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New home products get back to basics
For the vast majority of Chicagoans, a super shower is not in their future.
For that matter, neither are a wine cellar, a walk-in refrigerator or a $250,000 lighting system.
These over-the-top fantasy features of the McMansion era seem like ancient history in light of today's economic collapse.
Today, buzzwords in the home building industry are more likely to be "low-maintenance," "high-efficiency" and "environmentally-friendly." Homeowners are increasingly drawn to down-to-earth products and materials that offer simplicity and value. And while some of these features might cost more than their traditional counterparts, they are designed to pay off in the long haul.
The installation of exotic products has slowed even in the luxury market. That will impact the spread of innovation to all new construction, because new products usually are introduced in high-end homes and then filter down to less expensive housing.
"Now people are deciding they don't need all those bells and whistles," said custom architect/builder Charles Page.
"For the last 10 years, my clients on the North Shore have been asking me, 'What more can we do?' But it's a different world now. People are deciding what they can live without," Page said.
After the economic crisis is over, what can you expect in new products?
Some answers emerged from the recent International Builders' Show, staged by the National Association of Home Builders in Las Vegas.
At the show, Kohler Co. demonstrated a high-tech shower that bathers can personalize with the touch of a button to provide music, special lighting and even steam.
Kohler also caters to those who want to save water. It claims its high-efficiency toilets save about 15,000 gallons of water annually. Kohler markets shower heads and faucets that use 30 percent less water without sacrificing performance.
One of the speakers at the show was Gayle Butler, editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. "Consumers will consider fewer luxuries in their next home," she predicted. "While consumers will continue to care deeply about character and curb appeal, an economized approach was key with 83 percent of respondents in the magazine's recent survey," Butler said.
She added that low-maintenance exteriors and landscaping will be important considerations in new homes.
"Going green" was the unofficial theme of the Builders' Show. But not everyone has the money to reduce carbon footprints.
"Builders are trying to see if green has any legs. So far, the ability of buyers to pay for green features is almost non-existent,' said Chris Shaxted, executive vice president of Lakewood Homes. He noted, though, that there has been some interest in Energy Star-rated appliances that reduce utility costs.
While few may be willing to pay for large and expensive green features, they may opt for some smaller environmentally-friendly products.
Interior decorator Helen Velas, president of Eleni Interiors in Naperville, noted that bamboo is a green material that is being used for furniture, wall panels and countertops.
Totally Bamboo displayed its products at the Builders' Show, including bamboo sinks, panels and countertops. The firm, based in San Marcos, Calif., maintains that bamboo is an alternative to vanishing hardwood resources.
"Green is very big in countertops," Velas said. "Countertops are being made from a variety of recycled materials, including paper," she said. "You can get concrete countertops in many colors. Beautiful countertops also are being made from semi-precious gem stones embedded in a resin base."
In the bathroom, she said TVs mounted in mirrors are becoming more affordable. "You can watch TV while putting on makeup or shaving. Also hot are waterfall faucets that are lighted to show the warmth of the water."
Shaxted of Lakewood Homes said the hottest trend is flat-screen TV. "Buyers are looking for places to put their flat-screen TVs. That can affect window and door placements and fireplace design and locations."
While new-home construction has stalled, the National Association of Home Builders projects that remodeling will make a comeback in 2010 because of necessary home maintenance due to aging housing stock.
A NAHB survey released in January lists the most popular remodeling jobs as kitchens, bathrooms, window/door replacements, finished basements, siding, decks and roofs.
In the kitchen, the most added features are granite countertops, industrial-grade appliances and walk-in pantries.
In baths, the most popular remodeling features are heated floors, multiple-head and steam showers and his- and-her lavatories/vanities. One product displayed at the show was the Nuheat Mat. Like an electric blanket, it promises to keep your feet warm in the bathroom.
Thin heating wires in the electric floor warming system are evenly spaced and embedded between two layers of durable fabric. The mats can be installed under tile, stone, laminate and engineered wood floors.
According to the NAHB survey, the most asked for green remodeling projects include the installation of low-e and argon gas windows, upgraded insulation, insulated exterior doors, high-energy-efficient heating and air conditioning systems, ceiling fans, water-saving faucets, programmable thermostats and high-energy-efficient kitchen appliances.
For aging-in-place, the top remodeling projects include the installation of grab bars, higher toilets, curbless showers, wider doorways, ramps and brighter lighting.
Architect Page noted that one of the popular items before the economic downturn was structured lighting. "That could add $200,000 to $250,000 to the cost of a house. It provided mood lighting in every room, and lights that turned on and off as you moved around the house." He added that wine rooms were another hot feature in upscale houses.
"Now there's more emphasis on comfortable, livable environments," he said. "People want spaces they really use. Small offices still are in demand because of the need for a computer area."
Juli Jacobs, marketing director for Jacobs Homes, agrees with Page that cutting-edge products have taken a hit from the economy. She said, "The wave of the future is back to basics. Now everything is about value and living a simpler life."