Solving construction problems

You can’t always get what you want. There’s a tradeoff among quality, quantity, and price. You can maximize any two, but you can’t have all three. If you want price and quality, you have to sacrifice quantity. If you want quality and quantity, it costs more money. The best solutions are usually a balance between competing demands. Example: You may want to use an expensive marble in the foyer of a spec home, but the cost would be prohibitive. If you use a color-coordinated tile for the flooring, and use the marble as a fireplace surround visible from the foyer; you get the best of both worlds, learn more at LaGrange Flooring America.

Break the problem into bite-size pieces. All complex problems are really a series of simple problems. Once you know what the simple problem is, address it with step-by-step solutions. There’s a difference between simple solutions and simplistic ones. A simplistic solution is an overly simple solution to a complex problem. Example: If you’re waiting to redo your forms until you have time to redo them all, they may never get done. Start with the form that needs the most help. Get it done; later, tackle another one.

Don’t use a sledge-hammer to swat mosquitoes. The solution should be proportionate to the problem. Find something that works and keep improving it. Simple solutions work best because human beings are fallible: The simpler the solution, the less likely humans will be screw it up. Example: If you have a problem with inaccurate estimates, you may need to review your procedures and unit costs. You don’t need to start all over with an expensive computerized estimating program that may, or may not, solve the problem.

The problem Isn’t solved until the solution Is implemented. Sometimes it’s easy to get a solution down on paper. The hard part is putting it in place. Get the people who’ll implement the solution involved in the problem-solving process so they’ll “own” the solution.

If you attack and solve recurring problems, you’ll have a more time to run your business effectively (rather than dealing with the same problems again and again). You’ll also discover that building houses is more fun and profitable. And that’s what it’s all about.

Building the deck

The deck has to follow certain safety guidelines if it is 30 inches or more off the ground. This is very important because children can get hurt falling off decks or getting their heads stuck between railings. You could have a tragedy if the deck is not built properly”

One of the regulations is that the deck railings must not be more than 16 inches apart.

The best wood to use in a deck is chemically treated, pressurized wood, which lasts longer.

It will stand up better under the elements and even though it costs a bit more, it is worth it.

If you want to build the deck yourself, contractors recommend choosing spruce or cedar. Cedar costs about $20 per square foot, spruce about $15.
Pressure-treated wood was the best for the floor of the deck, but said cedar is too soft for the flooring and is best for railings and other sections.

Yellow pine, which is very durable, is the least expensive wood for decks.

The old standby, redwood, is still very popular, especially since its oil base fights decay and makes it durable. Redwood contains oils called tannins that help resist dampness and insects. But a redwood deck must be waterproofed every three years or so, because it tends to splinter sooner than those built of other woods.

People just looking for the lowest price for a flooring in Bossier City sometimes can run into trouble.

The lowest price is not necessarily the best job. As a matter of fact, it is usually the opposite. If a competitor says he will charge $9 per square foot for a deck, then he beats my $12.50, but if he doesn’t have a permit or insurance, then the homeowner may get burned in the end if something goes wrong.

Building a deck 30 inches off the ground requires that the homeowner get a permit, but contractors say many people don’t bother.

They are taking a chance if a town inspector comes around and makes them tear it down if it is a possible hazard. It is best to check with your local building inspector to make sure; often you don’t have to get a permit in many cases.

How long will a well-built deck last? The Lumber Manufacturers Association says a good deck will last 30 years, but most contractors say few can live up to that claim.

I haven’t seen one last that long without a lot of replacing of the wood, but 20 years is not unusual if the wood is treated and waterproofed every few years, and there is not a lot of wear and tear on the deck.

A chemically treated wood deck doesn’t have to be sealed at all, it would last longer if a water sealer was applied every three years or so.

Solid underpinnings are vital for a deck, because state regulations demand that it be able to withstand 60 pounds of pressure per square foot.

A building permit is needed to convert deck into sunroom

I have an elevated deck that opens off the living room at the back of my house. One side of the deck is attached to the house and the other two corners are supported on posts sitting on concrete pads. I am thinking of enclosing the deck to make an insulated sunroom suitable for year-round use. Can you tell me how to do this?

The first thing I have to tell you is that you need a building permit to convert your deck into an enclosed sunroom attached to the house, and to get this you will have to submit plans and specifications of the work to be done. I cannot provide that, and recommend that you call in several contractors for suggestions and prices.

