Natural light filters through the open floorplan from numerous sources, hiding the lack of Western-facing windows which were eliminated to avoid the hot afternoon desert sun. (Photo by Henri Sagalow Photography)

In a subdivision about 20 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, architects of a 5,800-square-foot experimental model home have designed walls of glass, courtyards, terraces and balconies to allow owners and guests to move seamlessly between the indoors and the outdoors.

Neutral earth tones blend with the surrounding desert and mountains and provide a quiet backdrop to the jazzy views of the Strip in the distance. An infinity-edge pool seems to dangle over a cantilevered terrace accessible from the family room and visible from much of the house.

A push of a button silently slides glass pocket doors open or close across the entire back wall of the home, letting you step instantly from the family room into the sun, the swimming pool, a hot tub or onto a shaded terrace.

As out of reach as this residence seems, elements of it may be coming to a development near you.

Las Vegas may be best known as the land of fun and frivolity, but it’s also the site of serious commitments to innovative, sustainable ­architecture and interior design.

Each year, the city hosts the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) International Builders’ Show, an important element of which is the New American Home, a dwelling built to showcase new products, best practices for construction techniques and fresh design trends.

While the Washington area, known for its more conservative design aesthetic, may not see many cutting-edge homes right away, some of the innovations demonstrated in the New American Home may be coming to the region.

Among the more practical and replicable elements of this home are energy-efficient windows designed to provide an abundance of natural light while shielding interior spaces from the harsh heat, as well as water-saving faucets and toilets.

“The idea of actually building a New American Home each year is to present new ideas and new technology that the builders who tour it can bring back to their region and incorporate into their homes,” said Michelle Desiderio, vice president of Innovation Services at the Home Innovation Research Labs in Upper Marlboro, Md. “Builders are not expected to wholesale replicate what they see, but there are ideas that can be translated for everything from a starter home to a luxury home.”

Green design

A big difference in this year’s New American Home is that the residence was designed to be a model home in a subdivision of 44 houses and is based on an existing set of floor plans. Past New American Home models were stand-alone residences that were sold by the builders after the Builders’ Show.

“A big criticism of these homes in the past is that they were built for the ultra-wealthy and therefore it was difficult to see how applicable the experiment could be for the way homes are commonly built,” said Tyler Jones, co-founder and owner of Blue Heron Design Build in Las Vegas, the lead builder for the New American Home.

While the New American Home and all its furnishings are priced at $2,499,990, other homes in the development have some of the same elements at a lower cost.

“This model home has all the bells and whistles and upgrades you can think of, including an elevator, but you can get the benefits of this home design without all the extras at a starting price of $764,990,” said Amy Noto, a sales consultant with Blue Heron Design Build at Sky Terrace in Henderson. “The smallest model here, which has 3,457 square feet, starts at $629,990.”

Noto says that while each home at Sky Terrace includes an enclosed courtyard entrance, the model home has been enhanced with numerous fountains and a small pool of water that adds to the passive solar design of the house, allowing for air to be cooled as it passes over the water and into the surrounding rooms.

Passive solar design is a great example of something that has a big impact but costs nothing to the builder or the homeowner, Jones says.

“This house has no west-facing windows at all to keep out the afternoon sun,” he said. “We added overhangs, eaves and decks and oriented the glass walls to keep direct sun out of the house, yet because of the expanses of windows and visible outdoor space, the home still has lots of natural light.”

A push of a button opens the wall of sliding glass doors to blur the definition of indoor and outdoor space. (Photo by Trent Bell Photography)

The open floor plan and two-
story spaces wrapped in windows provide an airy feel to the house so that visitors are unaware of the lack of windows on one side of the house. The rooftop has an array of solar panels that provide enough energy to run the entire house. The house is the first New American Home to be a “net zero” residence, which means it produces as much energy or even more than it consumes each year.

“Solar energy is a no-brainer in a place like Las Vegas, where we get 360 days a year of sun,” Jones said. “It works well in most places, just maybe not quite as much in a place like Seattle. Builders and buyers just need to determine how long it will take to recoup their investment in solar panels in terms of reduced energy costs. For instance, if you spend $20,000 on solar panels, it could take seven years before you see real savings if your energy bills are $2,800 lower each month.”

Desiderio says that while there’s a trend to increase the use of solar energy across the United States, it’s still a relatively expensive technology that isn’t often installed in starter homes.

