Trends in housing includes focus on plastics

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Catherine Kavanaugh Federal housing expert Samuel Rashin talks about housing trends at the International Builders Show.

LAS VEGAS — There are 12 "hard" trends that home builders can bank on and none of them have anything to do with granite, according to federal housing expert Samuel Rashkin.

The dozen trends cited by the chief architect for the U.S. Department of Energy have more to do with high density polyethylene fiber thermal wraps, cross-linked PE plumbing fixtures, butyl-backed flashing for windows and insulated concrete forms made of expanded polystyrene.

Rashkin is traveling the country to promote high-performance innovations for houses, in part by pointing to trends related to termites, tornadoes and ever-increasing utility bills.

Changes in everything from energy consumption to wild weather need to be addressed in the U.S. housing stock to provide safe, affordable comfort for residents, Rashkin said.

"You're now at the building science tipping point," Rashkin told an audience of contractors and product suppliers at the International Builders Show on Feb. 5.

Borrowing some turns of phrase from author Daniel Burrus, Rashkin said, "The key is knowing how to distinguish a soft trend, like granite — until something new comes along — from a hard trend, like the population will keep increasing. When you put the focus on hard trends, then you have the certainty to help you with the future."

As more contractors take note and then take action, the plastics industry will play an important role in the construction of the ultimate abode: zero-energy-ready homes where all or most energy use is offset by renewable energy.

Rashkin didn't single out any specific products or materials, but plastics are part of solutions when it comes to better insulation, tighter building envelopes, low-flow water systems and disaster-resistant building systems.

Rashkin said the "12 things we know without a doubt" that will impact the housing industry are:

• Electric bills keep increasing. They have gone up 80 percent in the last decade.

• Houses need tighter building envelopes and tougher codes are requiring builders to verify air tightness. "Don't reinvent the wheel. We have Energy Star [version] 3 on the marketplace to give you an off-the-shelf solution of how to get rid of risk."

• Demand for energy performance is growing. "In 2012-13, 22-25 percent of the market was high-performance homes. This percent of the market keeps getting bigger and the trend is going up exponentially over time."

• People care more about health. Consumers spend about $40 billion a year on food certified to be chemical-free and $20 billion on bottled water. "Why are we leaving that money on the table? Why are we not giving home buyers solutions? They want healthier living. Why not give it to them? That's a critical trend."

• Indoor air quality needs to improve. "The latest EPA studies suggest that air quality inside our house has 2-5 times more pollutants than the air outside our homes and as high as 100 percent. That's pretty significant because we spend 90 percent of our time indoors and 60 percent of our time inside our houses."

• Solar-ready features should be built into houses wherever possible. "The next system that every home should have that's in any kind of location with any meaningful solar resource is simple, low-cost, no-cost details that make the house ready for renewable energy systems or solar electric systems. It's so easy to do." Taking this step toward zero-energy ready houses is more compelling than a house that is 30 percent more energy efficient. "That's emotional. My house can go to zero. Solar ready is the next component of the home of the future."

• The need for water efficiency is urgent, and to Rashkin, even greater than energy efficiency. He pointed to a trio of statistics: The U.S. population has doubled in the last half century while water use has tripled. Since just 2011, half the nation has been in some level of a severe drought. At the same time, the average household sends more than 7,000 gallons of water down the drain every year waiting for it to get hot. Solutions include lower flow-rate water fixtures and on-demand pumping systems that offer hot water in seconds.

• Weather is getting really strange. Hurricane Sandy spanned a record 1,100 miles, killing 285 people and causing $65 billion in damage. The 2.6-mile-wide twister that tore along a 16-mile path in Oklahoma last May was the largest tornado in recorded history. Nine inches of rain fell on Boulder, Colo., in 24 hours, causing flooding that led to the biggest civilian airlift since Hurricane Katrina. Wild fires in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in 2011-12 set state records in terms of size and destruction.

• The entire country is exposed to natural disaster. Repairs from an earthquake continue on the Washington Monument. Colonies of voracious Formosan termites, which can vaporize a wood-frame home in a year, are moving farther and farther north. On this point and the previous one, Rashkin asked, "Can we continue saying disaster risk systems and measures aren't part of high-performance homes? ... We have to catch up to the reality we're living in."

• Innovation is expected. Customers want more and more from products. Rashkin reminded builders, "Seventy-eight million of your next buyers are Gen Yers who have grown up with using technology. Can you ignore their expectations in everything they consume?" If you don't exceed expectations, someone else will. It's good business. Builders need to adopt quality-management techniques. Bring in specialty trades in the design phase. Make the field process accountable for the innovations.

• Home buyers are more informed. Just like people read online restaurant reviews, they know what others are saying about the experience of living in houses constructed by certain builders.

• Existing homes — the competition — are getting older. Almost 60 percent of homes were built in 1979 and earlier. There are concerns about asbestos, lead and high utility bills. Moisture risks are substantial from windows that haven't been pan flashed.

All in all, Rashkin said this is a good time and opportunity for builders to promote "engineered comfort" as they hammer away at helping the U.S. housing stock make the transition to safer, greener, more satisfying places to live.