If you decide to do the work yourself without a building permit, and a neighbor objects to the addition, you will very likely be required to dismantle it entirely. I have known this to happen. Check with your local building department before you start anything.

Are wood posts safe?

The wood posts supporting our cedar deck have developed some large vertical cracks. Should these be filled or must they be replaced?

There is no need to do anything to the posts. Vertical splits do not weaken them significantly; there is still just as much wood there to support the weight.

Chalking paint

Our 21-year-old split level house is faced with white brick and white aluminum siding. The windows have black aluminum shutters, and the color is washing off these and staining the brick and siding below them. What can we do to correct this?

All exterior paints chalk as they age, and the chalked paint carries the color pigment with it as it is washed off by the rain. I suggest you scrub the chalked paint off the shutters, brick and siding with a stiff brush and a solution of one rounded tablespoon (15 mL) of dishwasher detergent to a litre of water. Then repaint the shutters in a lighter color, using a semigloss or satin latex paint, which does not chalk as much as an alkyd or oil-based paint.

Painting vinyl

I would like to paint my white, vinyl-clad patio doors to match our yellow siding. I have been told this cannot be done. Is that true?

This question does not have a clearcut, Yes or No answer; it is more of a “maybe” or “sometimes” answer. It is true that vinyl doesn’t accept paint too well, but neither does glazed ceramic tile, and I have seen many tiled bathrooms that were painted without a problem.

If you take the following steps, I don’t think you will have any problems. 1) Wipe the vinyl first with a cloth moistened with isopropyl alcohol. 2) Apply one of the special primers made for hard-to-paint surfaces . . . such as Easy Surface Prep (Flood Company), Prime-It, (Swing Paints), and XIM Primer/Sealer (XIM Products). 3) Apply two coats of a top-quality (the highest price in any brand) satin or semi-gloss exterior alkyd enamel. I can’t offer any guarantee, but this is what I would do if I wanted to paint a vinyl door.

Ghost lines on ceiling

When we moved into our 30-year-old, one-storey house about a year-and-a-half ago, there were dark, shadow-like marks on the smooth, flat ceiling underneath all the ceiling joists. I repainted the ceiling to cover these marks, but now they are forming again on the white ceiling. I checked the attic and found that there is six inches of fibreglass insulation between the 2×6 joists. What causes the marks and how can we prevent them?

The ghost lines on the ceiling are caused by differences in the temperature of the ceiling surface. More dust particles will land on cold surfaces than on warmer ones. (If you want more information about this, look up Brownian Movement in a high school physics book or a science encyclopedia.) And because heat escapes through six inches (150mm) of wood faster than it does through six inches of fibreglass, the ceiling directly under the joists will be a little cooler than the ceiling under the insulation, so shadow marks will form on the ceiling under each joist.

The only way to stop this happening is to lay batt insulation over the top of the ceiling joists. This will eliminate the cool areas that have been attracting dust particles under the ceiling joists. The same phenomenon often causes a ghost pattern of wall studs to appear on painted or papered frame walls.

Shower problem

The shower diverter valve on our bathtub spout is not working properly. When I lift it to divert water from the spout to the showerhead some of the water still comes out of the spout. Is there any way I can fix this?

There may be a lime deposit on the diverter plug inside the tub spout, preventing it from sealing properly. The only way to get this off the diverter plug is to unscrew the spout, put it in a pot and cover it with straight vinegar or other lime remover. Leave it there for a couple of hours, then rinse, dry, put a joint sealing compound on the threads and screw the spout back in place.

To remove the spout without damaging the chrome plating, put a metal bar up inside it and use this as a lever to unscrew the spout, counterclockwise. A large screwdriver or the handle of an 8″ or 10″ adjustable crescent wrench or “monkey wrench” should do it. If soaking the spout in vinegar does not correct the problem, install a new diverter spout.

Planning your family’s home

The one-cook kitchen. A small, hard-to-clean bathroom. A garage too crowded for cars. Think hard enough, and you’ll probably find a quirk or two-or several-in your home’s floor plan. Bring these troubles to the drawing board when you design your next house. By tweaking a stock floor plan, you can eliminate problem spots before they’re built.

