Every year, at conventions held by organizations such as the American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Home Builders, domestic and foreign manufacturers fill acres of floor space in cavernous exhibition halls with displays of the latest construction products.
Graphically striking posters and signs, photos and drawings, samples, slick brochures, eager salespeople and sometimes a shapely young woman model -- companies still assume that most product purchasers are men -- adorn hundreds of curtained booths flanking one aisle after another.
For architects, interior designers and home builders, these exhibitions offer unique opportunities to see and touch, at one time and place, many of the latest and hottest products, products that various industries believe both designers and the public want, or will accept, in the home and workplace.
Some products are aimed primarily at improving technical performance or facilitating construction. Waterproofing membranes, caulking and sealants, structural fasteners, thermal insulation, concrete mixtures and aluminum extrusions, undeniably crucial components of most buildings, may enthuse some professionals. But they are probably of little direct interest to the general public.
Consumers are naturally more interested in things that are both visible and usable, especially for the home, and the number of such products now on the market is staggering.
Consider just the kitchen. Not so long ago, kitchens consisted of wall and base cabinets covered with a counter top, a sink, and only two major appliances -- refrigerator and range. You were lucky if you had a pair of duplex electrical outlets above the counter. Then two more appliances -- the dishwasher and garbage disposal -- appeared, to be followed more recently by trash compactors and microwave ovens.
But integrated electronic circuitry and microchips have made these and other appliances -- from coffee makers to food processors -- smarter. They keep track of time, turn themselves on and off, check temperatures and tell you when to perform certain functions that the appliance can't do alone.
Self-cleaning ovens now look like airplane cockpit panels. Refrigerators not only defrost themselves, they make and dispense unlimited amounts of cubed or crushed ice, plus chilled water, without being opened.
Kitchen cabinetry and related hardware have evolved both stylistically and functionally. People have begun discovering the virtues of drawers over base cabinets, along with compartmented inserts for capturing and utilizing every cubic foot of space within cabinets.
Offset cabinet door hinges, looking at first like a mechanical engineer's mistake, offer greater flexibility in door swings. And countless varieties of drawer and door pulls are now available, along with countertop choices -- from plastic laminates to laminated wood to tile to synthetic, or real marble and granite.
After the kitchen, check out what's new in the bathroom. Although most bathroom fixtures have remained functionally unchanged -- to my knowledge, none yet contains microchips -- they come in an ever wider range of styles and colors.
Designer toilets flush quieter than ever before, while deluxe models have contoured and cushioned seats. There are towel racks with electrical resistance elements built into them to warm towels before use, not to mention upscale toilet paper and toothbrush holders that verge on being works of art.
However, the most interesting design innovations are related to bathing. Bathtub/shower/pleasure pool ensembles promise unprecedented sensations. While the 60-inch-long white bathtub -- great for baths only if you are preadolescent and very thin -- is still typical, you can opt for larger tubs, wider tubs, deeper tubs and more colorful tubs.
Made of enameled steel or fiberglass-reinforced plastic, some tubs double as whirlpool baths and spas, blasting water and blowing bubbles to soothe one or more immersed bodies. For people who are really serious about social soaking, and also have the space, there are numerous California-style hot tubs to choose from. Add a Finnish sauna, and you'll never need to visit a spa.
Prefabricated shower compartments now come with multiple water jets, valves, fittings, recesses, shelves and grab bars. Looking like the transporter beam chamber from Star Trek's spaceship Enterprise, these exotic vessels eliminate the need for wall tile. A tempered glass door, perhaps with a decorative pattern sandblasted into the surface, eliminates mildew-splotched, soap-stained shower curtains.
No less exotic are faucet fittings for bathroom fixtures. Hundreds of models -- in chrome, polished brass, gold-plate and even ceramic -- appeal to every taste, from high tech to baroque. Unfortunately, some of today's sink faucets and bath/shower control valves require substantial dexterity, if not a user's manual, to operate without risking hypothermia or parboiling.
As for the building shell, the number of window types currently marketed is mind-boggling. Window advertising focuses on style, durability and energy efficiency. Glazing (double or triple insulating glass, films to absorb or reflect infrared radiation), window sash and frame material (wood, wood sheathed in metal or vinyl, or metal with rubber thermal breaks separating inside from outside), and tightness of seams determine thermal performance. Skylights for sloping roofs pivot open and include screens and solar shades that are retractable or removable.
There are ever more roofing materials and systems, and more varieties of sheathing and siding made of mysterious, fibrous substances. The number of special-purpose paints and coatings never stops growing; some claim to breathe while being impervious to water, to resist mildew, to stretch and flex, to be flameproof or to hold up against ultraviolet rays. Few are inexpensive, and all eventually need redoing.
A new electrical age is dawning with the advent of the so-called "smart" building. "On-board" -- more correctly, "in-house" -- computers can continuously monitor the condition of the environment and the status of major systems, including security systems that detect illegal entry, fire or smoke.
Display and control units can allow occupants in a central location to turn lights or other devices on and off anywhere in a building. New types of multiplex wiring and "smart" receptacles can provide not only electrical power, but also communication and antenna hookups for telephones, computers, stereos or television receivers wherever there's a wall plug.
Microchip technology can increase safety because outlets can be individually programmed to work only with proper connections. Thus, a child inserting a spoon or paper clip into an outlet would not get shocked; the outlet, recognizing an improperly configured connector, would refuse to switch on the electrical power.
Exciting as all of these new products are, building design and construction still remain basically, and perhaps surprisingly, unchanged -- as do product problems. Roofs and basements continue to leak. Paint peels, wood warps and splits, electrical and mechanical devices break down, dry wall cracks, windows sweat and fog up and even computers crash.
There's one thing you can count on: The cost of new products, along with the labor to install and to repair them, will always go up. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.