The future of home design is looking more and more efficient, compact and customized. While we aren’t quite ready to 3D-print dinner, innovation and invention are at the forefront of building industry trends. Here’s what’s happening on the front lines of home design today based on a tour of the season’s trade shows—and what it means for your house tomorrow.
1. Meet “zero energy ready,” the new efficiency standard
Zero Energy Ready (ZER) is today’s gold standard for efficient home design. Created by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2008, the program boasts over 14,000 energy-efficient homes resulting in millions of dollars in energy savings. The goal of a ZER Home is twofold: to be capable of being powered by renewable energy sources, and to create a healthy and comfortable environment that is durable enough to stand the test of time.
Considered a substantial step beyond Energy Star, this program is ideal for new construction where the specification of insulation, windows, doors and mechanical systems can be coordinated in advance of construction and performance calculated holistically. ZER technologies can also be retrofitted into existing homes. The Revitalize Home, a recent demonstration project sponsored by Dow Chemical Company, illustrates how working to ZER standards by upgrading insulation and air sealing details resulted in a 30% monthly energy cost savings and a 33% reduction in CO2 emissions.
As the program grows in awareness, leading manufacturers are stepping up to create products like foam insulation and sealants that make it easier for builders and homeowners to achieve the standard. While there’s an upfront cost to meet the standards of programs like ZER, the benefits can be recouped in a short number of years when considering the total cost of ownership over time.
2. Smart homes go mainstream
I must confess the idea of a fully automated home slightly terrifies me. I love the simplicity of turning lights on and off with switches and not worrying about whether my TV is recording private conversations. Yet it’s impossible to deny the benefits and efficiencies that can come from the new home automation products now on the market.
The most famous is the Nest Learning Thermostat, the magic device that learns our patterns, then modifies the temperature accordingly on its own. Other products like AT&T’s (T) Digital Life system offer integrated security systems as well as energy monitoring and even water leak detection. These systems are controlled from your smart phone or tablet, allowing you to operate your home on or off site.
3. These towns were made for walking
One of the biggest trends in home design is not about the house at all, but where it’s located. Proximity to walkable communities with a mix of uses adds to individual property value and strengthen sthe local tax base. This year, the National Association of Home Builders honored the Village of Providence, a new development in Huntsville, Alabama, as its “community of the year.” Providence is a pedestrian-oriented development by Mouzon Design and Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co, two of the nation’s leading planning firms specializing in New Urban communities, and the award highlights the growing awareness of not only the financial, but the social and even emotional benefits of living in a community with walkable streets, multiple modes of transportation, and a mix of uses.
In his recent book, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, author Dan Buettner claims that cutting an hour-long commute each way is the happiness equivalent of a $40,000-per-year pay raise. But while many Americans would like to reduce or eliminate their commute (indeed, who wouldn’t?) it’s often difficult to find a home in a community closer to work, where you’d ideally be able to walk to work in your community but at the very least would be able to get to work via transit without a long commute in a car. The solution is to build more communities with a mix of uses linked by public transportation. Demand is growing for homes in walkable communities, but supply is short. We’ll see this trend continue—and more and more builders and developers will follow the lead of the Village of Providence.
4. Size matters: Micro and tiny are huge
When tiny house-themed reality shows arrive, you know a movement is more than a passing trend (if you haven’t seen them, take your pick from Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House Nation or Tiny House Builders). So why are tiny homes and their cousins, micro apartment units, so intriguing? I believe the curiosity is twofold. First, as a society we love extremes. From the frozen tundra of Alaska to the fabulous train wrecks we try to keep up with, Tiny Homes offer a glimpse into an extreme world few of us will every actually enter, one filled with homes so small they’re designed with the clever precision of a yacht, down to the fraction of an inch with storage in every possible place.
Second, I believe a little part inside each of us is surprised by our answer to the question, “could I live like that?” While I don’t see the general public climbing up a ladder to a sleeping loft to go to bed each night, there is a growing demand for a simplified life, with a little less clutter, a little less to house clean and a lot less mortgage to pay off.
The two market segments indicating the most interest in smaller homes are millennials, who either don’t want or can’t afford a mortgage in a place they want to live, and boomers who are downsizing for retirement and want to be released from the golden handcuffs required to pay for and maintain a large home. As a result, product manufacturers at all price points are ramping up to meet this tiny, small and micro-unit demand.
Micro Baths: For the bathroom, at the higher end, Toto offers an Urban Micro Bath suite of products. For those on more of a budget, products like Ikea’s Lillangen line of sinks and storage for bathrooms are ideal for tiny spaces.
Micro Kitchens: GE (GE) is in development of a new line of kitchens for urban micro units developed in the company’s innovative FirstBuild Studio. GE’s designs bring the highest level of yacht design to the kitchen. From a faucet that retracts into the wall to allow the sink to become a chopping block to the timer on the dishwasher projected on the counter, the GE Micro Kitchen is equal parts ingenuity and beauty. For those with a little more space, Liebherr offers a 24” full height refrigerator. At the other end of the price spectrum is the old standby Acme Kitchen, which comes with a certain retro charm.
Micro Laundry: One of the newest innovations in compact living is the development of ventless dryers and compact laundry units, perfect for urban apartments as well as in tiny homes. GE offers a Micro Laundry line to match its Micro Kitchen line, while Bosch and LG offer similar options.
5. Personalization: ‘Pimp Your Ride’ meets the home
It’s human nature to want something uniquely our own, even when we’re on a budget, and now, manufacturers are stepping up and offering creative design options to differentiate any home. My favorites merge new with old:
Personalized Appliances: Maybe you feel your old range is boring, but you can’t afford to replace a perfectly good appliance just because you don’t like the look. GE’s FirstBuild Studio is developing 3D-printed accessories for its older model kitchen appliances. The system will allow you to order new knobs, grill plates and handles in fun colors like cupcake blue or pepper red.
Color & Clear Crystal Knobs: The best way to personalize and transform a room in your home is to upgrade the elements you touch and feel, starting with cabinet hardware. Emtek Hardware offers a new line of Color and Clear Crystal Cabinet Knobs, colorful pieces that provide a modern take on a timeless classic.
Interior Carriage Doors: A new look on the interior of a house is to install sliding barn doors rather than regular swing doors. Real Carriage Door Company offers both custom and stock sliding interior doors. These are ideal for both new construction and DIY products.
The world of the Jetsons remains a few years off, but even so, our homes are becoming smarter and more efficient. Technologies that reduce energy consumption combined with designs that create clever spaces that are easier to afford are big steps forward. So is the increased awareness of the value that comes from communities where we residents can take physical steps outside of the home and are not completely auto-dependent.