Remodels, new builds and add-ons are booming. In July alone, the City of Palo Alto issued about 200 building permits for various home upgrades, everything from simple lighting improvements and installation of electric car chargers, to kitchen and bathroom updates, to the full deconstruction and rebuilding of a home.
So what goes on behind those (brand-new) closed doors in the neighborhood? Sometimes what's not visible is what makes the biggest impact when renovating a home: whether it's literally hidden away in the walls and ceiling, or more figuratively in the careful choice of materials and finishes — even in prepping for the technology that will keep it all running smoothly.
We talked to three local architects about about some of the newer materials, ideas and practices they've been incorporating in their work.
Tali Hardonag: Build and finish sustainably
Palo Alto architect Tali Hardonag, who has worked extensively on green building projects, draws on sustainable practices in her work, which among other considerations, includes the sourcing of materials.
When it comes to the fixtures and finishes of a home, she said, clients are thinking more about whether materials are sustainable. "Bamboo has become very popular, for example. Concrete surfaces, recently also porcelain, which we're familiar with as small tile pieces for the wall, is now coming in huge slabs so you can use it as a countertop material with no seams in it," she said
Innovations have made LEDs a more versatile option, closer to suggesting the warm glow of an incandescent bulb instead of its previous, perpetually chilly glow. "When you dim it, it actually does change the color (to a warmer hue). It used to be a specialty but now it's more affordable and available in more and more fixtures," Hardonag said.
Many clients are interested in incorporating LEDs or solar panels into their remodel, Hardonag said. To get the maximum benefit of these energy-saving components, she emphasizes making the home itself energy efficient.
Higher-grade insulation — and the variety of systems for delivering it, from framing alternatives like structural insulated panels (SIPs) and other wall systems — play an important role in increasing energy efficiency. She said that more efficient insulation, such as spray foam, which is denser and creates a better air seal, also offers the opportunity for smaller framing. For example, she noted that previously, a vaulted ceiling would require framing out significant additional space just to accommodate traditional insulation but now she can build it with a shallower frame.
In addition to better insulation, Hardonag draws on an array of materials and strategies to make homes more energy efficient, including "cool roofs, high-energy value windows and glass doors, appliances and light fixtures that are energy efficient."
Cool roofs deflect the sun's heat and can save energy. Materials used for cool roofing include some composition shingles, depending on their makeup, and metal. Roofs made of metal offer additional benefits in easily accommodating solar panels and in being recyclable, if homeowners ever want to remove the roof.
Davide Giannella: Choose the right materials
Thoughtful choice of materials can put workhorse elements like roofing, fixtures and climate control systems and insulation on the cutting edge of architectural trends.
"I'd say greener products, special synthetic woods, modern cabinetry from Europe, newer HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), more sophisticated insulation, metal roofs, computerized appliances and perhaps acrylic panels (are the future of building)," said architect Davide Giannella, of Acadia Architecture in Los Gatos .
One of Giannella's recent projects, located off Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto, was a complete teardown and rebuild of the existing home. The five-bedroom house features imported cabinets, laser-cut metal panels for railings, and, to improve energy efficiency, rigid foam insulation and radiant ceiling panels for heating and cooling.
Giannella kept to the traditional roofline of the home's original colonial style, but modernized it with standing-seam metal roofing. "It lasts forever, it's fireproof, and it's sharp and modern. It's more expensive in the beginning, but it doesn't need to be repainted or refinished," he said.
Metal makes a sturdy roof, but it also provided this home with exterior railings that are both secure and striking. Laser cutting creates delicate, intricate patterns in metal panels that are thin, but still strong enough to be functional, Giannella said, noting that the process lends itself to customization. Powder-coating the metal means it won’t rust.
“It’s a solution that has been around in the commercial realm for a while,” he said.
Giannella also recently completed a new build off Skyline Boulevard in the Los Gatos hills that used SIPs, a form of prefabrication that assisted in expediting construction while increasing energy efficiency, sound insulation and reducing construction waste.
"The owners, being extremely hands-on people and strong believers in sustainability, very tech-savvy, were the actual proposers of the SIP framing concept," he said.
Conventional framing uses individual wood studs, assembled onsite, while SIPs are pre-made panels created from foam core sandwiched between two boards. When they arrive at the build site, the panels are bolted together, quickly creating an insulated frame.
"SIPs are a framing solution that is ideal for less temperate climates, places where the temperature swings are more dramatic than we usually find here, so they tend to be more widely adopted on the other coast," Giannella said, but noted that with stricter energy standards in California, there's growing local interest.
Prefabricated homes are becoming more widely used throughout construction in the past five years, said Giannella. Just last year, Rialto-based Plant Prefab built and installed a prefabricated home on Waverly Street in Palo Alto.
With prefabrication, homes are built offsite in climate-controlled facilities and shipped to construction sites in modules, which allows homes to be manufactured regardless of season or weather conditions. Onsite, the homes are stitched together in a matter of weeks, reducing construction time and neighborhood disruptions.
Malika Junaid: Get 'smart'
Malika Junaid, founder and principal at M Designs Architects in Palo Alto, said she's seeing more customers interested in smart homes, which use internet-connected devices for remote monitoring and management of appliances and systems, including heating, lighting and security.
She completed a remodel project in Menlo Park in 2016 that, while not fully automated, was built automation-ready for the clients to have the capability of expanding to a fully functional smart home. She said, however, that if the project was completed today, it's highly likely that additional automation would be included.
"We have the capability to tap into automation and making security systems easier to use — things that were difficult at the time," she said. "Nobody wanted to take a risk. Now, there is so much with cams and automations to control shades, locks and doors and there is competition to reduce costs. Technology has made things easier. Lifestyles have changed and the technology is there."
Artificial intelligence-enabled and drone security systems are starting to make their way into the market, Junaid said. Companies like San Francisco's Sunflower Labs plan to use home-security drones, and Palo Alto's Cherry Labs is employing AI to monitor and report, for instance, if a person falls and is unable to contact emergency personnel.
"There are endless possibilities," she said. "AI automation and security systems are really cool and we're looking forward to using them, but they need to be vetted more for cybersecurity and data breaches, and the industry needs to assure us securities are in place. Figuring out how these technologies are going to keep you safe is going to be a big thing — and big question for all of the homeowners."
Junaid said customers are also asking for charging stations and floor outlets to reduce the number of electrical cords cluttering a room, and she said she's seeing more homeowners opt for LEDs in the past two years to assist with the look, feel and intensity of lighting throughout a home.
Melissa McKenzie is a freelance writer.
Home & Real Estate Editor Heather Zimmerman contributed to this article.