Material Whirl Colors and textures get all mixed up, especially in the kitchen.

The trend toward combining different colors, materials, and textures has gone full bore, especially in the kitchen, where builders may mix a slate floor, granite countertop, tile backsplash--all juxtaposed against slick stainless steel appliances.

"The trend is very high-end finishes, especially granite," says Richard M. Swedroe, a Florida architect whose firm does a lot of condominium work with WCI Communities, of Bonita Springs, Fla. "We feed off a buyer's requirements or the trends we pick up from salespeople."

Wendy Mitchell Martin, a principal at Millennium, a Houston-based interior design firm, agrees that mixing materials is all the rage, but says it isn't limited to the upper end of the market. "We work with production builders that have certain standard materials available, but we try to give them the best mix possible with what's affordable," says Martin. "You can pick a laminate that looks like stone, throw in a tile backsplash, and maybe pop in a little 2x2 drop of granite on that backsplash to add texture. It's the mix that adds warmth and character. Years ago it was one way or the other, contemporary or traditional, but this trend toward a nice mix has opened the doors to a lot of things that you can do in the home. You don't have to choose sides anymore."

Retrograde The look of the moment is designs from the past.

You'd be hard-pressed to find an area of pop culture where nostalgia is not the trend (witness the popularity of vintage sports jerseys and Ford's redesigned T-bird convertible). Building products are no different, and 2003 was the tipping point. Nicole Langel, market analyst for lavatories, bath furniture, and tile at Kohler, Wis.-based Kohler, says that products with traditional design are hot right now, because people are looking for comfort in the familiar. They want their faucets and fixtures to remind them of a simpler time. Sensing the trend, manufacturers responded with copious amounts of old-time offerings.

Kohler launched the Leighton Ensemble, a collection of bath fixtures that takes its cue from 18th-century Georgian architecture. The company also added products to its Kathryn suite, a line of fixtures that are reproduced from a 1929 Kohler exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Norcross, Ga.-based KWC Faucets introduced an updated version of its 1922 bridge faucet; Piscataway, N.J.-based American Standard introduced a line of products based on 1922 designs and a faucet collection inspired by the early 20th century; and to marks its 85th anniversary, Frigidaire introduced the Classic Series appliance line, which are highlighted by retro accents from the 1940s and 1950s.

Efficiency Experts Energy-saving is big with conservation-minded buyers.

TOTO's Neorest tankless toilet has a second flushing mode that saves water.
Courtesy TOTO TOTO's Neorest tankless toilet has a second flushing mode that saves water.

Energy (or the price of it) is a hot topic, which is why homeowners are concerned about the efficiency of their appliances, HVAC systems, and lighting products. Looking to save some bucks, buyers are flocking to Energy Star appliances--those that save money by delivering the same or better performance as comparable units but use less water or energy to do it.

This year manufacturers unleashed a multitude of products whose water and energy efficiency took front and center. Newton, Iowa-based Maytag Appliances, for example, introduced the Neptune TL, a high-efficiency, top-loading washing machine that uses 50 percent less water than a traditional top loader. The unit also is easier on clothes because it uses two washing disks instead of a traditional agitator. New York-based TOTO offered Neorest, a tankless toilet that has a dual-flush water saving mode; and Irvine, Calif.-based Fisher & Paykel introduced its IntuitiveEco washing machine, a product that combines the ergonomic advantages of a top loader with the high energy- and water-efficiency associated with a front loader, the company says. The washer has a spin speed of 1,000 rpm for reduced drying time.

On Screen Demand for home theaters will stay strong in 2004, as prices on video components and distributed audio systems come down.

About five years ago, home theaters cost between $30,000 to $50,000, screens and speakers were cumbersome and hard to work with, and distributing audio throughout the house was complicated and expensive.

North American Large-screen
TV Market (thousands of units)
2002 2003 2004
Plasma 87 231 533
DLP-rear projection 25 150 323
CRT-rear projection 2,736 2,791 2,819
Source: Isupply/Stanford Resources

Now, television screens and speakers are more compact, deliver higher quality, and are much less expensive, so home theaters are well within the reach of many more Americans. The cost of a standard home theater today is between $5,000 and $10,000, and home buyers who just want to start with an entry-level distributed audio system in three or four rooms can purchase one with inexpensive speakers for about $2,000.

