Thompson, 59, spent 17 years working with builders and
architects to create concept homes for Builder magazine,
using ideas that builders could put to use in their own
projects. Thompson, former editorial director of Builder
and a writer and lecturer on the building industry, is
the author of "The New New Home" (Taunton
Press, $27). He spoke with The Record recently about new
home technologies, how home buyers and builders changed
after the housing bust, and what might surprise you
about his own home. An edited transcript:
What are some of the ideas that you used in the concept
homes that are now in wider use?
all the homes had an energy agenda. Right from the
beginning, we realized that was a way for new homes to
stand out in the marketplace.
we first started building the houses, open floor plans
weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today. We
extended that trend to the max.
designs almost always integrated the back yard with the
house; they typically had back porches, whether screened
big trend we used is the disappearing glass wall — a
wall of windows that opens up. They used to cost
$40,000; now you can get a reasonable facsimile for
about $5,000. You can have these beautiful spaces —
living rooms, dining rooms, great rooms — with window
walls that open onto porch spaces and create the feeling
that it’s all one big space.
did a net zero house (which produces as much energy as
it uses) before net zero was cool; we built our first
one in 2005. We realized that you have to first build
the most energy-efficient structure you can. Then after
you’ve made it real tight, you figure out how many
photovoltaics to put on the roof.
one house, we dug wells for geothermal (heating and
cooling) in the back yard, and that’s something that’s
really caught on in the last two or three years.
What are the obstacles to getting some of these concepts
to go mainstream?
of the things we did, you frequently find in custom
homes. The question is why aren’t more cool features
designed into production homes. That’s always a matter
of cost. A builder, like a retailer, is just putting a
product out there and hoping people will buy it. It’s
a constant struggle for the builder to figure out which
features have value, that people might pay for.
The housing crash was the deepest downturn in home
construction since World War II. How did builders adapt?
ones who survived are the ones who did whatever they
could to make their houses stand out. Many of them
started building extremely energy-efficient housing,
figuring they could say to buyers, ‘Why buy a resale
when you can buy mine, and your utility costs will be
really low, or maybe you won’t have any at all.’
Can home buyers learn any lessons from the housing
wants to buy something that’s going to decrease in
value. So how can you increase the value of the house
you have? The most obvious way is to reduce the
operating cost to a minimum.
you’d be a fool not to buy the most energy-efficient
house that you can. A lot of that is just how hard
builders want to work to build energy-efficient wall
assemblies. Some of them would have you believe the
secret is a programmable thermostat or low-E windows,
but in reality, it’s whether they’ve built a wall
system that doesn’t allow thermal bridging, so warm
air is kept in the house during the winter and cool air
is kept in the house during the summer.
If you’re buying a new home, should you get an
definitely. The best builders encourage homeowners to
walk the house with an inspector before the drywall goes
on, to see what’s going on behind the wall. You’d
probably want to have it inspected again before you take
other thing buyers need to do is make sure that the
floor plan works for them and their lifestyle, but would
also work for future owners.
On that topic, I really liked the 2009 Home for the New
Economy you wrote about in the book, which has an
adaptable suite on the first floor that could be used
for a home office, a rental, a studio apartment for a
boomerang child or a master suite for people who can’t
do stairs anymore.
of the best architects doing custom homes tell their
clients that you need to include a first-floor master
bedroom in the house, or else a space for someone to
ultimately do that. Boomers have moved the housing
markets for years; now they’re getting older, and at a
certain age they prefer not to climb stairs.
high-cost areas of New Jersey, it’s tough for a
builder to afford to do a first-floor master bedroom.
The builder probably paid a lot of money for that land
and needs to build a certain number of houses to get a
return on his or her investment. The builder will say,
‘How many houses can I cram into this space?’ The
houses get narrower. Putting a large bedroom and bath on
the first floor is going to take up a lot of space.
other thing you need to think about is access in the
house. Everyone doesn’t need to build to handicapped
standards, but there are things you can do to make the
home much easier to live in if you were to lose your
mobility or get injured.
like thinking twice about putting thresholds between
rooms, wider halls and doorways, putting important rooms
on the first floor if possible. You don’t have to do
all of them, but you might want to do some.
New homes got a little smaller during the housing bust,
but recent census numbers show they’re getting bigger
a little disappointed about what’s happened. New homes
are not only getting bigger, but prices are going up.
But sales aren’t rising in the way people thought they
would. You’ve got to wonder, are builders shooting
themselves in the foot by building such big homes that
buying a new home is not very affordable?
In New Jersey, about 60 percent of the housing units
built this year have been multifamily. What trends do
you see in multifamily construction?
used to be that apartments were way more utilitarian,
but 15 years ago, progressive apartment builders started
appealing to people who were renters by choice. It was a
lifestyle choice, to be closer to the city, more
entertainment, better restaurants. That has just come on
so strong. The bar keeps rising, in terms of amenities.
Some of the new buildings are really spectacular.
Most of my readers don’t live in new homes, but can
they use the ideas in your book in renovations or
window-wall trend I talked about.
you are doing a family-room renovation, think about
including a system that opens the family room to the
porch. The remodeling projects that add the most value
to the home traditionally involve the kitchen and bath.
are a lot of things you can do involving
energy-efficient appliances that are worth looking into.
There’s kind of a new generation of smart appliances
that would be able to tell you, for example, what is the
best time to run the dryer based on utility rates.
Tell me about your own house. Was it built new? Did you
use any of the building techniques you’ve written
wife and I bought a 1950s home in an established
neighborhood (in the Maryland suburbs); we wanted to be
in the best school district possible.
house had been owned by an electrical engineer, and he
put in every system imaginable over 40 years. I had no
clue how to work the security system; there were wires
for speakers all over the place. I had a reel-to-reel
tape deck that I think I could have turned on that would
have played music all over the house and outdoors.
of that experience motivated the design criteria for the
Home of the Future (built in 1997). We wanted architects
to design houses that would never go out of date, so
that someone buying the house 30 years from now would
still know how to operate the systems.
remodeled a bunch of the spaces in our house. When we
redid our kitchen and baths, I paid pretty strict
attention to ventilation. Indoor air pollution is a
perennial problem. You want to get rid of as much gases
from the kitchen as you can. And moisture control is a
huge problem in the bath.