Who would have guessed? Wood-fired pizza ovens are a hot new trend in high-end new construction kitchens. The homey, Old-World brick ovens symbolize a broader trend: homeowners' growing desire for simplicity, warmth, quality, and craftsmanship – at any price. Homeowners contemplating a remodel and those building second and third homes have virtually the same wish list. From oversized kitchen islands to walk-in showers, the crossover of features from new construction to remodeling is seamless and nearly instantaneous.

That's not surprising, considering that new home design is splashed all over the media – from newsstands to the almost ubiquitous home design television shows. Consumers don't have to look far to see the cutting edge of home design.

Don Novak of Novak Construction says his Cedar Rapids, Iowa, clients are very aware of new home amenities. "They want to update to the latest and greatest," he says, citing double-drawer dishwashers and bamboo flooring as examples. The new home market has moved from showy and formal to simple and natural – and remodeling clients have followed.

Materials are likely to be from nature (or at least look like they are). Finishes are matte rather than glossy, and the profiles of cabinetry and moldings are flat rather than fancy. Architect Steve Moore, of Bloodgood Sharp Buster in Des Moines, Iowa, terms it "a continued trend toward more authentic materials – concrete, tiles, stone. The look is more soft, subtle, less ostentatious."

"People are cocooning," says Larry Parrish, president of Parrish Construction, Boulder, Colo. "Plus, aging boomers are reaching their financial peak and rewarding themselves," he says. The remodeler says that 50-somethings make few compromises when they're creating what they see as their last home.

Ann Marie Mercera of PSG Construction in Winter Park, Fla., confirms the trend. "People are spending a lot of money to design rooms that meet their individual, unique needs, with no attention to resale," she says. Proving her point is a recent PSG project that included the re-creation of a Scottish pub and an adjacent theater on a home's second level.

Kitchen patrol

Kitchen remodels display all of the hallmarks of this increasing emphasis on informality and natural materials. The unfitted look is in – upper and lower cabinets marching in lockstep precision are out. "People see high-end kitchens in magazines and instead of all upper cabinets level and finished with crown moldings, they want cabinets in different heights and varying depths," says Mega Builders' Alon Toker. The Chatsworth, Calif., remodeler notes that there's growing interest in mixing countertop materials, as well as paint and stain finishes, particularly on work islands.

Joe Angeleri, president of Joseph Angeleri Inc., is also installing kitchens with varying cabinet heights, often incorporating a single cabinet with bun feet and a stain that sets it apart. "Home redos parallel what new construction dictates," says the Sarasota, Fla., remodeler.

Among the top-of-the-line features architect Moore has been designing into new homes and remodels are super-sized, multiple, and custom-shaped islands. "Kitchens have bigger islands – 48 to 60 inches wide – or two islands, one with equipment and one for dining. A large island replicates the traditional dining table in a kitchen," Moore says.

Mike Tenhulzen, of Tenhulzen Remodeling, is routinely asked to build large islands. "A larger island makes room for two levels: a lower work area with a prep sink and an upper area for seating," says the Redmond, Wash., contractor.

Parrish has also been installing large islands – he terms some of them "gigantic" – including fewer rectangles and more curvaceous designs, like a recent comma-shaped island.

While Parrish says his clients continue to request granite countertops almost without exception, Bill Eich of Bill Eich Construction in Spirit Lake, Iowa, is among a number of remodelers noting a significant rise in the use of quartz. The durable composite is engineered stone with a resin base. High scratch and heat resistance makes granite and quartz more forgiving than natural stone.

Another material that made an almost immediate leap from glossy shelter magazines and custom homes to high-end remodels is mosaic tile. Eve Lowey, president of Chameleon Merchandising and Design in Costa Mesa, Calif., identifies the small, vividly-colored glass squares as the ultimate choice for backsplashes in new home kitchens and shower surrounds in master baths. Homeowners planning renovation projects are asking their remodeling contractors for the intriguing glass tiles.

Mastering the bath

Master bath remodels are often showcases for the softer look and prevalence of natural materials. On taps and faucets, as well as on door and cabinet hardware, high-gloss has given way to brushed, antiqued, and satin looks. "For a long time, polished brass was the upscale choice in door hardware," says Eich. "Now it's brushed nickel and satin nickel in hardware as well as faucets."

Referring to the polished marble and dazzling brass fittings of upscale hotel bathrooms, Toker says, "Formerly, people wanted bathrooms to look like the Four Seasons or the Ritz. Now it's the south of France." The contractor says the demand for subdued finishes in bathrooms extends from honed and tumbled stone and brushed chrome faucets to the elimination of semi-gloss paint.

Terry Wardell of Wardell Builders says his clients in Solona Beach, Calif., have moved away from highly-polished granite to muted finishes like honed or acid-finished granite or soapstone. "We're doing concrete as a finish material for flooring and countertops," he says.