Look at how a new home can best serve your family. If you’re in for a lifestyle change-say, having children-visualize how a reorganized home can simplify your life. To help you get started, check out the following family scenarios.

Mom and dad with small children Many young families struggle to make the most out of tight floor plans. They want to create a safe environment for little ones, while accommodating their own busy lives. Here’s a room-by-room rundown.

Kitchen

Plenty of work space, including two sinks and nice spans of countertop, will help the cook (or two) make sure little mouths are fed.

An open kitchen/family room arrangement and windows facing the backyard will let you keep an eye on children during meal preparation and cleanup.

Make sure an island or peninsula separates the family room from the work core to help keep curious hands away from hot pots and pans and other kitchen dangers.

You’ll likely eat most of your meals in a breakfast or family room next to the kitchen. Make space there for a table and chairs; it is unsafe for children to perch on stools pulled up to an island.

Family room

Trading in a living room for a larger family room probably makes sense. Chances are, you’ll spend most of your time together in the more casual space.

Bedrooms

The closer your room is to the children’s, the better. You’ll want to be nearby to help them through the morning routine; they’ll want you nearby in case of bad dreams. Plan logical spots for beds and other furniture.

Remember valuable closet space.

Bathrooms

The family bath should have a lowside tub for bathing young children. Although it’s wise to plan a 36inch-high vanity for adults, 30 inches is more appropriate for children.

Mom and dad with teenagers

When the kids reach their teens, everything changes-meal times, privacy needs, and recreation space. These tips may help smooth the ride through the tough transition years.

Kitchen

Kids’ appetites aren’t curbed once they hit the teen years; if anything, you’ll need more kitchen work space, a large pantry, and an additional freezer.

Plenty of space eases the work of multiple cooks, especially if your children are taking over some cooking responsibilities.

Because it can be difficult to get together for mealtimes, an eating island or peninsula is the most convenient setup.

Family room

Keep the living room or plan a den so you have your own place to read and catch the news.

A recreation room gives the kids a place for rowdier fun.

Even if your children don’t cook, plan on a family room adjacent to the kitchen as a spot for them to hang out and update you on the day.

Bedrooms

The master bedroom doesn’t need to be as close to the others as when your children were young-stereoblasted rock music reverberating against your wall proves it. Site your bedroom at a different end, or floor, of the house, and treat it as a private retreat. You might even try to include a sitting area.

See that your children’s rooms provide suitable conditions for doing homework by setting aside space for a desk or planning built-ins. Also remember your kids will need room to store their worldly possessions, both in the form of display shelves and adequate closets. Many secondary bedrooms provide little closet space, so you may need to maximize what space there is with a closet organizer system.

Bathrooms

Plan two sinks in the family bath if you have more than two children.

A tub/shower combination or shower works best as kids get older.

A couple

Before kids, after kids, or no kids at all, couples have special needs too.

Kitchen

A small kitchen may serve you fine, considering you’re preparing smaller meals and not bumping into kids. But if you sometimes cook for guests or participate in a gourmet club, a large kitchen may better suit your entertaining needs. In that case, two sinks, large runs of countertop, and space for food storage is essential.

You may find a formal dining room more useful than other families, but for daily meals, still plan for an eat-in kitchen or breakfast room.

Family room

If you’ve owned homes before, you probably already know whether you are family-room-type folks. Entertainment centers and overstuffed chairs are at home here. But others may choose to invest their square-footage budget elsewhere.

Locate the family room near the kitchen for convenience.

Bedroom

Only one bedroom in the house is truly important-yours. Especially if you’re an empty nester, you may want to locate it on the home’s main floor. Be sure closet space is plentiful and that there’s space for your bedroom set.

Secondary bedrooms will likely become guest rooms. Double suites (master and guest) often work better than the standard arrangement of master and secondary bedrooms. The extra suite, equipped with a bath, will provide guests a comfortable space of their own. Because they only visit once in a while, try to plan zoned heating and cooling-so you can shut the unit off or turn the guest area’s thermostat down to save on energy.

Bathrooms

Equip the master bath with two sinks to best serve your needs during the morning routine.

If you enjoy a deep soak in the evening, count on a large tub. Or, if vou don’t like that form of bathing, you may simply want a shower-perhaps with two showerheads.

All families

Some planning issues apply to all family situations.

