'The New New Home': How technology is shaping your dwelling

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Boyce 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:

Q. What are some of the ideas that you used in the concept homes that are now in wider use?

Virtually 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.

When 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.

The designs almost always integrated the back yard with the house; they typically had back porches, whether screened or not.

One 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.

I 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.

In 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.

Q. What are the obstacles to getting some of these concepts to go mainstream?

Most 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.

Q. The housing crash was the deepest downturn in home construction since World War II. How did builders adapt?

The 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.’

Q. Can home buyers learn any lessons from the housing crash?

Nobody 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.

So 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.

Q. If you’re buying a new home, should you get an inspection?

Oh, 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 ownership.

The 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.

Q. 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.

Some 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Things 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.

Q. New homes got a little smaller during the housing bust, but recent census numbers show they’re getting bigger again.

I’m 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?

Q. In New Jersey, about 60 percent of the housing units built this year have been multifamily. What trends do you see in multifamily construction?

It 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.

Q. Most of my readers don’t live in new homes, but can they use the ideas in your book in renovations or additions?

The window-wall trend I talked about.

If 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.

There 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.

Q. Tell me about your own house. Was it built new? Did you use any of the building techniques you’ve written about?

My 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.

The 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.

Part 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.

We’ve 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.