Where the Livin’ is Easy

Busy people are turning to home for solace

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Ornate corbels surround the elegant light fixture in the kitchen’s coffered ceiling (pictured above). Beautiful stone and tilework grace the work area (below). Both installations were done by Kitchens & Interiors International. 

The term “busy executive” has been heard so often in the last few years, it’s close to becoming white noise. We complain about too little time to get in all we want to include in our lives; we worry about eking out time with families, or time for fitness; time, in fact, seems to be crunching in on itself, sending stress to new heights. 

“What else is new?” you ask? It turns out, a lot. Remember the phrase: “If you want something done well, give it to a busy person”? Well, like their predecessors throughout history, busy executives have been addressing the problem. 

As the world has become too much with us, we have retreated to the home. Trendspotter Faith Popcorn noticed it 20 years ago, when she identified what she called “cocooning,” followed a few years later by “burrowing.” Home as sanctuary, refuge, safe harbor. Technology and products are emerging that allow us to build or remodel our homes to reflect and support that mindset.

“We’ve seen the size of homes skyrocket over the last 40 years, while the total household size has decreased,” says Joe Sinagra, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont. 

Some of that extra space is being dedicated to working at home and creatively using personal time at home for family activities. “Certainly, a lot more home offices are being built or sketched into plans,” Sinagra says. “Last year, $700 million was spent on remodeling, and a lot of that is going into home offices and home theaters in Vermont.”

Roger Phelps, co-owner of Creative Sound in Williston, knows home theaters. He and his partner, Chris Folley, install a growing number of them, as well as home automation systems controlled by computers. 

“We design systems for the whole house,” says Phelps. “We’ve done everything from a simple pair of speakers to a full-house fit, with security, home theater, lighting control, surround sound.” 

The company handles installations large and small. “For example,” says Phelps, “a simple product you can put into a home theater application has two wireless keypads for lighting, so every time the system turns on, it will drop the lights down to a certain degree. It’s all controlled off of this little device.”

Elsewhere in the home, as people remodel or build, the formal dining room is giving way to space for great rooms, complete with large, efficient kitchens and space for dining and relaxing. “With Mom and Dad both working now, and less time being spent with the family,” Sinagra says, “the space lets them use time preparing meals as time spent with the family.”

Surfaces create the look and efficiency of the kitchen, whether as countertops of stone, wood, glass or stainless steel, or in cabinetry of many materials, finished to appear more like fine furniture. As the “great room/kitchen-as-community-space” idea grows, people want their kitchens to be less like laboratories and more like other rooms in the home. Appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators, even ovens, are often hidden behind sleek doors or in wood-fronted drawers. It’s not unusual nowadays to find two or even three strategically placed dishwasher drawers, offering convenience and efficiency. 

A home retreat often extends to the exterior, where decks, garden rooms and patios like this one offer places for relaxation with friends and family.

Kitchens are among the specialties of Kitchens & Interiors International, says John Campbell, owner of the company. “We do kitchens, bathrooms, pantries, butler pantries, libraries, dens, fireplace surrounds and a lot of ceiling treatments.” 

Stone countertops continue to be at the top of request lists, says Campbell. While he doesn’t see that changing, he has noticed increasing requests for both poured concrete counters and glass. “All types of glass for countertops,” he says. “Not necessarily for the whole kitchen, but accent pieces like a raised eating bar in glass. It can be in colors, clear or translucent.”

Ceiling treatments appear to be a growing priority, says Campbell. “Lighting is huge for the kitchen, and not just lighting, but coffered ceilings. For example, wood inlays, that sort of thing.

Kitchen style is evolving, too, he says. “We’re doing a lot more contemporary work — not more than traditional, but we’re seeing more contemporary for sure: simple lines, elegant, less is more.” For contemporary kitchens, finishes move beyond traditional wood to high-gloss laminates combined with wood, he says.

As higher-end materials go into kitchens and baths, homeowners pay more attention to accessories. “With the cost of appliances and granite tops and glass showers,” says Everett Windover, whose family owns 13 Culligan Water Treatment franchises, “the quality of water plays a big factor in the net result after they put water through their system. I have one customer who has $60,000 worth of fixtures and faucets, so the quality of water begins to become a big deal.”

Gone are the days of wire shelving in higher-end closets. These days, they are adorned with customized built-ins that look like furniture.

People today are also much more aware of what goes into water, says Windover. “The drinking and bottled water industry has been booming over the last decades.” Homeowners expect the same water quality in the home.  

These days, Culligan systems use a probe called an Aqua Sensor that constantly analyzes the hardness levels and automatically compensates for it. “We have a system to treat just about anything in water,” says Windover, even radionuclides — radon, arsenic — then iron, manganese, hardness, which is calcium in the water.”