Working, sleeping, and living zones should be separate. Locate the often-noisy family room away from the bedrooms.

Square footage should be useful. Plan rooms spacious enough to handle furniture groupings, but not so large that you lose out on intimacy. Lofty foyers and expansive living rooms are classic space wasters.

Furniture arrangements must fit well into the plan. For example, make sure the master bedroom has wall space well-suited to a king- or queen-size bed and nightstands. See whether the family room includes a spot for the TV away from the glaring sun. And throughout the home, keep traffic paths from crossing through conversation areas.

Because so many of us need a place to organize paperwork and tap into the computer, a home office is a floor plan priority. Your work style dictates whether to incorporate the office into the center of the home or separate it from the activity. A kitchen desk area-equipped with a computer and storage files-may work out if you want to keep an eye on your kids. A more secluded office will serve you better if your job requires fewer disturbances. Also decide whether vour family will share one computer; if so, you may need to schedule time slots to give evervone a chance to use it. Otherwise, plan a separate computer spot for your children or mate.

It’s best to locate a laundry room close to where dirty clothes are generated. If you or vour children often come home dirty from work, school, or sports activities, put this room near the garage or back door. If this isn’t an issue, design a laundry space close to the bedrooms.

A garage with three bays works best for most families. Park the cars in two of the spaces; plan for storage or a workshop in the third. The garage should be near the kitchen to ease carrying groceries from the car. Also, work with the design so the garage is positioned at the side or the rear of the house. A flat garage door shouldn’t be the front facade’s dominant feature. Some fine points in a floor plan are easy to overlook. Study your plan for details, such as steps up and down between rooms, window and wall location, ceiling heights, and placement of electrical outlets.

A kitchen that steps down into a family room may seem harmless enough, but it means children and guests will take many spills through the years. Avoid such hazards.

If you’re unaccustomed to visualizing a blueprint in three dimensions, hire an architect or designer to walk you through the plan or plans you like best.

Most professionals who design modest-size homes for a living can provide "walk-through" consultatons for $100 or less.

Virtually There: Virtual tours would make a great addition to any builder’s Web site

DON’T EXPECT VIRTUAL TOURS TO REPLACE model homes. Models, which convey a sense of quality to buyers, will probably always reign supreme, But virtual tours have their place as a complementary tool. In fact, offering virtual tours at your sales office or on your Web site can reduce the number of plans you need to build models for and boost the sales of un-modeled floor plans.

Virtual tours come in two broad flavors: three-dimensional, digital renderings made from floor plans, and videos of existing models. Each has a different purpose.

DIGITAL TOURS

Rendered tours are used to sell un-modeled plans. They generally include minimal furnishings and landscaping, and exterior photos can be blended into them. For example, virtual tours of Diamond Ridge, a 15-unit Meeker Cos. development in Dana Point, Calif., put renderings into the real landscape. Viewers see the virtual models inside and out, the housing development bordering the property, in the more distant background, Interstate 5, and a bit of smog at the base of the mountains. Interior shots include basic furniture and some actual scenes Out the windows.

Focus 360, a leading developer of rendered tours based in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., designs Meeker’s tours so viewers can add or remove optional rooms or furniture with a single mouse click. Color schemes–such as cherry vs. maple cabinets, or black granite vs. verde granite countertops–can be changed the same way.

Rendered tours can be quite effective. For instance, they’ve made two of the five un-modeled plans at Del Webb’s Anthem Golf & Country Club near Phoenix top sellers, according to Jacque Pappas-Petroulakis, director of public affairs. Other builders echo that. "Tours developed from plans are getting so good that it’s hard to tell the difference between them and real models," says Eric Elder, senior vice president of marketing and i-strategy for the Calabasas, Calif-based Ryland Homes.

This October, K. Hovnanian Cos. of California, in Irvine, was to launch a virtual tour for a development of about 100 executive homes in Encinitas, Calif. "We have nine plans with 30 elevations," notes Maggie McIntee, director of marketing. Those plans, however, include additions to basic plans — such as optional rooms over a garage or the addition of a second floor. Virtual tours let people see all the way around and let them see more than they could with floor plans alone.

The technology is often used to supplement actual models. "We’re building four models and including five virtual tours," McIntee says. "It’s important to see the quality of the homes." Elder agrees. "People don’t need to see the exact floor plans anymore, but they need to feel the quality and get a sense of the product."