Net-zero energy use is achieved through a mix of design and construction elements and energy-
efficient systems, not all of which are costly.

“One of the biggest takeaways from this house, while less exotic than some of its features, is the use of tankless water heaters,” Desiderio said. “They’re energy-efficient, take up less space and give you fast hot water without costing a lot more to install.”

The second level loft entertaining space includes several seating areas, a full bar and a wine room. (Photo by Trent Bell Photography)

While the Washington region doesn’t have a water shortage like Nevada and California, Desiderio says that most people in the area are sensitive about the health of the Chesapeake Bay. She says newly designed water-saving faucets and toilets are something Washingtonians are already starting to see in new homes. Another innovation at the New American Home is a ­water-sensitive irrigation system that waters plants based on information about the moistness of the soil gathered by sensors, rather than simply on a schedule, she says.

Not all home innovations center on conserving or producing energy.

“Energy efficiency is the cornerstone of green building, but comfort is equally important to people. That comfort and quiet comes from things you can’t always see, such as the insulation and the energy-efficient windows,” Desiderio said.

Blue Heron always uses a ­“cocoon system” of putting insulation all the way through the walls and into the attic and the roof, which costs only a little bit more but keeps the house from losing air conditioning through the roof, Jones says.

Desiderio says that the insulation has the added advantage of making the house quieter, which most builders say home buyers request.

“Another element that adds to the comfort level in a home is the hydronic air handler, which maintains a consistent air temperature day and night but has a variable-speed motor to keep costs low,” Desiderio said.

Home automation systems are also part of increasing the ease of living in a modern home, and, as Jones put it, “they’re really fun and cool.” In this home, everything is automated, from the security ­system to the lighting system to energy-use monitors to the push-button glass pocket doors. You can push a button to transform the media room into a home theater or use your iPad to watch a movie on any one of the home’s 27 flat-panel TVs.

The master bath includes a dramatic freestanding tub which sits in front of a wall of glass facing one of the upper level courtyards. (Photo by Trent Bell Photography)
Contemporary style

Jones says a common response to the New American Home is for builders to say they can’t build that type of home where they do business, but he says every builder can try to make some innovations in their designs.

“Our goal is to show builders who tend to be complacent that there’s a marketplace for innovative design,” Jones said. “A lot of what we have done with this home is applicable to other locations. Of course, some elements such as the indoor-outdoor relationship, which is a huge part of our homes, may not work in an area with a lot of humidity or insects where you would need screens.”

Outdoor spaces can be found in abundance at this home, where guests enter through a central courtyard visible from the breakfast area, the media room and an attached guesthouse, each with a wall of glass. The main swimming pool terrace has two adjacent terraces, one with a built-in gas grill and a marble bar that is actually an extension of the interior kitchen island. The second level includes a balcony off the bedrooms, a central courtyard and a deck off the wine bar with a spiral staircase to the roof deck, which has another bar and an outdoor fireplace.

Inside, the main level has an open family room with 20-foot-high ceilings and a contemporary-style gas fireplace, a dining area, an open kitchen and a breakfast area. The modern kitchen includes a hidden door that swings open to reveal a storage pantry, marble counters, a wine cooler, double wall ovens with a built-in warming drawer, and a separate icemaker for entertaining. This level also has a media room with a translucent onyx bar and a glass-front cabinet with an array of electronics. Along one hall are a laundry room and a half bath and a door to the garage. Across the central courtyard is the optional guesthouse, which has a living area on the lower level and a loft bedroom upstairs with a door to a balcony.

An open staircase leads from the main-level family room to the ­upper-level loft entertaining room, which is dominated by another translucent bar with an adjacent glass-enclosed wine room. Two bedrooms, each with a private full bath and glass doors to a shared balcony, are located behind the loft.

On the opposite side of the home is the master bedroom, which is set on a cantilevered slab above the pool with a glass wall framing a view of the Strip. The bedroom has a raised sitting area behind the sleeping area, a gas fireplace, two walk-in closets, and a spa-like bathroom with a free-standing whirlpool tub in the middle of the room facing a wall of glass looking into the upper-level courtyard. The nearby glass-enclosed shower has six showerheads.

Jones says builders and home buyers need to make a mental shift to understand that building new homes that are sustainable and comfortable requires a holistic approach.

“There’s no one thing that will fix a home and make it green,” he said. “You need a multitude of strategies and to integrate the design and construction together from the beginning to make it work.”

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.