Two Houses, Two Visions

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006

Two contrasting images of the American home of the future were on display last week at the glitzy and gargantuan annual home builders' trade show in Orlando, which drew a record 105,000 attendees, including builders, architects, interior designers, building-component salespeople -- and numerous gawking homeowners.

The showplace house that is a hallmark of the National Association of Home Builders show, dubbed the New American Home 2006, was a luxurious, sprawling place in a new suburban community several miles from the convention center. The show house is where housing-products manufacturers display the latest and greatest in home fittings and fixtures. This year was no exception, and the house featured a panoply of plush features: Side-shooting showers, two poolside fireplaces, a barbecue kitchen on the patio, room-size wood-paneled walk-in closets, a massage room, a pet alcove, four staircases, an elevator. It faced inward, like a Spanish hacienda, toward an outdoor but completely private living area overlooking the pool, where invited guests could pleasantly interact with the owners.

A sharply different portrait of the modern American lifestyle was visible outside the convention center, resting on a temporary foundation on a parking lot near the main convention building. It was a small, inexpensive cottage, simple and compact. Its little porch looked out to the street so that residents could sit on benches and interact with passersby.

The two houses spoke to different worlds, as well as different wallets.

At 7,100 square feet, the New American Home is a palatial structure that dwarves many American houses, though not as much as it once would have. Now even the houses of fairly ordinary Americans have grown markedly. In 1950, the average new single-family house was 983 square feet; in 2005, the average new house was 2,349 square feet, even as family sizes have fallen. And 39 percent of all new houses are bigger than 2,400 square feet.

"We're trying to achieve a 'wow' factor everywhere you go in the house," said Orlando-based builder Alex Hannigan, who built the New American Home. The goal in the design is creating a "sense of grandeur," said John Orgren, regional design manager for WCI Communities Inc., the architecture firm that designed it.

Lavish amenities were omnipresent on the trade-show floor, as well, where builders could find an aboveground stone-enclosed spa for $150,000 or a hydrogen-burning fireplace for $49,999.

The little yellow cottage in the parking lot was planned and built as a volunteer effort by architects, planners, home-construction companies and appliance manufacturers, led by noted architect Andres Duany. Devised after Hurricane Katrina, it was intended as a structure that could house impoverished victims of natural disasters more attractively and affordably than many other kinds of manufactured or stick-built housing. It was only 308 square feet, with one bedroom with four bunks, a 30-square-foot bath and a tiny kitchen. But a steady stream of visitors, many of whom asked where they could purchase the house themselves, made it clear that there is a strong market for such a house at a time when soaring prices have made homes unaffordable for moderate-income people in many parts of the country.

"I like to simplify my life and think about what's really necessary," said Jason Spellings of Jackson, Miss., who built the small house. "Everybody coming through wants a house like this. It struck a chord with people, and that's different than the chord an 8,000-square-foot home strikes."

The designers touted the house as a way people who are in distressed circumstances could live modestly but affordably, with hope they could one day expand it a bit, making the house a little larger, as their finances improve. Various design configurations would allow homeowners to add a room or two, raising the size to perhaps 800 square feet, or to convert the place into an in-law suite or guest cottage. It is designed to be a permanent house, not a temporary mobile home of the kind used to house people cheaply for short periods of time. Instead of wood, it is sheathed in Hardiplank fiber-cement siding, made by James Hardie Building Products Inc. Hardie's latest version of the siding offers a pre-finished surface that is guaranteed not to require repainting for 15 years.

"It's an adorable little house that everyone wanted to hug," said Marianne Casuto, the house's designer. She has designed it in a way that will allow the plan to be adapted to the local architectural styles in various regions. The pitched roof, outward-facing porch and bright yellow color were meant to be compatible with traditional Mississippi Gulf Coast architectural styles but could be adapted to local styles elsewhere. Casuto hopes builders will use the model, whose plans will be available soon, to re-create houses that fit into the local landscape rather than duplicate the bland neutrality of many suburbs.

The differences between the two houses were stark. The price of the upscale house? An estimated $5.3 million. Estimated price of the little cottage? About $25,000 to $35,000 for the structure alone, excluding foundation and land.

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