VIDEO TOURS

Video tours of actual models — which usually include 360 degree views of specific rooms — are what potential buyers would see if they walked through a decorated, furnished model with a video camera. They have a different purpose than rendered tour plans. Instead of selling un-built models, they let potential buyers pre-qualify properties before coming on site. Video tours also help builders cross-sell their communities and draw buyers from a wider geographical area. According to Stefan Markowitz, president of MBK Homes in Irvine, video tours "help refresh the experience." After looking at many different homes and many different builders, buyers may forget what features were in what home. A video tour on a Web site can help them remember.

Video tours of modeled homes "show what we offer in different parts of our market and let us show the entire product catalog on site," explains Peter Orser, executive vice president of Quadrant Homes in Bellevue, Wash. They can also be used with rendered tours: Quadrant buyers can view actual models, then look at a rendered version of an un-built model.

At SummerGrove, a mid-to-upper level Pathway Communities development south of Atlanta, video tours are proving helpful in corporate relocation. "We use them extensively to attract relocation buyers, who are more Web-savvy," explains Dan Camp, vice president and general manager for Pathway in Peachtree City, Ga.

Often, these buyers use the Web to screen developments and houses. "In numerous cases, one spouse is house-hunting alone. Seeing the virtual tour–in this case, an online video tour of a model–has led some buyers to sign a purchase contract on the spot," he says.

Quadrant’s Orser says that video tours give prospective buyers "the opportunity to choose certain models from other Quadrant communities. Buyers can take a virtual tour instead of driving to another community to see its plan modeled."

THE PAYOFF

Elder says that virtual tours have let Ryland reduce the number of models built per community from three or four to two or three. Simply reducing the number of built models by one results in a savings of $100,000 to $200,000 beyond the cost of the house. In the ’80s and early ’90s, un-modeled plans sold at a rate of 10 percent, compared to 50 percent for modeled plans. Virtual tours are equalizing that equation, Elder notes.

Elder says that unique visitors to Ryland’s Web site are up 25 percent, an increase he credits to virtual tours. "And with virtual tours, the time spent on our Web site has increased six-fold," he adds. The users weren’t all simply browsing, either. Two developments in Silicon Valley and the Bay area were completely sold using virtual tours rendered from plans. And when compared to selling from plans, virtual tours develop more realistic expectations. "Buyers are less likely to say something like, ‘The ceilings are lower than I expected,"’ Elder explains.

The buyers most comfortable with virtual tours are, not surprisingly, the same buyers who are most comfortable with technology. For Ryland, that generally means Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; Denver; and Charlotte, N.C. In the Seattle area, Orser notes that "people who preview on the Internet tend to be second-time buyers who are technologically capable." For K. Hovnanian, that means "hot markets" like its Encinitas development. To expand that technology to other sites, "the development would have to be in a guaranteed market [one with ocean views, 10,000-square-foot lots with 20 feet between houses or a golf course] with a huge interest list," McIntee says. With all that going for the Encinitas development, "it feels now like we don’t need other models," she says.

Fitting In: Appease the Nimbys with appropriate designs, and they might not even know you’re there

STOP; LOOK AROUND; CONSIDER YOUR SURROUNDINGS carefully. This is good advice in most situations in life, but in the business of in file, development it can mean the difference between a sweet margin on a hot project and a boot in the backside by a horde of naysaying homeowners. It’s all in how you approach it.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, infill projects have become a profitable niche for small- and medium-size builders. "Sites can be tough to find and approvals difficult, but there is a strong demand and little competition," says Michael Lander of the Lander Group, a builder/developer carving out his niche in the Minneapolis market. Although the NAHB doesn’t separate infill statistics, they acknowledge the trend. "It’s happening, it’s upscale and expensive, and the definition changes all the time," says Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research at the NAHB.

But there is a great deal of resistance to infill. Too many builders have set a poor precedent of ignoring context and community concerns, cramming over-scaled, inappropriate units onto tiny lots, and creating a backlash against these types of projects. As a result, zoning in many jurisdictions has gone overboard. "If you don’t start building compatible designs, you will get citizens going to city hail and saying you can’t build anything more than a 1,500-square-foot bungalow," says architect Bill Sutton who designs infill projects in Northern Virginia.

