The annual International Builders' Show always reflects the housing industry as a whole, and so the quiet, scaled-down scene this year was no surprise. Back in 2006, more than 100,000 builders, manufacturers, architects, financial experts, and other housing professionals crowded multiple halls of the convention center in Orlando. This year, about half as many attendees huddled in a single hall, where big names like Whirlpool, GE, and Home Depot were conspicuously absent. As dramatic as it sounds, the 50 percent-decline in attendance was nothing compared to the drop-off in housing starts, which will be well below 500,000 in 2012 compared to 2 million at the height of the boom.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke didn't sugarcoat the state of the nation's housing in his speech delivered on the final day of the show. “The economic recovery began more than two years ago, but it doesn't feel like much of a recovery for many Americans,” he said, adding that "housing may no longer be viewed as the secure investment it once was thought to be, given uncertainty about future home prices and the economy more generally."
Tell us something we don't know, some in the crowd must have been thinking. And yet, while Bernanke's speech was hardly a rallying call, he did offer some positive solutions for getting the industry back on track. For example, referring to the glut of distressed properties that continue to be a drag on many markets, he said it might make sense to turn some foreclosed homes into rental properties. He also proposed letting land banks—governmental entities that have the ability to purchase and sell real estate, clear titles, and accept donated properties—take over foreclosures.
Bernanke's proposals represent a profound shift in attitudes toward housing. Just the fact that the nation's top economist was advocating for policies that support renting, as opposed to beating the drum of homeownership, felt like something of an about face. Turning to the floor of the convention center and its 800 exhibitors, there was also evidence of creative thinking. Even during the best of times, many new products are the result of incremental innovation, rather than revolutionary design. That was true in 2012, though we also encountered some industry firsts in the following five trends:
Simplified solar. While not quite DIY, the latest solar roof panels are easier than ever to install. CertainTeed's Photovoltaic Solar Roofing panels, for example, are less than an inch thick and can act as the roofing itself, without the shingles beneath. Then there's the Short Stack Solar Modules by Plug 'N Save Energy Products, whose PV Solar Shutter was one of the darlings of the 2011 Builders' Show. With their compact design, the modules can be installed virtually anywhere the sun shines, including roofs, decks, and sheds. Inside the home, NanaWall folding door systems now come with dynamic glass that changes tints on demand to reduce glare, heat loss, and heat gain, eliminating the need for blinds or window treatments.
Makeovers made easy. The slow housing market is forcing many homeowners to make do with the house they have. Ply Gem, maker of siding, windows, doors, and other exterior products, partnered with leading architects nationwide to launch Designed Exteriors, a program that offers exterior makeover ideas for twenty common house styles, including ranch and split-levels. In a similar nod to facilitating curb appeal, Royal Building Products came out with a pre-selected line of low-maintenance window trim that saves you the daunting task of sorting through a catalog of hundreds of options, not to mentioning repainting them every few years.
Ever-increasing water efficiency. With water costs on the rise nationwide and extended droughts anticipated for many regions, fixtures that use less water are in high demand. The low-flow showerheads, dual-flush toilets, and faucet aerators that had novelty status in the past were standard in every booth this year. That includes Danze, whose 200 series showerheads are supposed to use new technology to increase water velocity and spray intensity while maintaining WaterSense-qualified flow rates.
Housing for the generations. It's estimated that one-third of homeowners are now multi-generational, either with an aging parent or adult child moving back in with mom and dad. That's starting to influence the design of new homes, many of which feature granny flats or at the very least a fully appointed guest suite. The Builder Concept Home 2012 demonstrates this new approach to housing.
Sophisticated controls. Homes are doing more of the thinking for you. Among the highlights in home automation at the show was the Nexia Home Intelligence system that lets you remotely manage your energy usage, security, lights, and shades from a computer or smart phone. We also encountered remote-controlled deadbolt locks from SimpliciKey, dimmer switches from Leviton that work with any type of light bulb, be it a CFL, LED, or standard incandescent, and humidity-sensing bathroom fans from Broan-Nutone.