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Tough talk, back to basics at builders show

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tanned models lounging in bubbling spas are a perennial feature of the nation's biggest homebuilders exhibition -- but there were few, if any, at last week's sober show.

Mostly, the focus at the International Builders Show was on basics, not bling. After two seasons of major hurricanes and a year of soaring energy prices, suppliers touted ways to keep storms out and heat (or air-conditioning) in. Vendors whacked new hurricane-resistant StormBreaker Plus windows with baseball bats and pounded roof decking with extra-heavy, twist-top HurriQuake nails. One big draw: a thin, translucent material called Gorilla Wrap that swaddles walls beneath the siding, to keep out the wind and rain.

Of course, some innovative and odd products showed up, among them solar-powered blinds, leather-accented bathroom fixtures and a hearth that doubles as a waterfall. And for times when owners want hide their living-room TV from literary-snob friends, a rotating steel system will flip the set around and substitute a shelf of books.

The more-serious ambiance came amid predictions from such experts as Dave Seiders, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders, who said the market already has shown signs of "simmering down." He forecast that starts will drop between 6 percent and 7 percent this year, and that price appreciation will reach 6 percent, half of last year's level. (New-home starts fell 8.9 percent in December, the lowest level since March, while housing permits fell 4.4 percent last month, the government said Thursday.) The pace of home-improvement spending is also slowing: It rose 4.3 percent in the 2005 fourth quarter, compared with a 19.6 percent rise in the year-earlier quarter, Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies says.

Another challenge facing the estimated 100,000 builders and remodelers at the show: Because of the storms and energy prices, building codes across the country have been tightened. That's forcing new homes to be less drafty and more water-resistant, even as they grow ever bigger. (Since the 1970s, homes have increased more than 50 percent in size.)

But products that claim energy efficiency often don't come cheap. At the New American Home, a 7,100-square-foot show house, Hannigan Homes said the spray-in Icynene foam -- which bills itself as healthier and fills tiny cracks to seal out wind and moisture -- cost $20,000, or three times as much as regular batt insulation, while the 134 windows and doors, which are both energy-efficient and hurricane-resistant, cost $300,000, or three times the cost of regular windows.

Some attendees said they were disappointed at the lack of novelty: "I visited 90 percent of the show floor, and there wasn't much new," said Columbus, Ohio, remodeler Bill Owens.

Several makers used catch phrases to present their products as embodying a new concept. Touting the "power of personalization," Pella Windows offered decorative resin panels that homeowners snap into the panes of glass in windows and patio doors. Customers can choose from 20 of the company's own designs (including leaves, grass or snowflakes) or customize panels to match the wallpaper or bedspread. Cost of the panels: upwards of $100. The idea of personalization appealed to Clifton, Va., remodeler Vince Butler, who said he also liked a wider variety of colors and patterns in glass and ceramic tiles.

Here are some of the other products that made their builder-show debut:

Designer Door's Copper Garage Door

COST: $12,000 (for single door)

This custom-made wood door clad in copper can be made to fit single or double-wide doors. But unless you want a green patina, you must coat it every other year with lacquer. The company also clads doors with low-maintenance stainless steel or zinc.

Reversica Gyre 6300

COST: $3,000

"Young Frankenstein," the 1974 Mel Brooks movie, featured a rotating bookcase hiding secrets. Now homeowners can have their own. This 42-inch-high, 63-inch-wide piece of steel "motion hardware" flips a panel around, so you can hide a flat-panel television behind a bookcase. The company sells the hardware exclusively to contractors, who install it in built-ins or walls. For consumers, Reversica sells it as part of a $15,000 custom-built mahogany entertainment center called Delenn. But later this spring, mass-market furniture makers Century and Hooker will include it in some of their entertainment centers, too, at prices starting at $6,500. The hardware has a lifetime warranty.

ODL Michael Graves Door Glass

COST: $650 to $870

Architect Michael Graves has designed everything from Target teakettles to scaffolding to clean the Washington Monument. Now, he's doing stained glass for doors, for Zeeland, Mich., manufacturer ODL. Available in three abstract floral motifs in early-20th-century style, the glass must be professionally installed, but can be put into prefabricated doors.

Velux Solar-Powered Shades

COST: $250 to $290

Operated by a remote control, the built-in solar cell powers a shade on a fixed skylight. The charge it stores on sunny days is good for 500 openings and closings of the shade, and the unit can be installed by a do-it-yourselfer, Velux says. So far, the opaque shade is available only in white.

Sharp Insight Pro Combination Microwave Drawer and Cooktop

COST: $1,800 in stainless steel

This 30-inch-wide unit combines the company's microwave drawer, introduced nine months ago, with a ceramic cooktop. At 9 inches deep by 13 inches wide, the microwave box is big enough for a chicken or a pan of brownies. If either the microwave or the cooktop fails, the whole unit must be replaced. By next month, the unit will be available in black for $1,690 and white for $1,750.

Hearthfalls LLC

COST: $2,495 (wood) to $40,000 (lapis lazuli)

Company President Jerry Wheeler invented these combination waterfall/fireplaces because "most fireplaces are dead for nine months of the year." The plug-in hearths, weighing more than 150 pounds, can be installed by a do-it-yourselfer, the company says. The hearth can also be used to burn a real wood fire while the water is falling in front. Models introduced at this show featured aromatherapy scents and colored lights, though other models have been on sale for 19 months. The warranty lasts six months.

Pearl Protected Permanent Escape and Rescue Ladder

COST: $430

This 27-foot fold-up ladder can be permanently installed behind a panel in the interior space beneath windows. Weighing about as much as a bowling ball, and made of aluminum rungs bound by fire-resistant nylon straps, it can be thrown out of the window even by young children, Pearl says.

Paradigm Leather and Suede Hardware

COST: $22 to $139

Easy-care, washable leathers and suedes are selling well as furniture upholstery and accents, so Atlas Housewares decided to bring them into the bath. Their collection of contemporary-styled knobs, pulls, tissue paper holders, hooks and towel bars come in polished chrome and brushed nickel with leather or suede accents in black or cocoa.

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