Selling the neighbors on an idea is more than half the battle, and the normal process of subdivision development is gone. "That old-school, ‘Buckaroo Bonzai’ approach is not going to get you anywhere on these projects," says Sutton. "You can’t just muscle your way in there, you have to find creative ways to address problems."

Lander prides himself on working well with neighbors. He starts meeting with them early, treats them like clients, and has even found that their input provides insightful ideas for design and planning. "They were there first, and they just want some respect," he notes, "so listening to them and addressing their concerns makes for a much less contentious atmosphere."

And, to be fair, sometimes the neighbors have a point: Although infill development can drive up land values in older areas, it can also alter the character that made the community attractive in the first place. For example, the average square footage of a new home is more than 2,200 square feet, compared with 1950, when it was 1,000 square feet. So squeezing high-end units with spacious gourmet kitchens, luxury master suites, home offices, and generous secondary bedrooms into existing neighborhoods is tricky.

Sometimes making it work requires some fast talking and true innovation. After meeting with a builder who was planning to throw up five McMansions on an infill lot and call it a day, Towson, Md.–based architect Michael Medic convinced the client otherwise. He sold him on a land plan and architecture that would blend seamlessly into the fabric of the neighborhood. "We reworked the plan to include 10 lots with an alley and both groups of houses fronting on the street," Medic notes. "It created a good looking product and doubled the density for the builder."

Portland, Ore., architect Brett Schulz advises builders and architects to set aside preconceived notions of elevations and floor plans. "It’s so obvious when they drop in a plan from some other project," he says. Builders don’t have to duplicate the existing homes, just try to complement them. "Responding to what is already happening there is what makes infill projects successful."

SEE JAKE’S RUN

WHEN DEVELOPER NICK STEARNS BOUGHT HIS CIRCA 1910 home in a historic Portland, Ore., neighborhood it came with a lucrative bonus right in the backyard. The home’s 7,000-square-foot rear yard was a separate tax lot. The site is just blocks from the shops and restaurants of the area’s now trendy 23rd Avenue, and Stearns seized the opportunity to develop a residential infill project to appeal to professional couples eager to live in this convenient, established neighborhood.

Named for Stearns’ Chesapeake Bay retriever, who used to romp in the yard, Jake’s Run is wedged into a steeply sloping site. Three, four-story townhouse units and a simple shingled carriage house, containing a pair of smaller, two-story units, flank an English Mews-like center brick court. "In Portland we say that form follows parking," explains Schulz of Fletcher Farr Ayote. The site is zoned for one parking spot per unit, and that’s what drove the plan. Three two-car garages for the townhome units are tucked beneath the carriage house, and the residents of the carriage house park in front on the street.

For design inspiration, the architect and developer compiled dozens of photos of the surrounding architecture. They also knocked on doors and visited neighbors, some of whom live in homes designed by Wade Pipes, a well-respected early Portland architect who practiced from the 1910S to the 1930s. They settled on what Schulz describes as a pure expression of English Arts and Crafts, characterized by stucco exteriors, steeply pitched roofs, square window bays, and very little overhangs. "Some mistake it for Tudor, but it doesn’t have the heavy timbers," he says.

Authentic materials provide the project with a look of permanence. Schulz wrapped the townhomes entirely in smooth, 1-inch-thick cement stucco plaster, the square bays are clad in clear-stained cedar siding with old-fashioned mitered corners, and the windows are solid fir with a clear finish. The carriage house is clad with cedar shingles on all sides, and conventional, off-the-shelf garage doors were dressed up with applied cedar and fir trim. "It added some weight, so we had to use extra heavy springs on the doors to help lift them up," Schulz notes.

Inside, hand-forged iron railings, art glass, period tiles and fixtures, quarter sawn oak floors, and custom-made, clear-stained fir jazz up the typical row house designs. Fir cabinets and slab slate countertops create a dramatic kitchen. "The finishes are a really refreshing break from the ubiquitous cherry and granite," says Schulz.

The attention to scale and detail generated positive reactions from the community, and the team was even commended by a city council member, who declared that Jake’s Run was an example for all infill builders. "I’ve done a lot of projects, but I’ve enjoyed this one more than anything in my career," says Schulz, who is proud of the enduring appeal of the design. "It was especially gratifying when passersby would stop to admire the quality of the restoration we were doing."