That trend will continue in 2004, according to David Mentley, senior vice president at research group iSupply/Stanford Resources in El Segundo, Calif. Mentley predicts that both plasma and digital light processing (DLP) screens will continue to experience strong growth in 2004. He says North American shipments of plasma screens will more than double in 2004, up to 533,000 from 231,000 in 2003. DLP shipments will also more than double to 323,000 in 2004 from 150,000 this year.

Larger than life: Cathode-ray tube screens still dominate the large-screen TV market, but shipments of both plasma and digital light processing screens will more than double in 2004.

Clutter Control The mudroom makes a comeback.

It's everyone's exploding amount of stuff that's driving the return of the mudroom, a transition space from the outdoors that was once a common feature in homes, especially in colder climates. Lack of space got the mudroom axed from floor plans, but builders and architects are hearing cries for its return. Where else are families supposed to dump keys, backpacks, laptops, lacrosse sticks, PDAs, baseball caps, and cell phones? And what about shoes, leashes, raincoats, and umbrellas?

"We're finding that a mudroom is one of the first requests we get," says David Hajian, an architect in Watertown, Mass. "It's become part of the program whether it's a new home or a renovation. It's not all about mud anymore."

Mudroom features have gone beyond cubbies and hooks. Homeowners now want outlets for phone charging and drawers to hide laptops and other high-tech gear from curious kids. Certain receptacles can even drive the design. "The baskets came first," says Hajian, describing a cubby design for a mudroom in Winchester, Mass. "Final dimensions were clarified only after the owner purchased the baskets."

Second Chances Thirteen more states pass laws giving builders the right to fix defects in new homes.

With the ink barely dry on many right-to-repair laws, it's too early to say how much they will ultimately help builders struggling against construction-defect trends and spiraling insurance costs.

But early responses are promising. "We've gotten a favorable reaction from the insurance industry," says Clayton Traylor, senior staff vice president of construction, codes, and standards (state and local operations) at the NAHB. "The real bounce for the insurance guys is that something is different ... they're looking at the probability that there will be fewer [construction-defect] cases going into the court system."

Builders and others hope that will be the case, especially in the thirteen states that passed laws in 2003, giving builders the right to fix any defects in their homes before being sued. At press time, Pennsylvania was also considering such a bill.

Among the 17 states with such legislation in place, the NAHB likes the laws in Colorado and Texas best. Colorado limits the amount and type of damages builders must pay in construction-defect suits, while Texas provides for self-policing through a nine-member panel that has the power to set mandatory residential construction performance standards. These state standards should eliminate much of the wrangling of construction-defect litigation by making it easier for people in Texas to decide whether or not a new home's imperfection is truly a defect. "In other states, a construction defect is in the eye of the beholder," Traylor says. "In Texas, these standards are adopted by statute, so they have the force of law."

Next year, builders hope to pass right-to-repair laws in Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, where bills made progress this year.

Mid-Century Appeal

We Asked ...
Bottom Line
Builders say the greatest bottom-line impact on their companies in 2004 will come from:
Land prices 25%
Interest rates 23%
The economy 11%
Insurance costs 5%
Other including the second-home
and active adult markets
Source: BUILDER Survey

A hip California project shows that modern design sells.

Who says entry-level, multifamily housing has to be run-of-the-mill? Whitsett, a 12-unit condominium project in Studio City, Calif., offered clean modern design and affordable price points--for the Los Angeles area--and the result was a two-week sellout.

"Our goal was to bring good quality, mid-century, modernist design to a socio-economic level that doesn't usually get to have that," says Zoltan Pali, one of three partners at SPF: Architects, a Los Angeles firm that designed and developed the contemporary condo building. "Whitsett shows that this can be done without pricing entry-level homeowners out of range."

The two-bedroom apartments, built by the Los Angeles company Archetype, were priced between $329,000 and $379,000, a range that approaches affordable in that city. The 1,400- to 1,600-square-foot apartments feature lots of natural light, high ceilings, and, because of their proximity to the notorious 101 freeway, generous use of soundproofing materials and specifications.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.