While the master baths remain what California model home merchandiser and designer Ava Carberry of Color Design Art calls "a pamper place," whirlpool tubs seem to have fallen out of favor. Instead, homeowners are opting for expansive showers, especially when space limitations demand an either-or choice. Frameless glass enclosures with sunflower showerheads, multiple jets, and steam options are common.

But Bill Simone's recent projects, which have included a number of luxury master baths, incorporated both tubs and showers. Simone, president of Custom Design amp; Construction in Los Angeles, recounts one with his-and-hers bathrooms: his with steam shower and a free-standing tub; hers with a spa tub and adjacent balcony. Another project combined classic beadboard wainscoting with chic tumbled limestone. It included a step-in open shower and spa tub.

Outside influence

New homes devote greater amounts of wall space to windows and glass doors than older houses, letting in lots of natural light and extending interior space by blurring the distinction between indoors and out. Homeowners want that same sense of space and the cheery quality of natural light in their home remodels.

Outdoor living rooms are favorite projects of Troy Beasley, partner in Beasley amp; Henley Interior Design in Winter Park, Fla. More than conventional patios, the covered or enclosed spaces – commonly adjacent to the interior living room and an extension of it – boast fireplaces, upholstered seating, and often a compact kitchen and bar area. "I've even done a roof terrace with a fireplace and built-in TV," Beasley says.

Californian Wardell reports, "It's rare not to have an outdoor room with a fireplace, speakers, comfortable seating. We use lots of glass so no views are impaired."

The phenomenon extends beyond warm-weather regions. Tenhulzen is experiencing the same trend in Washington, where remodeling clients are asking for conservatories. "It's a retreat," says Tenhulzen, "a glass sunroom is a transitional room between the indoors and the outdoors."

In Iowa, Eich says a significant part of his business involves spaces that started as screened porches, moved to three-season rooms, and then stepped up to insulated sunrooms. The rooms are frequently an extension off the family room or dining room of a 40- or 50-year-old home with a shortage of windows.

Boomers rule

Baby boomers, that aging population born between 1946 and 1964, also drive changes in the new home and remodeling markets. Architect Jerry Gloss of Knudson Gloss Architects, Boulder, Colo., says aging boomers demand more conveniences, from higher lighting levels and warm floors to egg-shaped faucets and door handles.

Novak recently completed the new CAPS (Certified Aging in Place) training, offered through the NAHB, and points out that "people tend to live longer if they can stay in their own homes, but those homes have to be modified for safety and convenience." Novak routinely adds floor-warming systems under tile and wood floors in remodeled spaces.

Attention to accessibility may mean anything from walk-in showers and raised outlets and light switches to designing a main-level library and adjacent bath that might eventually serve as a master bedroom suite. Parrish has built elevators into three recent projects, one for a family that's using the space for a pantry until the need for a working elevator arises.

Accessibility and green building are hot-button issues in some regions. Architect Bill Kreager of Mithun, in Seattle, noticed a growing interest in sustainability. In the new home market, builders are aware of off-gassing and routinely avoid certain cabinet finishes and carpeting, and they introduce products that employ renewable resources, like bamboo flooring. "People who remodel often have the luxury of time," says Kreager. "They're interested in the materials, more thoughtful about what they use."

Mike Shuster of Wildwood Joinery and Design specializes in sustainable building. He says the Boulder and metro Denver areas have an active, well-educated population, attuned to the outdoors. "Their interest in green building has two focuses: There are clients with health issues like asthma, who are concerned with building healthy homes, and clients with a passion for the environment."

A shift in taste

The beleaguered stock market and the mellowing of the baby boomer all may account in part for the prevailing interest in homes that are less about ostentation and more about livability. Carberry thinks the new look is in part the result of exposure to good design. "Even entry level buyers show more design sophistication. They see it at Renovation Hardware, Pottery Barn, Crate amp; Barrel, Ikea. There's even quality design at Target and Kmart. Our tastes are educated everywhere."

Wardell says most of his clients have built before and they're now asking a new set of questions based on how a new home or a remodel will answer their needs, whether it's for a fold-down seat in the shower or a spot for the caterer to park. In response to savvy clients, architects, designers, builders, and remodelers are producing more livable spaces. "There's a rising level of sophistication in the design world of how a home lives," Wardell says.

Parrish and others credit Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House, a book that extols the merits of thoughtful design over mindless square footage, as triggering a reassessment of home design priorities (see " Small Wonders,"). "More people now think about building a little jewel," Parrish says. "It may be an expensive home with great finishes, but it's in human scale – it's not a gymnasium." –Judith Knuth writes about design and travel from her hometown of Milwaukee.