- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Homeowners can envision their dream houses without pause — the scope of the yard, the accouterments on the front porch, even the type of mailbox standing at the lip of the driveway.
Nailing down the details of each room inside their own houses, however, is another matter.
Stepping into that gulf are a chain of shops that attempt to give homeowners' imaginations a helping hand. Expo Design Centers in Fairfax and now Bethesda let customers consider a variety of fully stocked "rooms," from kitchens to bathrooms, to let them see how theirs could look with the proper additions.
The furnishings displayed amidst the well-manicured aisles aren't affordable for everyone yearning for a new or revamped home. Even parsimonious patrons might have their creativity tweaked, though, by the arrangements.
"This Old House" host Steve Thomas, one of the home-remodeling industry's most recognizable faces, paid the Bethesda center a visit Thursday to greet fans and sign a few autographs.
In a phone interview conducted the day before his visit, Mr. Thomas said modern homeowners often aren't sure whether they need to hire architects or designers when remodeling or to tackle the projects themselves. Stores such as those in the Expo Design Center chain try to plug that information gap.
"They're stepping into that breach to provide vignettes," says Mr. Thomas, who is in his 13th year hosting his popular PBS show. "It addresses a real need in the marketplace."
The store, situated behind Montgomery Mall on Westlake Avenue, offers more than 100,000 square feet of interior-design scenarios along with the expected home furnishings.
Its Trade Custom Services provides contacts with builders, contractors, architects and independent designers. In-store employees assist patrons with design questions.
Expo Design Center spokeswoman Melissa Watkins says customers respond to the chain's home-decor flourishes and products such as tiles and appliances formerly unavailable to consumers. Kitchens and bathrooms, she says, remain the key rooms consumers focus on, in part because such work offers a higher return on their investments when it comes time to hammer a "For Sale" sign on the front lawn.
"If you have an older home, you're going to want more amenities," Ms. Watkins says.
Though Mr. Thomas visited the store on behalf of "This Old House," not Home Depot, which operates the centers, he predicts more stores will pop up offering similar services.
It makes good capitalistic sense, he says, because Americans spend more on renovation than new-home construction.
In the third quarter of 1975, remodeling expenditures totaled $25.8 billion, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In the third quarter of 2000, the latest figures available, that number ballooned to $149 billion, consistent with the steady upward progression.
"People want the feel of an old house with the comfort and performance of a new house," Mr. Thomas says.
Customers perusing the Expo Design Center will find plenty to make their new or existing homes more stylish, as its stock reflects modern sensibilities. Those interested in wicker ware, Colonial effects or other less contemporary design motifs should look elsewhere.
Walking from one assembled room to another in the Bethesda store can be a tad disorienting, as if one is being transported between several homes without moving more than a few feet at a time.
Dishes sit stacked in kitchen cabinets, shelves and drawers await a patron's perusal. Both the kitchens and the bathrooms displayed are as immaculate as if the boss were coming for dinner.
A separate kitchen ensemble is rigged to give customers a look at how various lighting styles, from track to recessed lighting, will look.
Kraft Maid Cabinetry, a firm based in MIddlefield, Ohio, supplies cabinets at the Expo Design Center. John Tyahla, a regional manager with the cabinetmaker, says customers "initially come to find answers to their design questions."
There's good reason for that, because homeowners often are ignoring the temptation to buy new homes, he says: "More people today are staying where they are and fixing up what they have."
The wavy-tressed Mr. Thomas, clad in jeans and a cream-yellow shirt, sat unobtrusively in one of the store's aisles Thursday — greeting fans and scribbling autographs.
Customers roaming the faux kitchens, bathrooms and aisles nearby, many for the first time, said they found the store a useful tool in updating their homes.
"Everything is in one place. It's more accessible," says Lisa Huntley, 31, of Upper Marlboro, who recently earned a degree in interior design. "You could bring a client here. It's a reference."
District resident Sheila Austrian, 58, says she is relying on stores such as Expo Design Center and Internet research for help as she builds a new home on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
"I need to make decisions about the bits and pieces going into it," she says.
Sometimes the tactile resources of such a shop can change the best-laid plans. "I thought I wanted a really deep sink, but I couldn't touch the bottom," she says, leaning into such a sink in one of the kitchen vignettes to illustrate her point.
Mike and Cindy Caruso, both 58, of McLean came to get some ideas for a home they plan to build within the next year.
The couple know a fair share about remodeling, having once restored a 150-year-old house, but they said the store opened up a vista to more current design trends.
"You have to know what's going on," Mr. Caruso says.
Baltimore resident Laurie Koller Schwartz, 53, came away a bit sticker-shocked from her first store visit.
"Some things are very pricey, but it's not to say you can't replicate those things," says Mrs. Koller Schwartz, who once remodeled her home's kitchen by herself.
Area residents also can visit the Washington Design Center on D Street SW, near Third Street, which offers similar vignettes.
Jennifer Motruk Loy, the center's marketing and public-relations manager, says the 20-year-old shop once dealt exclusively with design professionals. Four years ago, it opened up several showrooms in its five-floor facility to the public, albeit the well-to-do public; its products are aimed at an upscale clientele.
People can shop in its Kitchen, Bath and Building Products Center, which is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"The marketplace demanded that this resource become available," Ms. Motruk Loy says.
She credits the shift, in part, to the robust economy, but she also points to a culture increasingly in touch with design elements — something she says can be found in everything from the cars we drive to the stylish staplers on our desks.
The District's ongoing economic rebirth also has helped fuel business.
"The redevelopment of downtown Washington has a ripple effect," Ms. Motruk Loy says.
She says she went home shopping a few years ago and felt handcuffed by the limited store displays available.
As elaborate as these stores may be, they cannot answer all the pertinent questions homeowners face, says Michael Alin, executive director of the District-based American Society of Interior Designers. Consumers should look beyond the gloss of the available vignettes when redecorating their homes, he says.
"There are other questions like how is the space being used," Mr. Alin says. "What happens if you have a handicapped person visiting? How does the furniture fit with the lighting? These are good questions a designer will ask."
Stores such as Expo Design Center can help homeowners start such pertinent dialogues.
"If you can start to educate the consumer on the value design brings to the home, that's fine," he says.
Expo Design Centers, a division of Atlanta-based Home Depot, have been educating — and luring — customers since the chain's beginning in 1991.
The chain's success parallels that of "This Old House," which survived the loss of original host, Bob Vila, in 1989 to become one of PBS' longest-running and most-watched franchises.
"The show came out of a sensibility that people were cut off from the products at their own hands," says Mr. Thomas, a seasoned renovator and author.
The low-key TV star says the most frequent questions he faces, beyond how he landed such a great gig, involve kitchen and bathroom renovations. How to conserve energy also is a common refrain with fans.
"Energy is on everybody's mind," he says.
Mr. Thomas says the healthy interest in remodeling reflects our collective frustration with the world around us.
"The one space in your life you can control is your home," he says. "People are spending to make that place as comfortable as possible."

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