The bathroom is the other traditional space receiving attention. Here again, materials play a large part, with surfaces following a path similar to that of kitchens. Sinagra recently toured a home with an 1,100-square-foot bathroom featuring a waterfall. “It was absolutely gorgeous!” he exclaims. 

On a more down-to-earth level is the self-controlling fan system, which, Sinagra says, “senses moisture in the air. The fan turns on when there’s too much moisture and shuts it off when there isn’t. All 5-Star Energy homes have to have that.”

Energy Star is a government-backed program that helps businesses and individuals protect the environment through superior energy efficiency. 

This bath features a pedestal tub and stone fireplace (out of frame, on right) in a hall off the master bedroom suite and separate from the master bath.

Closets have come, um, out of the closet in recent years. High-end installations feature built-ins that look like furniture, and customized equipment and design. “Gone are the days of wire shelving and wood racks,” says Todd Warren, the president of Otter Creek Awnings, which specializes in sun rooms for homes, retractable deck and patio awnings and high-end, customized closet systems.

Otter Creek launched its closet business only a couple of years ago after hearing from customers on a survey that customized closets were tops on their lists. “It’s a national trend,” says Warren, “and Vermont is just catching up.”

It’s important to note that in tandem with the “home as sanctuary” movement is a growing concern for the environment and a desire to build homes with the least possible impact on it, says Jack McKernon, president of The McKernon Group in Brandon. “People say, ‘I want to build, but so I’m not killing myself or my kids. Literally, on a daily basis. If you’re following it as I am, you see products coming out every day.”

McKernon mentions the fuel cell as an example. “It is so close, it’s ridiculous,” he says.

David Martin, The McKernon Group’s senior architectural designer, echoes this. “Most people are aware of talking about it for vehicles, but people are working on it for power systems for buildings, to use for equipment, computers, and those things. It’s not strictly a green technology, but it provides a way of conserving and providing electricity when needed.”

This is especially beneficial for people building homes off-the-grid, which is itself a trend. It’s a compact, efficient storage system that can convert excess power from a source of electricity such as a wind or photovoltaic system into hydrogen and then store it for later use. That’s not here today, but it’s not far off.

What is here today is a greatly enhanced use of computer technology for self-sufficiency. Already, systems exist that allow a homeowner to remotely monitor the home. You can phone home, for example, to turn up the heat or check that the basement is dry or turn on the outside lights before your arrival. 

Home heating systems, says Martin, are going through similar kinds of revolutions as far as the efficiency of heating plants. “Also fuel types,” he says, mentioning Middlebury College, which uses biodiesel in its lawn-mowing equipment and many road vehicles and has said it is converting to biodiesel or a blend in some of its buildings with oil-fired boilers.

“I think the whole idea of efficiency is one thing to reduce expenses, but also a trend in the more cutting-edge folks who think in terms of independence of systems, off-grid. There are wind systems built for home-size production, and those are becoming viable for residences or small businesses,” says Martin.

“We’ve seen more concerns about insulation and R value,” says Grant Spates, president of Spates Construction in Derby. Triple-glazed windows are becoming the norm, he says, to reduce energy costs. “In the last few years, we’ve heard concerns about chemicals in carpets and furniture to a lesser degree,” he says. “Fiberglass insulation is something we’re also hearing more concerns about, because those fibers get in people’s lungs.”

Materials have evolved and emerged that support the “green” attitude, some of them from surprising places. “Creative reuse is key to green building practices,” says McKernon, whose company uses “slate” roofing made from recycled materials from the automobile industry, and processed glass aggregate, obtained free from recyclers, as safe and efficient fill around homes for good drainage.

William Maclay of William Maclay Architects & Planners in Waitsfield is known for his earth- and people-sensitive designs of residential and industrial buildings. For some of his projects, he uses fly ash, a byproduct of coal burning, which can replace up to 50 percent or more of the cement in concrete. Glass tiles made of recycled auto windshield glass go into bathrooms. Some tiles use tailings from mining projects. Material that looks like stone but is made of ground-up soybeans and newspapers can be used on counters where water isn’t an issue.

When he renovated the space for his office, Maclay used cherry cut from his family’s property. Cupboard doors in his offices are made of the waste from wheat. At both his home and office are solar collectors for generating electricity. Trackers follow the sun to optimize collection. 

With all this shifting of priorities, there are some things that remain the same, according to Joel Bradley, the owner of Vermont Frame Game in South Burlington. “When it comes to buying art,” he says, “people are very conservative.  

“People frame things and are pretty conservative about it. And there’s a good reason. What’s hot this year, if you have a really good piece of art and frame it really conservatively, it will always be a well-framed piece of art.”

Well-done will always be in style.