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Customization & Sustainability – Wood’s Place in the House of the Future
A look at housing design trends and the role that wood will play in future housing design.

By DeAnna Stephens
Date Posted: 10/1/2009

            With plastic, metal, concrete blocks, structural insulated panels and composites constantly fighting for wood’s territory, it can seem like the house of the future will be made of everything but wood. Although some emerging trends may not cater to wood use, there are other factors that promise wood a good home in the future.

            Several concepts that are emerging as guiding factors for future home construction are developing technology, customizability, energy efficiency, and sustainability. Given the importance of home construction to the U.S. forest products industry, these trends are changes that every smart sawmill and wood products company must recognize. 

            Homeowners want their homes to work for them, to be extensions of their personalities that fit and enhance their lifestyles. They want easy to use features and floor plans tailored to their needs, and they want to feel good about it. The result will be customized homes that are energy efficient and built with sustainable materials.

            America has long been intrigued with imagining what the future will look like. From the Jetsons to Star Trek, imaginations have run wild with visions of personal spaceships, robot maids, and instant transportation devices. Now we’re living in the future. And though our homes don’t look quite like a real life version of the skypad the Jetsons called home, there are some similar technologies that could soon be seen in homes.

            Both Disney and Microsoft have built model futuristic homes depicting what they think houses will look like a few years down the road. In most ways, these houses look much like houses do today. The real difference in them is the technology that is embedded into every room of the houses. Both have interactive kitchens that suggest recipes based on the ingredients in the house, mirrors that give fashion advice and dining tables with computer capabilities.

            Other organizations have designed demo houses equipped with facial recognition capabilities and are working on technology that learns the habits of residents, so it can assist them in their daily routine. Much of the impetus behind these ideas is designing a house that is more environmentally efficient. If a house knew the daily routine of its residents it would be able to automatically heat, cool and light only the rooms that are going to be used.

            With the rate at which technology is changing, many believe it is only a matter of time before homes become extensions of our technological selves, much as cell phones, handheld computers and iPods have.

            As fascinating – and admit it, downright fun – as these technologies can be, when it comes to house design, technology is going to play an even earlier role – the designing process itself. Multiple programs are being designed to allow homeowners to customize their dream homes from their personal (handheld) computers. Smart phone, meet smart house.

            Such involvement at the earliest stage of home designing will increase the demand for customization, revealing one of the basic roles that wood will play in future home design: an easily customizable material. Americans want everything their way. And wood is a product that can be tailored to fit the wide range of demands that will emerge as homeowners become more involved in earlier parts of the design process.

            Wood’s place as the top material as a house shell is slipping. From 1998 to 2008 wood lost a lot of ground as a home exterior material, dropping from 15% to 6%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Characteristics of New Housing for 2008 survey. Vinyl siding is now the most common principal exterior material, holding 32% of the market in new single-family homes sold. Wood doesn’t even win points regionally as vinyl, brick and stucco have the majority of markets by region.

            Another difficulty facing the wood market is the decrease in home sizes. The size of homes in the U.S. is shrinking as a result of the economic recession, according to the Home Design Trends Survey for the first quarter of 2009 conducted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA)

            “The era of the ‘McMansion’ could well be over as home sizes have been trending downward recently, with a significantly higher number of architects reporting demand for smaller homes this year,” said AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker.

            “Home sizes historically have declined during housing recession, but this downturn appears to have ushered in a more dramatic reversal of an extended period of growth in home sizes,” said Kermit.

            While smaller houses could be good news for the environment, they bring mixed news for the wood market. Smaller houses will demand less wood for structural purposes. However, depending on the reason for downsizing, they may create new opportunities for wood.

            “As the housing boom has passed there seems to be a renewed interest in investing in properties to make homes more livable, as opposed to real estate that can be resold quickly for a profit,” Kermit said.

            Architect Sarah Susanka promotes the idea of building better, not bigger, houses. Her book, The Not So Big House, has sparked a movement toward smaller and more personal homes. Sarah suggests purposely designing smaller houses to allow a focus on more personalized details, based on the idea that homes should not be museums but rather comfortable places that fit the personalities and needs of their inhabitants. The personalized details are where wood comes in. Customized crown molding, stair rails and cabinets are some of the basic ways that wood can be used to allow homeowners to dress up and customize their houses at a small cost and turn a house into a personal sanctuary.

            The smaller homes resulting from the economy’s state and personal preferences are actually greener as well.

            “The smaller, smarter home can be considered a precursor to green building since, by definition, green homes require less material to build and less energy to heat and cool,” said architect James Wentling in an article published in Nation’s Building News.

            An increased awareness of environmental impact has made its way into the building market, creating a fast-growing demand for green homes. Builders, architects, real estate agents and homeowners are all jumping on board the green wagon; green certification of new and remodeled buildings is fast becoming a given across the United States.

            In the middle of August, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) announced that its number of Certified Green Professionals had reached 4,000. At the same time, the NAHB Research Center had already certified over 350 homes as meeting the National Green Building Certification and had another 4,500 projects in process. Third-party certification verifies that a building was designed and built for energy savings, water efficiency, carbon emission reductions, indoor environment quality, and stewardship of resources. NAHB is just one of multiple third-party green certification programs. Other major programs in the U.S. include Green Globes and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program.

            “When the housing market returns, it will be accompanied by increased demand for green and energy-efficient new homes and remodeling projects,” said Joe Robson, NAHB chairman.

            An increased demand for energy-efficient homes may come from more than the environmentally conscious consumers. Even those who don’t care about energy efficiency may be forced to care because of government requirements. The American Clean Energy and Security Act already passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would require states to establish building codes that would reduce the energy use of new homes in half by 2014.

            This growing environmental consciousness of the American public is a great boon to the wood market. As a carbon neutral material, wood has a distinct advantage in the midst of the green movement. Amid rising concern over climate change, a product that can store carbon for the duration of its life has an advantage over other materials, such as plastic and steel, which require high energy consuming processes to manufacture. The forest products industry must continue to tell its positive environmental story and work toward more certification of wood products to provide third party validation of these claims.

            Though wood has lost some of its market share as the chief material in home structures, it is nowhere near being kicked to the curb. Growing demands for customization and green practices in building have assured it of new and growing markets if the industry continues to work toward meeting the challenges of the future with one of the oldest building materials in existence.

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