afford.

For a few years now, Kohler has offered the sok, an overflowing tub that immerses the bather up to his or her shoulders and caresses with effervescent bubbles and an optional “chromatherapy” light show in the water. This pleasure now is available in a two-person version that stretches 84 inches long.

Want more? Stay tuned for MTI Whirlpool’s Stereo H2O, an invisible audio system that turns most of the company’s tubs into a “magnificent sounding board.” It will be introduced in May.

This is the company that also brings you aromatherapy tubs, at-home pedicure foot-soaking tubs, and special jetted tubs to pamper your laundry and your pets.

Every manufacturer offers some sort of showering system that combines rainfall heads with handhelds, jets and body sprays. Delta has versions that can be hooked up to standard plumbing and are easily retrofitted into existing bathrooms, but the most decadent versions can use up to 18 gallons of water per minute, requiring extra-large water lines and two tankless water heaters.

Jacuzzi, best known for its whirlpool baths, has created a pair of products that aim to “(transform) the everyday bathroom into a pampering, luxurious at-home spa.” One is a towel-warming drawer, designed to keep up to four towels at a toasty 120 degrees. The other is the Refresh Personal Hygiene System, a remote-controlled toilet seat that features a seat heater, bidet-like front-and-back water cleansing and warm-air drying.


Other Cool Things

I was totally enamored with a new product from Armstrong called Definitions. It consists of 2-by-6-foot decorative resin panels that, because they’re suspended from the ceiling by small cables, appear to “float” in a room. The panels come in 16 different looks, ranging from nearly translucent etched patterns such as leaves and dots to textures (linen, bamboo and grass) and colors. They create a very modern loft-like look and would work well as room dividers or privacy screens for windows.

Brizo has a new hands-free faucet that is smart enough to earn a name – “Pascal.” Your “personal assistant” in the kitchen, Pascal has sensors that turn the water off and on when you place your hands underneath or with a quick touch of your fingertip.

When kitchen designers talk about integration, it means the appliances are unobtrusive, blending in with, or even being faced with, the cabinetry. Dishwashers can look pretty seamless with the cabinets, but refrigerators protrude ever so slightly to accommodate the door hinges.

Until now.

An interior hinge on Thermidor and Bosch models makes it so that the refrigerator is flat, flat, flat against the cabinets and, except for the door handles, you wouldn’t even know it was there. It’s a very European look. Bosch’s Integra units come in different widths (18, 24 and 30 inches) and different types of units (refrigerators, freezers, wine coolers and bottom freezers) so you can get just as much appliance as you need and put it right where you need it.

Amana is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its Radarange. Microwaves never did replace the traditional oven as was originally predicted, but they’ve certainly become a ubiquitous part of every kitchen.

One of the latest innovations is Sharp Electronic’s microwave drawer. In one version, the drawer unit is built-in underneath a glass cooktop (priced from $1690), another incorporates the drawer microwave, cooktop and a traditional stove into one unit (prices start at $1,900).

The new look in wood flooring is old fashioned – rough-hewn and distressed. HomerWood Hardwood Flooring is offering its Amish Hand-Scraped Collection that is just what the name implies – planks created individually, by hand, by Amish craftsmen. (Another manufacturer offers a less virtuous version of the scraped floor that’s handmade by prison inmates in North Carolina.)

I’ve always liked the look and the wide-open interior of a French refrigerator – with the big freezer drawer on the bottom and the double doors on top. But I’m just not willing to give up the ice-in-the-door option that a side-by-side offers.
Now, Maytag is offering the best of both in its Ice2O refrigerator (LG has a version of this fridge too). It’s got the freezer down below and the ice up top, along with crankable Elevator shelves and a drawer wide enough to accommodate a deli tray.