WELL SUITED

LIKE MOST NATIONAL BUILDERS, BROOKFIELD HOMES’ Washington division has a vast repertoire of standard plans, any of which it could have churned out and plopped on the infill parcel it acquired in Falls Church, Va., an upscale neighborhood just outside of Washington. But Brookfield didn’t.

The company acquired the site from its original owners, and the deal included the old family home, which, in its current state of disrepair, resembled the Bates Motel. "The house has a lot of history, so instead of tearing it down we sold it to someone who will restore it," says Chip Devine, vice president of operations and construction.

The wonderfully situated, 12-acre parcel is a rare find in this area, and Brookfield realized that it deserved careful attention and a unique product. Although there were no covenants or restrictions on what it could build, the designs for the new 28-unit Highland View project relate more closely to historic homes than the surrounding post-war ranchers.

"We didn’t want to duplicate those designs because we didn’t think that it was great architecture," Devine says. "Instead we chose a more classic Washington style." He explored grand old neighborhoods such as Chevy Chase, Md., and Cleveland Park in Washington for inspiration. "We drove around with our digital camera and took pictures of the details," he says. "Then we took the slide show to the architects."

The result is a modern interpretation of traditional designs. "They are a combination of Craftsman and brick Cotswold-style cottages," says architect Bill Sutton of Sutton Yantis Associates in Vienna, Va. A stone foundation, deep front porch, properly scaled columns, deep eave overhangs with extra trim, bracket details, and ganged windows create a pleasant facade that seems right at home in the mature setting. "It’s all very subtle and authentic," notes Devine. Maintaining a high quality of exterior materials is something on which the builder would not compromise, so Brookfield creates all of the custom features in its own mill.

Four-sided architecture, with fenestration on all sides, was also a priority. "On a tight lot people have to look at the house next door, and the worst thing is to face a sea of aluminum," says Devine. At $250 to $300 each, all those windows do add to the cost, but they make up for it in the sales prices that average $780,000, with some topping out at $I million with options and upgrades.

Devine and Sutton went out of their way to create an addition to the community that elevates the aesthetic quality as well as the land values. And although the neighbors’ initial reaction to development was hostile, the experience has turned out to be a pleasant one for all involved. "You have to understand that no one wants change in their backyard," says Devine. "But we kept working with them, and eventually they saw the value." Highland View has caused home prices to rise and has sparked a new wave of remodeling projects.

TWO-FACED

THE SUMMIT GROTTO CONDOMINIUMS LOOK LIKE THEY have nothing in common with each other, and that’s exactly what builder/developer Michael Lander intended. The eclectic character of the new buildings enables them to fit seamlessly into one of St. Paul, Minn.’s original neighborhoods.

The back-to-back condos turn the corner of Grotto Street and Summit Avenue, which was developed in the 1880s and is home to the Governor’s mansion and the grand addresses of famous railroad robber barons. The rest of the street is a hodgepodge of large single-family homes and small apartment buildings.

Although the district is over a century old, the 1/2-acre site where the condos now sit wasn’t developed until a church was built there in the 1950s. By the late 1990s the congregation had outgrown the church, and the president of the Lander Group in Minneapolis purchased the property.

"When we approached the historic preservation commission for a demolition permit they not only granted it, they wanted to give us an award for ridding the neighborhood of this inappropriate building," says Lander of the incongruous mid-century design.

The commission keeps a careful eye on the Avenue, and the developer had to be extra conscious of the historical significance of the site. He endured the long approvals process and several design reviews. "They liked our concept because it fits in with the historic buildings, but it’s not a re-creation," Lander notes.

The Summit is four spacious attached flats that form a single "mansion" building that complements the scale and character of the street’s notable neighbors. The square and sturdy design is quasi-Prairie style with stucco, cultured stone, and rough sawn cedar and batten. Side balconies provide outdoor space and views, and the two subterranean parking spaces per unit are accessed via elevator or stairs.

The three two-story townhouses next door face Grotto Street and reflect the small buildings and brownstones on that block. "It’s a modern interpretation of a row house," says architect Scott Mower of Progressive Architecture in Minneapolis. "We used a few tricks to break up the massing and added some real contemporary twists." The red and cream facade features brick, stucco, and touches of fiber cement siding. "On the center unit we mimicked old-fashioned cornice details, but we made them out of metal," he adds.

