2010 International Builders Show: At home in the future

By Katherine Salant
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 30, 2010; E01

In ways large and small, the 2010 International Builders Show held last week in Las Vegas reflected the still-troubled home-building industry. One entire exhibition hall was vacant, most exhibitors rented smaller spaces than usual, and the dancing models in the upscale showers -- standard fare for years in the high-end plumbing-fixture booths -- were notably absent.

Almost every manufacturer appeared to be riding out the recession by offering "new and improved" products that in reality reflected only minor changes and by promoting their greenness as demonstrated by recycled content, miserly water consumption or efficient use of energy.

Nonetheless, there were some noteworthy offerings.

Bicycle-wheel wind turbine

Declared by Popular Mechanics magazine to be one of the "10 most brilliant products of 2009," Honeywell's new wind turbine may change the face of the industry and, quite possibly, the look of the suburbs. Small and compact, the Honeywell turbine resembles an extra-large, 6-foot-diameter bicycle wheel with plastic blades instead of wheel spokes. More important, it is not subject to the same constraints as the horizontal and vertical wind turbines on the residential market. It can be installed on the roof of a wood-framed house rather than on a separate pole or tower, and it does not need to be positioned away from trees or other obstructions.

Another critical difference with the Honeywell model is that it can start up and generate electricity with wind speeds as low as 2 mph, a rate at which air movement is barely perceptible. The other wind turbines currently available require start-up wind of at least 7 mph. The Honeywell model's ability to function in light breezes is especially relevant to Washington area residents because the average wind speeds here are low, about 5 to 8 mph in the District and the close-in suburbs, 8 to 11 mph in a more rural setting like Leesburg.

Another plus with the Honeywell turbine: It does not make alarming noises or vibrate excessively, two major objections to installing wind turbines on houses in residential neighborhoods.

How much electricity would the Honeywell model provide to Washington area households?

According to the Energy Department, the average U.S. household uses about 10,000 kilowatt-hours a year of electricity. Matching up usage and local wind speeds, Sarah Jenan of WindTronics, the Michigan firm that developed and manufactures the turbine, said that homeowners in the Leesburg area (a Class 4 wind zone) could expect to generate about 2,700 kilowatt-hours a year, or about 27 percent of average household electricity use. In the close-in suburbs (a Class 3 wind zone), the turbine would produce about 20 percent, and in the District (a Class 2 wind zone) about 15 percent.

The installed cost for the turbine, including a connection to the local electric grid, averages about $8,000 to $9,000, said Brian Levine, a WindTronics marketing executive, adding that the installed cost can be partially offset by a federal tax credit of 30 percent that expires in 2016, as well as by state tax credits and rebates. For specific information on the rebates offered in the Washington area, check out http://www.dsireusa.org. For information on the Honeywell/WindTronics turbine, see http://www.ownyourwind.com.

Simulated golf course

Green, in this instance, refers to the golfing variety. Die-hard golfers with big bankrolls -- about $45,000 to $60,000 -- might consider a Full Swing Golf simulator for the basement or a spare room.

The simulator fits into a specially constructed box that is 20 feet long by 13 feet wide by 10 feet high. At one end, images from 68 famous golf courses, such as Pebble Beach in California and St. Andrews in Scotland, are projected onto a 9- by 12-foot screen. A multi-surface hitting area, set about eight feet back from the screen, simulates course conditions including deep rough, light rough, sand traps, fairways and putting greens.

Users select weather conditions (rain, drizzle, clear and calm, windy) and a specific spot on any hole on the featured championship courses. When they hit the ball, it follows a trajectory that transitions from real to virtual in nearly seamless fashion. Hundreds of light sensors embedded in the surrounding walls, floor and ceiling track the ball and calculate where it should land, and digital software puts it there in the projected image. The features of all 68 golf courses are accurately portrayed, right down to the nuances of the putting greens.

An indication of the simulator's ability to hone one's game is the experience of the Columbia University golf team. Based in Manhattan and miles from the nearest golf course, the team practices in a Full Swing Golf simulator set up in a converted squash court. The mix of real and virtual helped lead the Lions to the Ivy League championship.

The rest of the rain forest

Homeowners who need to replace a shabby outdoor deck might consider products by Ipanema Decking. Ipanema offers decking in colors -- "walnut," "mahogany," golden and natural -- rather than species, to keep things simple for American homeowners and to give itself broad latitude in fulfilling orders. This would seem to be a straightforward marketing plan, but it provides unexpected benefits at the other end of the transaction, encouraging the owners of Brazil's rain forests to maintain them, said Romel Bezerra, who heads the Ipanema Decking brand for parent company Elof Hansson.

By purchasing more than 20 species of Brazilian hardwoods, not just the two or three that are favored by foreign markets, Ipanema's lumber traders have imputed a value to the lesser-known species that account for most of the trees found in a typical stand of rain forest. When these trees are worth something, the forest owner will not cut them down until he has a buyer, Bezerra said. When a buyer selects only those trees that can be taken down without disrupting the local ecology, he helps the owner maintain his property.

In effect, Bezerra, who devised this unusual sourcing strategy after more than 35 years in the Brazilian lumber industry, created his own forest stewardship program. Ipanema Decking, as well as the other timber products sold by Elof Hansson, have received certification from the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes standards for sustainable forestry practices worldwide.

Bezerra's strategy also benefits American consumers. The lesser-known Brazilian hardwoods cost less than the highly sought species ipe (also called Brazilian walnut), Brazilian cherry and Spanish cedar.

The boards come in two widths, six inches (standard for most American decks) and four inches. Bezerra estimated that the installed cost of the wider boards is about $10 per square foot and for the narrower boards $5 a square foot. To maintain the original color of the wood, a penetrating oil stain must be periodically reapplied or the boards will weather to gray.

Bezerra expects the Ipanema Decking wood to be locally available in June. For information, visit http://www.ipanemadecking.com.

Norwegian wood

Kebony, a Norwegian company, offers entirely different but still environment-friendly decking.

Kebony uses Norwegian Scots pine and American wood species, including Southern pine, ash, beech and maple. The wood is impregnated with furfuryl alcohol, which is distilled from liquids extracted from crop wastes (usually Dominican sugar cane), and then heated. This process causes a chemical change in the wood that makes it biologically inert and resistant to decay and insects. According to Douglas Murray, the head of Kebony's North American division, lab tests performed at Louisiana State University showed that termites exposed to Kebony-treated wood died of starvation because they didn't recognize it as food.

Depending on the wood species, Kebony-treated wood can be a rich, dark brown; deep gold; or brown with lighter streaks. It will eventually fade to gray unless it is regularly treated with a penetrating oil stain; otherwise, no maintenance is required. The firm offers a 25-year warranty. The installed cost depends on the type of wood and ranges from about $7.50 to $9 per square foot, Murray said.

Kebony treated wood can also be used for outdoor furniture, boats and exterior siding for houses and small commercial buildings.

Kebony is expected to be available in the Washington by June. For information, see http://www.kebony.com.

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