Fall Real Estate 2006

Publication Date: Friday, October 13, 2006

What's hot in remodeling?

From green building to basements and outdoor fireplaces

by Kaye Ross

There are few industries where developing technology plays as great a role as it does in home building and renovation. Where there is client demand, there is a new technology to fill it. Recent trends are making outdoor fireplaces, green building techniques, radiant heat and basements among the most-requested features in new homes, according to area builders.

Basements have been enjoying a renaissance for some time. Because a basement doesn't add to a home's square footage for assessment purposes, it can be a perfect bonus space for media rooms, wine cellars, guest bedrooms and other uses. With modern designs incorporating light wells and larger windows, basements are no longer the dank afterthoughts of the middle class home.

"It's a pretty steady mantra on the desire list for new homes," said Jim Latier of J. F. Warren Construction, Palo Alto. "We've even put some in under existing two-story houses."

Many homeowners are putting laundry facilities in their basements, and that has fueled another recent trend -- laundry chutes and dumbwaiters, said Bill Cox of Cox Brothers Construction, Palo Alto. Cox said that almost every house he builds has a basement these days. Nobody wants to schlep a lot of laundry up and down stairs, and the old-time solutions are still effective.

Cox also has noticed that exterior fireplaces and kitchens are becoming popular as more Peninsula homeowners spend their family and entertaining hours outside -- one of the greatest assets of living with a Mediterranean climate.

A new $8 million Tuscan villa-style home near downtown Los Altos, by architect Eric Aust of Newport Beach and general contractor Maywood Construction, has a built-in grill, sink and refrigerator on its backyard patio, and an exterior fireplace nearby.

Trace Kannel, architect for Harrell Remodeling, Mountain View, said that the strong indoor-outdoor connection that marks the California lifestyle is in constant demand. "People really want to feel like a house is bigger by seeing outdoor vistas or having the free-flowing style of casual living spilling out into the gardens," she said.

One way to expand a home's sense of openness is by installing patio doors that slide completely out of the way to form a 6- or 8-foot opening that directly connects the indoors and outdoors, she said. Her clients often replace windows with French doors to bring in more light and connect with nature. Skylights are popular as well.

Lighting is a very important feature for many homeowners, and more are demanding a central control system. Many such systems can be accessed remotely by a telephone or secure Web site, said Kannel. Some systems provide video feeds so owners can visually ensure that the home is safe.

"These systems come in any level of bells and whistles," Latier said. He is working on a top-of-the-line automated control system that will cost around $50,000. One can put an entire library of music on a hard disc in this type of system, he said, while controlling everything from exterior lighting to music to all the televisions in the home.

Radiant heating for floors is popular, Latier and Kannel said. Getting out of bed on a cold morning to walk on warm bathroom floors is a luxurious creature comfort sought by many homeowners, Kannel said.

Latier prefers the hydronic radiant heating system to the electrical one, where warm water is circulated from a boiler or water heater through tubing under the floor. "It's a great heat," Latier said. "There are no filters to clean, no air circulation to worry about, just a nice warm heat."

Technological innovation and growing customer consciousness have particularly ignited demand for energy efficiency, solar heating and use of cleaner, more natural materials in interior design.

"We have seen here in particular that there is a really big interest in anything that's green, such as sustainable design and construction techniques," said Susan Davis, who owns Spectrum Fine Homes, Mountain View, with her contractor husband.

"It doesn't have to be weird stuff. It's often as simple as being aware that the house's energy efficiency is not what it should be. It's exciting and wonderful, and I am passionate about it."

An energy audit of a home costs just $500, and upgrading a heating and cooling system may cost several thousand dollars, she said. But because energy bills are escalating so rapidly, the time it takes to recoup an investment in even a full photovoltaic system is becoming shorter and shorter. "It used to be it would take 10 to 12 years to recoup the cost in extra savings, but now it's only seven years," Davis said.

There is growing concern among homeowners about the safety of their indoor air environment, beginning with insulation.

Latier has fielded many more requests for cellulose and other non-fiberglass insulation. "This can range from ground-up blue jeans and clothing to ground-up newspapers," he said. The product is sprayed wet into cavities in walls and floors and, when it dries, it is a very dense insulation that works very well without the emissions of formaldehyde or the health threat of fiberglass.

"People who supply and install this kind of insulation claim that fiberglass insulation is going to be the next asbestos when it comes time to abate its effects," Latier said. "Small glass fibers in fiberglass can lodge in the lungs and don't break down. They've encapsulated it and tried a number of things to keep it from being so irritating, but nothing has worked perfectly."

Kannel has installed a heat recovery air ventilator for many clients. The ventilator draws in fresh outside air that has been filtered and circulates it through the home. The radiator-type technology heats the incoming air with the outgoing air so it is also an energy-efficient system.

Harrell Remodeling uses exterior-grade plywood on both exterior and interior construction because there are fewer gas emissions from the wood, making it safer for homeowners and the tradesmen who work with it, she said.

Tankless or on-demand water heaters are becoming more popular here after having been used in Europe and Japan for decades. Tankless water heaters heat only the hot water that is coming through the spigot. There are no added energy costs to maintain a tank of water 24/7 at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The plumbing is more expensive to install, Davis said, but homeowners can recoup the cost in savings on energy within a year and a half.