- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Washers and dryers that talk to each other. A refrigerator that tells you when you need to buy more milk and butter. Sound futuristic? These appliances are now available for homeowners who yearn for the most technologically advanced home.

At first blush, talking washing machines and dryers seem a little silly, as do appliances that combine disparate functions.

One Internet-ready refrigerator can keep the milk cold and take and send digital photos. It can record a video message of you reminding the children to do their homework when they reach inside for an after-school snack.

There’s a range that can refrigerate foods before — and after — cooking, in case you get stuck in traffic on your way home to a hot meal.

Is that “Jetsons” theme running through your mind yet? If not, the Internet refrigerator can download it on MP3 and you can play it, by remote control, on your whole-house audio system, before you can say, “Jane, stop this crazy thing.”

Yet the folks who sell and install these products say most upgrades in appliances and home designs reflect a realistic look at the way people live today. Busy families want “smarter” appliances that work faster so the family can spend more time relaxing together, they say.

Kitchens and adjacent family offices are becoming more high-tech and, increasingly, the center of daily life. Home theaters, once a perk for the rich, are becoming more common among middle-class families.

And when parents are ready to relax, they are turning to a master bath where spa-style showers and steam showers await them.

“The general trend for years, but particularly for the past two years, has been a ‘cocooning phase,’” says Jeep Fortuna, project designer for Miller Home Services, a division of W.C. & A.N. Miller.

“Now people have taken cocooning to the next level, where they are not even rationalizing their decisions about their homes, but simply choosing whatever gives them joy,” he says. “The attitude today is more of an emotional response. If the homeowner thinks something will give them comfort, they want it, no matter the cost.”

Kitchens, often the family’s center of attention and main gathering place, have been the focus of many recent technological changes.

“More people are eating in with their families and friends, and they want to be able to handle entertaining with ease,” Mr. Fortuna says. “People with large families or who entertain often want two dishwashers, if they have the space, so that they can clean up more easily.

“Now manufacturers are selling a 30-inch-wide dishwasher that allows for more dishes to be done at one time while using just a little more kitchen space,” he says.

According to Bob Garner, director of design for Reico Kitchen and Bath, “Dacor has built a 30-inch dishwasher, but other manufacturers have also designed dishwasher drawers which can be placed in a center island or close to the kitchen in a wet bar or butler’s pantry. They look like a warming drawer which pulls out and can be used for a supplement to a larger dishwasher or in place of it when you have just a few dishes to do.”

Warming drawers to keep meals hot for a late arrival or to heat a side dish are a staple in upscale kitchens, but drawers are also functioning now as refrigerators.

“Sub-Zero has designed a refrigerator drawer which is about 24 inches wide and can have cabinet door panels on the front, so it looks just like a regular drawer,” Mr. Garner says. “These are great for a center island or for a morning room for holding juice or separating snacks or appetizers for a party.”

Grand-scale entertaining often calls for additional food storage, as does shopping in bulk quantities.

“Northland has designed a completely separate refrigerator and freezer for the kitchen, which can be placed next to each other or separately,” Mr. Garner says.

A more unusual kitchen appliance combines the functions of the refrigerator and an oven in one piece of equipment.

Whirlpool’s Polara Refrigerated Range keeps meals cool all day, then, at a preprogrammed time, it begins cooking. When finished, the food is kept warm until the family arrives home. If everyone is unexpectedly late, the Polara automatically will switch back to refrigeration mode.

“There’s a lot of buzz in the industry about this refrigerator-oven system, which can work all day while the family is out,” Mr. Fortuna says. “It also works for people who are kosher and cannot prepare food on the Sabbath. They can prepare the food ahead of time and set the timer so that a meal is ready even while they are following Jewish law.”

Mr. Garner says: “A lot of folks are choosing commercial-grade appliances, including professional gas cooktops that are 36 to 48 inches wide. People are choosing more and more to go with a cooktop and then having their ovens in a separate oven cabinet away from the main cooking triangle. That way, they can use the space under the cooktop for drawers and storage.”

Maytag has designed its Gemini range with two smaller ovens placed underneath a cooktop so that foods can be cooked at two different temperatures at one time.

More high-tech is LG’s Multi-Media refrigerator, which not only keeps food cool, but also allows users to access the Internet, check e-mail, download digital music or even watch TV using a touch screen. The refrigerator comes standard with a remote control.

Families can use the refrigerator to leave video messages for other family members, monitor grocery inventory without opening the door, keep track of important dates and appointments, store nutritional information and shoot and e-mail digital pictures to family members in an instant.

The LG Multi-Media refrigerator, with its 20-gigabyte hard drive, has a suggested retail price of $7,999.

While high-tech appliances add sophistication, families are also looking for comfort and convenience in the kitchen.

“Design is more accessible to everyone now, and consumers are exposed to every design idea on television, in magazines and in stores and home centers,” says Holly Polgreen, president of Carlyn and Co. Interior Architecture and Design.

“In kitchens, we’re seeing more interesting details in the cabinetry, including staggered heights and varied materials in the cabinets,” she says. “Besides the old standbys of cherry, maple and white, people are choosing painted, antiqued and rubbed finishes and some interesting bead-board patterns.”

Mr. Fortuna sees a big split in style choices for cabinetry.

“It’s almost like there are two camps, that it’s either the Beatles or the Rolling Stones,” says Mr. Fortuna. “Consumers want either the ultra-simple cabinets that resemble Shaker-style or arts-and-crafts style, or they want a very rococo style with lots of scrolls and flourishes, with multitoned finishes and moldings.”

According to Peter Tamburello, chairman of marketing for the Custom Builders Council and a principal with Keystone, a custom builder: “Our customers are choosing painted finishes and antiqued finishes for their cabinets. Also, you never see brass hardware or lighting fixtures anymore. Everyone is choosing pewter or brushed nickel or bronze instead.”

