Around the year 500 B.C., the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Nothing endures but change.” Over the centuries his wisdom has proven correct time and again—except, for the most part, in the field of custom home building. True, new developments have taken place in materials science, mechanical systems, and building products, but generally speaking, the way a custom home comes together hasn't changed much in the past 100 years.
“The home building industry has always moved very, very slowly,” says timber-frame guru Tedd Benson of Bensonwood Homes in Walpole, N.H., who for years has been calling on his fellow builders to evolve more quickly. “Historically, it moved even more slowly. It was the same for about a thousand years, and then there were many changes at the end of the 19th century and in the first part of the 20th century—mostly concerning the integration of various mechanical systems.” Custom builders tend to be skeptical of anything new, and with good reason: Plenty of unproven products and techniques have bombed over the years, leaving unhappy homeowners in their wake. “The skepticism is justifiable,” says John Connell, an architect and builder in Warren, Vt. “Builders learn what they know through a slow process of doing it. If they make a mistake, they lose a lot of money.”
But the next 10 years could be a period of rapid evolution for custom building. Spurred by the economic recession and environmental realities, consumers are looking for homes that provide more value and consume less energy. Green building has vaulted from the fringes smack into the mainstream, and that's where it will stay. “Green is in its infancy, as far as being in the public consciousness,” says Richard Mandell of Sandy Spring Builders in Bethesda, Md. On a related note, more builders are using (or considering) some form of prefabrication for high-end custom homes. The three major levels of prefab—pre-made building components, panelization, and modular construction—are attracting more interest from high-end custom builders than ever before.
Helped along by LEED for Homes and other environmental rating systems, the soaring popularity of green building has already begun to create ripples of change throughout the industry. Many custom builders have happily switched to using recycled drywall, low- or no-VOC paints, and flyash concrete, at little or no increased cost to the client. “In the past, when the painters were painting, no other subs could really be in there because of the smell,” observes Bob Voertman, residential project manager at Engelmann Inc., in Ketchum, Idaho. “Now you can have other people in there at the same time. So even though green products might cost a little more, there might be savings in the overall cost of the job.”
Foam insulation, passive solar design, radiant heat, and high-efficiency HVAC systems also have become de rigueur for new custom homes. “We're seeing people be very proactive and energy-conscious to make sure they're saving their money,” says Randy Gardner of North Kingstown, R.I.-based Gardner Woodwrights. More custom home buyers are requesting geothermal heating and cooling. And photovoltaics, although still far from common, are gaining ground; in The American Institute of Architects' (AIA's) 2nd Quarter 2009 “Home Trends Design Survey,” released in October 2009, 55 percent of respondents reported that client interest in solar panels was on the rise.