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CITY STYLE IN SUBURBIA

For those who would prefer city living in the suburbs, this year's New American Home could be to your liking.

It's a loft, which, of course, is more a creature of aging warehouse and factory districts in the older industrial cities of the Northeast and the Midwest than of the suburbs and master-planned communities of the west coast of Florida.

The loft layout "brings an urban vitality to a suburban environment, a welcome alternative to cul-de-sac living," Builder magazine says.

"It's another housing option for the suburbs . . . a new choice for that kind of setting,' " the consulting architect told the magazine.

Tampa Bay developers and builders have already decided that lofts are the right choice for urban infill projects. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes the bold step of offering loft homes in suburban master-planned communitiesin the bay area.

That's what the New American Home design team did in placing the 5,180-square-foot, three-level concrete home in a gated community, the Lakes at West Sahara, 15 minutes from the Strip, offering it as a suburban alternative.

The New American Home was one of the destinations for 115,000 builders who attended the International Builders Show in Las Vegas this month. The home is sponsored by Builder magazine and the National Council of the Housing Industry, a committee of the National Association of Home Builders.

Since its inception at the 1984 builders show, the New American Home has been more a showcase for the latest products, construction methods and technologies than a single idea builders can take home with them, and this house, with an asking price of $1.8-million, is no exception.

For example, this is the first New American Home since 1993 that is constructed of concrete, using interlocking concrete forms, or ICFs, to create a highly energy-efficient and moisture-resistant envelope that would appeal to builders in wetter, warmer climates. Florida builders are familiar with ICFs, though concrete block still reigns supreme in new-home construction.

In an area such as Las Vegas, where stick-built houses are the norm, however, persuading builders Bart and Steve Jones to use the ICFs took some doing.

Bart Jones, a principal in Merlin Contracting & Developing LLC in Las Vegas, said the previous experience he and Steve Jones, his brother, had with concrete construction didn't make them enthusiastic about using it again.

"Steve walked the floor with Lex" _ consulting architect W.A. "Lex" van Straten _ "at last year's show and talked with concrete manufacturers to decide whether we should go with ICFs or concrete forms and ties," Bart said. In form-and-tie construction, which is common in commercial building, concrete is poured into aluminum forms to create walls. Ties act as guides and supports to prevent the concrete from bulging and sagging.

The Joneses decided on ICFs. Even though the cost is 3 percent to 5 percent above that of stick-frame building, the advantages _ less time, lower labor costs, high energy efficiency, no mold growth or moisture damage _ are worth it, they said. (Two-story homes in Florida typically are concrete block on the ground floor, stick framing above.)

The finished house will use 46 percent less energy for heating and cooling, hot water and lighting than Merlin's standard houses. The house received a Home Energy Rating System score of 90, exceeding the rating of 86 required for Energy Star status by the federal government.

Van Straten said one of the goals behind using concrete was quick and efficient construction, since most of the year between shows is devoted to design and negotiation with product suppliers rather than building.

ICF construction is not the only thing contributing to energy efficiency. The house, which is adjacent to the 2-foot-deep canal that feeds into an artificial lake and has its own dock, has a steel-frame roof built with structural insulated panels, known as SIPs, which guarantee airtightness.

The copper roof shingles reflect sunlight away from the house, lowering roof surface temperatures and reducing the energy it takes to cool the house in the summer. Heat recovery ventilators ensure good indoor air quality.

It is easy to focus on energy efficiency in a climate like that of Florida or Nevada, but it is how a house looks that attracts buyers much more than how much it costs to run it.

A loft design gives the house an industrial quality, no matter how luxurious the architect, builders and designers have tried to make it.

Van Straten defended his decision to leave the ductwork in the ceiling exposed "because it is a typical loft feature, related to open industrial warehouses."

He acknowledged that concrete can give a house a cold, hard feeling but argued that its durability is an appropriate tradeoff and that it made producing the clean, straight lines typical of lofts quite easy.

The versatility of the material in the design process is another plus. Each level of the house has a different concrete flooring technique, integrated with decorative finishing. So do the exterior decks, since, as with most new houses in warmer climates, indoors and outdoors are virtually interchangeable.

In fact, this house _ from building techniques down to the canal _ is easily translatable to Florida and other Sun Belt locations.

The builders also made great use of mosaic tile, which appears to be making a return to residential construction.

Unlike the vast majority of houses in Las Vegas, this one has a basement, and a walkout basement at that. This lower level has a media room, laundry, pantry, wine cellar and two bedrooms and two baths, as well as a powder room and a terrace.

The main level _ and again, remember that inside and outside are interchangeable _ has a galley kitchen with pantry, dining room, living room, outdoor kitchen with a fireplace and a deck that leads to the boat dock, an upper patio, a garden, a swimming pool, a reflecting pool, a garage and an entrance court.

The upper level, which has a terrace with a spa on one side and a covered terrace on the other, holds the master suite, with a 9- by 15-foot closet, a 25- by 7-foot bathroom, a steam shower, an exercise room and, of course, the bedroom.

Van Straten, principal of Food for Buildings in the Hague, in the Netherlands, acknowledged the European influences in the layout of the house but added that "building is the same everywhere. What we do is take materials and build shelter for people. We have been doing that forever."

He told Builder magazine: "We're not trying to change the world" with this house, "but to build an awareness of materials and systems that address issues of depleted resources, durability and longer life cycle."

Since the New American Home is primarily a product showcase, how much influence do the donors of very expensive products, such as custom fireplaces, wine cellars and spas, have on the design? (Longtime watchers of the New American Home remember the year there was a Corian workbench in the garage.)

"Every manufacturer is allowed to present its ideas to the development team," said John Ted Mahoney III, chairman of the New American Home task force. "The manufacturers don't tell us what do to."

Allisanne Frew, an interior merchandiser and owner of Source Francaise in Oregon House, Calif., said the meetings with manufacturers began during the 2003 show in "15-minute rounds."

"We could have had anything we wanted," she said.

Van Straten said the process used to determine which products went into the house wasn't static.

"We first went with one window manufacturer, then decided to go with a second one," he said.

Frew also pointed to the use of technology, especially in the design of the media room by Creative Home Theater LLC, as one of the things that contribute to the cutting-edge nature of the New American Home.

And though Van Straten acknowledged that technology doesn't make everyone happy, "It does make life easier and simpler," he said.

Alan J. Heavens covers real estate for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

To learn more

To read the Builder magazine story on the New American Home and see additional images, visit www.builderonline.com. Under "Design and Architecture," click on "The New American Home."

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