Whichever style of cabinetry or hardware they choose, nearly all consumers are choosing some type of granite or stone for their counters.

“People want high quality in their homes, but they also want low maintenance if they can get it,” Mr. Fortuna says. “Granite may be beautiful, but it does need care. So some people are choosing to go with synthetic stone, which needs zero maintenance.”

Manufacturers have designed a new type of stainless steel finish that doesn’t show fingerprints, another low-maintenance innovation.

“Consumers are getting more interested in changing their lighting, too,” Ms. Polgreen says. You almost never see a big fluorescent light in the middle of the kitchen ceiling anymore. Instead, people are using multiple types of lighting, such as under-cabinet lighting and pendant lighting.”

In addition to decorative elements, consumers are looking at creating more practical, usable space in their kitchens and adjacent spaces. Kitchen islands are becoming larger and featuring multiple levels so that children can do their homework while the parents are cooking.

“A fun trend in kitchens is the creation of a commuter station for the family in place of the traditional planning desk,” Ms. Polgreen says. “We put in cubbies, a corkboard for calendars and schedules and make the space more functional.”

Functionality also is key in laundry rooms, which are getting larger and more high-tech.

“A lot of our customers are choosing these huge front-loading washers and dryers, which are almost commercial quality,” Mr. Tamburello says. “We need to make the laundry rooms larger to accommodate these machines; plus, customers want more cabinets in the laundry room, too.”

Mr. Garner says: “Laundry rooms are getting larger, and some people are even incorporating hobby areas into the room. Besides the machines, people want a utility sink, an area for folding clothes, lots of storage cabinets and sometimes even a pull-down ironing board. I heard of one woman with a large family who was putting in a laundry room with three washers and three dryers so she could do all her laundry at once.”

“The new generation of washers is really popular,” Mr. Fortuna says. “People are snapping them up with the idea that they will make this chore easier. GE has designed a washer-and-dryer set, called ‘Harmony,’ which talk to each other. When the consumer puts clothes in the washer and tells it to wash dark cottons, then the washer tells the dryer what was just washed, and the dryer preselects the proper temperature and time.”

After the kitchen and laundry chores are complete, the adults in the household retreat to the master suite and the master bath.

“The biggest items in the master bath are no longer the whirlpool tub, but the multihead shower,” Mr. Tamburello says. “Everyone wants these body sprays and multihead showers, plus a lot of our customers are choosing to do a full glass enclosure so they can have a steam shower as well as a regular shower.”

According to Mr. Fortuna: “People have an emotional response to these multijet shower systems, almost as if they are standing under a waterfall. People want aquatherapy, but it needs to be fast, so the spa shower meets that need.”

Consumers are still keeping their soaking tubs and whirlpool tubs, and for those who find time to use them, manufacturers are continuing to improve them.

Kohler has designed a whirlpool tub with lighting that can be changed according to mood. Jacuzzi has a whirlpool tub with a built-in DVD player and television.

“Master baths have become more of a retreat, often with two separate sections, one for each spouse,” Ms. Polgreen says. “For one client, we did a walk-through shower, which connected the two separate bathroom areas. Her side had a soaking tub plus her own vanity area, and his had another vanity area.”

Whirlpool tubs and multihead showers both require plenty of hot water, a problem some homeowners resolve by installing larger water heaters or additional water heaters.

“A technology that has been around for a while is a point-of-use heater in the bathroom, which brings water into a compact box and electrifies it to provide instant hot water,” Mr. Fortuna says. “There’s also a new housewide system that recirculates the hot water, which conserves water and allows for instant hot water in the shower.”

Grundfos Pumps Corp. introduced its Comfort Series Instant Hot Water System in 2002, which can be installed in new or existing homes.

The pump-and-valve system recirculates the hot water that normally sits in the pipe after use, saving water consumption by delivering instant hot water to every tap in the house. Consumers with this system can avoid wasting time and water when waiting for cold water to heat in the shower or for cleaning.

In addition to hot water for the shower, consumers want warm flooring underfoot as much as possible. Hardwood flooring is still the most popular choice, but buyers are finding some innovations in flooring.

“While hardwood is still the number-one choice in this area, people are trying to mix it up a little with tile insets or adding borders with varied woods such as maple or cherry,” Ms. Polgreen says. “It’s pretty simple, but it helps delineate space.”

Ms. Polgreen’s clients are also choosing more commercial-grade carpet with interesting textures and a lower pile.

Mr. Tamburello explains: “While hardwood and marble are still top choices, we’re finding people like the marble with a less-shiny finish now. Hand-finished marble with a less-shiny surface doesn’t show as much dirt. In bathrooms, people are choosing stone with tumbled-stone accents.”

Hardwood and marble flooring are low-tech items that appeal to today’s buyers, but their high-tech needs are fulfilled in the home office and the home theater.

“Over 60 percent of all families in the D.C. area have Internet access,” Mr. Fortuna says. “So homes need to have Internet access in several locations. The need for electronics to be integrated throughout the house is growing.”

Mr. Tamburello says: “Every single home we build now is wired for an audio system throughout the whole house, with remote-control access. Most of the homes also want a home theater with a sound system.”

Now that plasma screens are available everywhere and have become more affordable, families at a wider range of income levels are adding theaters to their homes.

“At the upper end, people are building actual movie theaters with real movie-theater-style chairs,” Mr. Fortuna says.

“We’re putting in more theaters all the time, usually with a step-down for easier viewing,” Ms. Polgreen says. “The new equipment can be installed so seamlessly that they have become more popular than ever. We tend to put in more sofas and chairs so the space becomes more of a screening room than a straight theater.”

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