Prediction 2010: Insulation is sexy stuff
Last week, when the Census Bureau announced a 6% rebound in November housing starts, I got a bunch of emails from fellow editors, writers and journalists with “Good News” in the subject line. Yesterday’s news, that existing home sales also rose considerably in November (about 7.4% according to the National Association of Realtors) made its way to my inbox with the same tamed excitement. In both cases, I found it difficult to rally enough enthusiasm even to forward the emails. I’m neither a pessimist nor an economist; let me explain why I’m not willing to paint a pretty picture of the home-building industry in 2010.
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We practice a variation of “man on the street” journalism at Fine Homebuilding. Let’s call it “man on the job site.” Instead of focusing on the research and publications of organizations like the National Association of Homebuilders or Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (though both are excellent sources of info), our editors travel around the country spending a considerable amount of their time on job sites or in newly built homes.
On these trips they meet and interview working architects, designers, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, among many other tradesman. They see what’s being designed and how it’s being built. They see the products and tools that are being used and the details and materials that homeowners are looking for. In this way, our editors keep on top of trends in real time and maintain a network of contributors who keep them up to date when they return to the office. In the end, what you see in Fine Homebuilding magazine is a glimpse of what our editors saw in their travels.
I mentioned earlier that I’m no economist, but I wonder if I should try to work the term “lagging indicator” into the next few sentences. The first thing I had to do when our Web producer asked me to predict what the building industry might look like in 2010 was research the timeline of the recession. According to a story on CNNMoney.com, the recession started in December 2007. The next thing I did was to thumb through all of our issues from 2007, 2008 and 2009 to look for trends.
I assumed that as the years went forward, we would have published fewer stories about new construction, more stories on remodeling and repair, and more significantly, an increase in energy-related topics. I was right. In 2007 we published eight stories focused on energy-efficiency. In 2008, 10 stories. And in 2009, 13 stories including four features on insulation, one on making your heating system more efficient, one on energy audits, and another on energy-efficient lighting.
I was recently a guest on radio’s The Faith Middleton Show. When Faith asked about Justin Fink’s article “New Insulation for Old Walls” I told her that insulation upgrades and deep energy retrofits would be one of the most important and challenging issues facing homeowners and home improvement professionals for the foreseeable future. And I think that is a safe prediction. I hope that 2010 brings a steady recovery, but I don’t think that it has begun yet, at least not from the perspective of our contributors. We’re still having trouble finding framing stories for the magazine. What does that tell you?
I got a bit reminiscent looking back through the past issues of Fine Homebuilding. I remember the days prior to 2007, sitting around the conference room table , discussing “sexy” stories about things like custom kitchen cabinet details, rich floor finishes, a centerpiece stair railing, and a paneled passageway. But when I look forward, I predict we’ll be more likely to agree with President Obama, who recently spoke about the importance of retrofitting existing homes for energy performance and said, “Insulation is sexy stuff.”