Digital images give home buyers a vivid new perspective

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, February 6, 2010; F02

Can you know what it feels like to stand in a house without actually standing in it? Can a computer-generated image of an interior that includes every detail, right down to the high-heeled shoes on the floor of a dressing room where the imaginary owner kicked them off, truly convey a sense of place?

These are not theoretical questions. As computer-generated virtual-reality images of homes become less costly to generate, many in the home-building industry expect them to play a central role in the buying experience.

If the two virtual-reality houses I saw at the International Builders Show last month in Las Vegas are any indication, the quality of the presentation will vary, and your reaction will depend on where you are in the buying process -- just beginning your search and surfing the web to learn about builders and locations, or seriously interested in a specific house and in pursuit of details about the finished product. Here's my take on two virtual presentations at the builders show: Builder magazine's "Builder Concept Home 2010: A Home for the New Economy" and the National Council for the Housing Industry's "New American Home 2010."

For the prospective buyer who's deciding which new-home communities to visit, the council's 1 1/2 -minute video provides just the right amount of information to pique interest. It shows only six of the 14 rooms in this 6,800-square-foot house, but the images are so detailed that , most viewers will think they are real. Buyers will find it easy to make the mental leap and imagine themselves walking behind the camera crew filming onsite RM Design of Bartlett, Ill., achieved such hyper-realism in part by incorporating the most minute detail of every material in the Las Vegas house (for example, the ridges on the roof tiles); a site-specific quality of light (the brilliant desert sun really does gives everything outside a washed-out look while colors in the shaded interiors are highly saturated); the climate (with little annual rainfall, most palm tree leaves in Las Vegas are covered with grit); accurate sun angles (rays of sunlight pouring through some windows become distorted as they hit different shapes of furniture); mirrored reflections on the windows as the camera takes you on a stroll around the exterior; and subtle signs that someone lives there, such as fish swimming in the large tank tucked into a niche above the living room fireplace.

Their video can be seen at http://www.rmdesignstudio.com.

In contrast to that quick overview, Builder magazine's virtual tour, created by BHI Media in Austin, is packed with information and took me 45 minutes to complete. (It's available at http://www.builderconcepthome2010.com.) The exterior and interior are shown in a series of still images, each with icons that bring up information about the house or products shown. The tour also includes video interviews with the designer, Marianne Cusato, the building-science consultant Mark LaLiberte and Builder's editorial director, Boyce Thompson.

By the end, I could navigate through the house with my eyes closed, but these computer-generated images did not give me a sense of what it would feel like to be in the house or how I would feel about 1,770-square-foot size. Would a king-size bed fit in the master bedroom? For the casual visitor, this virtual tour is overkill, but if I became seriously interested in buying this house, such information would be invaluable. To be fair, the site was created for home builders, not the general public.

Judged in terms of design and not the presentation, however, Builder's modest but flexible house can meet the needs of many households, and it may mark the beginning of a suburban home-building renaissance.

Designed by architect Marianne Cusato, it is a 2010 adaptation of a modest cottage-style house that was built all over the American East and Midwest from about 1860 to 1930. The traditional two-story cottage-style house has a first-floor living-dining room with a kitchen opening off one end, and three bedrooms upstairs. Cusato's version includes a second full bathroom on the second floor; a first-floor powder room; and, off the back, an "adaptable suite" with a third full bath, two walk-in closets and a separate entrance.

That suite can function as a master bedroom for parents with older kids, or as a family room, a grandparent suite or a separate apartment. If the family's finances go south, the adaptable suite could be rented as a studio apartment. (One closet has plumbing rough-ins for a kitchenette.)

A space on the second floor is also adaptable. In the basic house it is simply unfinished storage, but it could become a fifth bedroom, a sitting room for the master suite, a nursery for very young children or a home office. Finishing this space adds another 230 square feet, bringing the total for the house to 2,000 square feet.

From a marketing perspective, Cusato's design would suit a number of household types, and such broad appeal will certainly interest home builders. .

How much will Cusato's small house cost? A builder in upstate New York who is building two has said his costs are coming in at about $85 a square foot without a basement, according to Cusato. This works out to about $170,000 with a finished second-floor attic but doesn't include the land cost. This version, however, may be a plain one with limited appeal.

Home buyers who are interested may insist on upscale accessorizing. They may agree with Cusato that the era of the huge McMansions with their "lawyer foyers" and unused rooms is over and embrace the idea of smaller houses with flexible floor plans. But it's not clear that they are ready to give up granite countertops, upgraded appliances with stainless steel fronts, triple crown moldings, custom cabinetry and all the other must-haves that can quickly drive up a price.

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