Those who were around in the late '70s probably remember working with heavy tools, energy-guzzling appliances, and under-performing paints. What a difference 25 years makes.

Nearly every product or tool used today has been improved, even the lowly hammer, with its new ergonomic designs. Today's faucets purify water. HVAC units don't pollute the atmosphere. Home automation systems, routinely installed today, were a figment of engineering imagination 25 years ago. Some products didn't even exist in the '70s, e.g., solid-surface countertops and laser tools.

Granted, most houses today are still built with studs, drywall, and asphalt roofing, the same materials used for ages. However, product innovations have transformed an industry with a reputation for resistance to new technology. Here's our take on some of the most significant changes in recent history, along with some new products that could be the next big thing.

Engineered lumber: Way back when disco was king, plywood, I-joists, and glulams were just about the only kinds of "engineered" lumber used. In the late '70s, oriented strand board (OSB) didn't even exist. In 1980, North American OSB production was 751 million square feet per year. Today, that number stands at an astonishing 22 billion square feet. OSB accounts for 50 percent of the flooring market, 51 percent of the wall, and 65 percent of the roof sheathing market. OSB is not the only success story. Consider the huge rise of wood I-joists. They now account for 43 percent of the raised-floor market. The last two decades have also seen the rise of parallel strand lumber, engineered studs, and I-joists made from OSB and laminated veneer lumber, among other engineered products. Who knows what mills may bring in the future.

HVAC: Back in the sizzlin' '70s, only one in four existing homes had the luxury of central air conditioning. Those units were bulky, noisy, and had an average SEER rating of 6, says John Shaw with Farmington, Conn.-based Carrier. HVAC units are now in 57 percent of all existing homes and are installed in 85 percent of all new homes. Today, a typical unit has a minimum SEER rating of 10. Some go as high as 18. "Today's units also consume less energy, are much quieter, and are significantly smaller," Shaw says. The refrigerant used most often back then--chlorine-based R22--was tougher on the environment. Most manufacturers are switching to non-chlorine-based refrigerants in anticipation of the government's phase out of chlorine-based refrigerants.

Windows: Wood windows mean different things to different people. To many home buyers, they connote quality. To others, they spell maintenance. One of the biggest changes in the window industry during the last 25 years has been the development of alternative materials, such as fiberglass, composites, and vinyl, and the use of aluminum cladding. The innovations have yielded durable and low-maintenance products that changed the industry. Moreover, the development of low-E coatings and inert gas fills contributed to more energy-efficient homes and lower cooling and heating bills.

Courtesy Cultured Stone

Veneer stone: Remember the veneer stone of old, the kind you may still have in the rumpus room? Many would like to forget it, too. Veneer stone was like a marionette--everyone could clearly tell it was a fake. Even from the street, the product fooled no one. Advances in technology and design, however, have led to products that can dupe even the practiced pro. Today's lightweight faux stone is made with Portland cement, natural aggregates, and iron oxide pigments. Even on close examination, manufactured stone looks and feels real. Laser tools: In the '70s, lasers were the stuff of science fiction movies. You rarely saw them used on home building sites, except by the most sophisticated contractors who could afford their very high price tags. Today, cost-effective laser tools are commonly used on the job to establish plumb lines, transfer points on the floor onto the ceiling, and generate a continuous line on the floor for tile installation or around a room for installing cabinets. "With the introduction of these products, one person is now able to do the job of three or four people," says Dan D. Harrell, director of marketing for Zircon in Campbell, Calif.