Packing a Whole Lot More Into Less
Show Houses Mark Shift to Small, Green

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.

Architects who see the house will marvel at the detailing around the windows and doors. The trim around the doors is inset so that the wall, the trim and the door are all in the same plane. The window frames are inset with no trim at all. The result is a tailored look that requires a highly skilled craftsman to execute.

But home buyers and builders who study the house long enough to see beyond the stunning visuals will note a dearth of pedestrian features such as closets. The only ones are in the secondary bedrooms. There is no coat closet by the front entry, none in the bonus room, which may limit its usefulness, and, most surprisingly, no closet in the master bedroom. All the hanging clothes storage is incorporated into about 10 linear feet of cabinetry along one wall.

Almost any buyer considering this house, which would cost about $740,000 if it were outfitted like Builder's LivingHome and only about $580,000 if more standard finishes were used, would insist on additional storage. This could be accomplished without increasing the floor area simply by enclosing the 10-foot-wide outdoor decks on each floor, and enclosing the stairs to capture the space below it.

"We know we did not get enough closets," Steve Glenn, president of LivingHomes, acknowledged.

Many homeowners would also object to having a powder room and laundry closet that open into a room instead of a hallway, and most would want the carport enclosed so that they could use the garage for storage. Most likely they would also want a bigger garage to accommodate two cars.

The house was built by LivingHomes, a young company from Santa Monica, Calif. That firm has focused on the tiny segment at the high end of the home-building market that includes buyers who want edgy design and extreme green. When the house is finally placed on a permanent site, it will qualify for the U.S. Green Building Council's highest rating, a platinum score on its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system.

(For more about this house, see http://www.builderlivinghome.com.)

Housing Innovation

The NextGen show house is the opposite of edgy. The house, erected in the parking lot of the convention center, aimed to demonstrate innovative products and the possibilities for "zero-lot-line" construction, when a house sits right on the edge of its lot. As with Builder's house, this one is green, has many materials with recycled content and is energy efficient.

The architectural styling is traditional and the look comfortingly familiar, although most of the materials are not what they seem. The brown shingles on the peaked roof appear to be wood, but they're actually fireproof, lightweight, pressed steel covered with stone chips. Likewise, the lapped siding looks like wood, but is made of fiber cement.

The interior is similarly traditional in its look, but some of the materials are the real deal. The paneled doors throughout the house are stained birch and much heavier than those used by most production home builders -- you can feel the difference whether you're opening a closet or the front door.

NextGen, a division of iShow.com, commissions houses for trade fairs that showcase building materials and construction techniques. In addition to the Urban Living house, it had another house on display a few miles away. The Urban Living house was built by Genesis, a division of Champion, the manufactured-home builder.

The basic house, which its builders call their Bunbury model, was introduced in 2007 and has been constructed around the country. It's a modest 1,914 square feet. The price if outfitted like the house on display in Las Vegas would be about $250,000. If more standard finishes were used, the cost would be about $150,000.

The Bunbury is long and narrow -- 60 by 15 feet -- but it feels surprisingly spacious inside because, as in Builder's house, the main living area and the three bedrooms run the full width of the house.

The floor plan is very simple: each floor has two rooms, one at each end. There are a few surprises, though. The second floor has a central loft area with natural light streaming in from both sides. The space could be used as a home office, or as in the model, a place for watching television.

With years of experience designing houses for the average homeowner, Genesis has mastered the prosaic details. Every bedroom has a closet; one is a walk-in. The entry foyer has a coat closet; there's a computer workstation by the kitchen; the first floor master bath, which doubles as a powder room, is accessible from the hall; and the laundry closet opens onto a hallway, not a room.

But NextGen missed an opportunity here. It could have made this simple house a standout simply by demonstrating the ways that deft use of color can bring an interior together and by highlighting the real wood beams in the coffered ceiling in the living room area. Instead, all the walls and furnishings are muted earth tones and the all-white coffered ceiling just another detail.

In its defense, the intent was to showcase new materials and small houses in this post-McMansion era, not to make waves.

Builder magazine, however, was much more ambitious. "This show home is intended as a wake-up call to the home building industry, as in wake up and realize that you need to be building dramatically different homes, if you want to survive the downturn," editor Boyce Thompson wrote in an e-mail. "That may not mean building modular homes, or putting grass on the roof, though I do believe we'll see way more of that in the future. But it does mean building smaller homes with a lighter carbon footprint. Green building is here to stay whether builders like it or not.

"Also, for many production builders, their biggest competition are themselves -- homes they built two or three years ago, and that buyers can now buy through foreclosure for 30 percent less. If you don't offer something different, you are toast."

(For more about the NextGen house, see http://www.nextgenhome.com; click on "IBS Urban Living.")

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