Packing a Whole Lot More Into Less

By Katherine Salant
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 31, 2009

LAS VEGAS -- If recession-strapped house hunters really do want smaller homes on smaller lots, what can builders offer them?

At the International Builders Show last week, two show houses demonstrated very different possibilities. But the houses had some similarities: Both were constructed in sections in a modular factory, trucked to Las Vegas and assembled at the convention center there. And both emphasized environmentally conscious building techniques and materials.

Builder magazine's LivingHome is a spare modernist-style house designed by KieranTimberlake, a nationally acclaimed architecture firm based in Philadelphia that is known for its innovative residential design and off-site fabricated housing.

Practicality, a top concern for most homeowners, was seemingly not high on the list for those involved with the house. The LivingHome demonstrates edgy design and green construction, but it fails the "prosaic detail" test, lacking mundane features most homeowners expect, such as closets.

The second show house, NextGen's Urban Living, is a traditionally styled model designed by Roberto Kritzer, an architect with more than 25 years of experience designing homes for production builders and the average home buyer. Kritzer works for Champion Homes of Michigan, the largest modular home builder in the country.

The house, meant to show what can be built on a small urban in-fill lot, has the details of everyday life down pat, but innovative design was not a priority; the house is squarely in the conventional mode.

Small but Spacious

From the outside, Builder's LivingHome is best described as a modernist box with a flat roof and nearly flat exterior walls.

Inside, there's 2,466 square feet of space when the unfinished third bedroom is included, about the same floor area in the conventional, two-story, four-bedroom houses that dot suburbs all over the country. However, the show house constructed on the Las Vegas convention center floor does not resemble that archetype.

Fifty-four feet long and 20 feet wide, with the unfinished bedroom projecting out the back, the LivingHome looks small when viewed from the front. But inside, the main living area, which runs the width of the house, is surprisingly spacious and lively.

A deep sage green wall at the far end of the room pulls you in visually. There are floor-to-ceiling windows on three walls plus a 16-foot-long band of sliding glass doors that flood the space with daylight. The U-shaped kitchen is a study in chrome, gray and black, set off from the rest of the room by its lowered ceiling. The elaborate stainless steel hood over the range is definitely not a builder-grade Brand X.

The see-through staircase to the second floor has floating treads -- there are no risers so the two-inch thick treads appear to hover in the air -- and the area beneath the stainless steel railing is enclosed with ½-inch diameter horizontal stainless rods instead of the usual vertical stair pickets.

The other rooms include a first-floor bonus room and three bedrooms on the second floor. The space below the unfinished bedroom on the second floor, also unfinished, is intended to be a carport.

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