Does it sometimes seem as if everybody you know is either building a new house or adding on to the one they already own? If so, you will be better able to keep up with the cocktail party chatter if you are familiar with a few of the trendier topics in home construction. Here's a cheat sheet:

* Feng shui. This is the ancient Chinese art of placement. It is based on the idea that everything in life will be better when every aspect of your home environment is arranged according to the feng shui principles of harmony and energy flow. Twenty-five years ago, feng shui was obscure and esoteric, but it quickly went mainstream after it was introduced in America.

How does feng shui come into play when planning a house? Another layer of analysis is added to the standard architectural considerations of site, room arrangement and furniture placement, as well as the location of functions, stairs, doors, windows and the front door. Adjustments are made accordingly.

To the uninitiated, it can sound like hocus-pocus. However, a house that incorporates feng shui principles will have a sensible floor plan, a comfortable feel and a demure character that gradually unfolds as you pass from room to room. You're not likely to have a lot of large scale, eye-popping features. If that's what you want -- a grand foyer with a view out the back that blows your visitors away -- feng shui may not be for you. A feng shui master would nix this because it would allow all the positive chi energy that you and your visitors bring into the house to go straight out the back and be lost to the great outdoors.

Feng shui remains an intriguing curiosity in most housing markets, but in areas where a significant number of buyers take it seriously -- in California's Silicon Valley, for example -- it can affect the resale value of a house.

* Building green. This is an approach to home construction that puts environmental concerns front and center. A green house is one that has good indoor air quality and requires less energy to build, heat and cool. When possible, recycled materials are used. Waste is minimized, both during construction and later. A material that can be recycled at the end of its useful life is preferable to one that ends up in a landfill. Stylistically, a green house can be anything.

Compared with 25 years ago, every new house now is more energy efficient. Green builders and architects take this further, however, designing and building houses that are more energy efficient than those that are built to code. Green builders generally combine sophisticated technology, such as super-efficient heating and air conditioning equipment, with ancient, low-tech strategies such as passive solar, which captures the sun's warmth in winter and uses it to heat the house.

Embodied energy, a term frequently heard in the context of green building, has the vaguely familiar ring of high school physics. In fact, it refers to the total amount of energy expended in bringing a finished product to your building site. This calculation includes the energy used to mine, extract, cut or otherwise remove the raw material, the energy used to transport the raw material to the manufacturing plant, the energy used to convert the raw material into the product, the energy to transport it to your building site and the energy required to install it.

Such a calculation is only approximate, but clearly it's greater for marble that is quarried in a remote Italian village and eventually ends up in your kitchen than it is for marble quarried in Pennsylvania.

* Indoor air quality. Forty years ago, nobody worried about getting enough fresh air in the house. When it was warm out, windows were open. During colder months, the windows were shut, but the occupants still enjoyed plenty of fresh air because it came in through cracks and crevices in drafty buildings. One air change an hour for the entire house was not unusual -- that is, in the course of an hour, all the air in the house was replaced.

Houses today are much tighter. All those cracks and crevices have been plugged to reduce the energy required for heating and cooling. A house may have as little as one-third air change an hour, meaning it takes three hours instead of one to change the air in the entire house. To provide sufficient fresh air, a mechanical means, such as one or two continuously running bathroom exhaust fans, should be installed, although this is not yet required by building codes.

* Volatile organic compounds. These are chemicals used to manufacture many of the synthetic materials used in conventional residential construction, and they can affect indoor air quality. The compounds are unstable, and for some time after manufacturing is completed, they give off gas from the finished materials. This phenomenon accounts for the "new house smell" when construction is finished. The rate of off-gassing is high at first. It gradually tapers off, but can continue for months or even years.

Hundreds of compounds have been identified, but the one of greatest concern is formaldehyde, a potent eye and nose irritant and, for some people, a cause of respiratory problems. It has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Responding to this concern, many manufacturers have altered their chemical formulations and significantly reduced the amount of VOCs that off-gas from their products. Some manufacturers make products that do not off-gas at all.

Because the concentration of VOCs is highest when a house is new, the best defense is maximum ventilation with all windows open and all exhaust fans running full blast when you first move in. It helps to keep the windows open for several days to several weeks, weather permitting.

The list of materials that contain VOCs is startling. Not only are they in the wood that is used in the framing, but they also are in cabinets, paints, carpets and carpet pads, vinyl flooring, drapery and the fabric on upholstered furniture.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at

{copy} 2004, Katherine Salant

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