Zoning required detached parking, so a six-car garage that is subdivided into groups of two is on the right side of the building. The arrangement allowed extra space for a rear courtyard and a finished basement for each townhome.

History inspired the exteriors, but the market drove the plans. "We were coming into a market with a tremendous affection for the neighborhood," says Lander. "But there were no housing types here that people are looking for today." The Summit units were aimed at empty-nesters and move-down buyers attracted to a single-level living environment and the three-story Grotto row houses were aimed at younger buyers.

All seven of the units are 2,100 square feet, and prices range from $284,000 to $520,000. Because it is such a unique product in a desirable location, sales were swift, especially for the Summit flats, which went for $430,000 to $520,000, because the configuration is so rare in the market. The pre-construction prices set records for the neighborhood, and price levels rose 18 percent by the completion of the project.

Style guide: Five design trends will dominate production housing in the year ahead

IT’S NO SECRET THAT INVESTING in good design makes good business sense. The popularity of the streamlined new Volkswagen Beetle, the hip discount department store Target, and the snazzy Virgin Atlantic airplanes clued us in during the 1990s, and the design and business worlds have been inseparable ever since.

Home building, as much as any industry, is in a position to benefit financially from high-quality design–even in low-end houses. Buyers, ever savvier, aren’t looking only at floor plans and square footage anymore. "The level of design quality that home buyers seem to be expecting is so much higher than it’s ever been in production housing," says architect Rick Emsiek, a partner at the California firm McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, in Irvine. "The high-end stuff competes with custom homes–even in entry-level housing."

The more you stay on top of the newest and boldest trends in home design, the more your product will appeal to this design-conscious market, which extends from the youngest Gen-Xer to the oldest boomer. To help you out a bit, we’ve talked with leading architects and market analysts to come up with the design trends that will drive production housing next year.

SMALLER, MORE PRACTICAL SPACES

Architect Sarah Susanka’s best-selling book The Not-So-Big House, which touts quality of space over quantity, was written for the custom home market. But production architects have mined the book for ideas about how to improve their own designs, and many of them believe they’ve struck gold.

"In production housing, we’re never going to get quite the level of detail that Susanka advocates," says Bob White, director of design at Scheurer Architects in Newport Beach, Calif., "but we can impact the allocation of square footage, like she suggests." To that end, industry leaders are throwing out the airy, two-story volumes that have dominated the past two decades in favor of more practical spaces.

"In the last 15 to 20 years, we put a lot of money into the foyer of the home," says Memphis, Tenn., architect Carson Looney, of Looney Ricks Kiss. "Now, the space that’s getting more attention is that space between the kitchen or breakfast room and the garage–I call it the ‘liver’ of the house. It’s where you put all your organizational stuff– your jackets, briefcases, the kids’ backpacks. That’s where we’re concentrating our efforts now, in both our custom and production designs."

Changing demographics also signal an end to the days of the formulaic, big-box production house. "The number of non-traditional households–singles, for example, or couples without children, living in this country came as a bolt from the blue," says Todd Zimmerman, of Zimmerman Volk Associates, a new urbanist consulting firm in Clinton, NJ. "It’s given builders the idea of multiple niches, of creating houses that aren’t so narrowly targeted to two-parent families. The calculation of measuring quality by size no longer makes sense.

With more market segments to appeal to, architects are tailoring their plans more specifically to certain buyer groups. For example, White and Emsiek both say they’ve been isolating the home office in a detached casita in some of their recent projects, an item that appeals to buyers who work from home.

And universal design is gaining more prominence as baby boomers age. "Universal design principles can be incorporated very subtly," says Looney. "We’re doing things like making the rise-and-run relationship of a staircase more gradual, or installing a wall oven with a side hinge instead of a bottom one." For the boomer market, especially, first-floor master bedrooms and laundry rooms promise to be more popular than ever. These configurations are certain to win out over single-story structures, primarily because of land costs. Moreover, the average lot size will shrink by 1,000 square feet in the next 10 years, according to NAHB research.

"Here in California, massive volumes have given way to nine- and 10-foot ceilings, as opposed to the extremely high volumes that we had been doing," says Aram Bassenian of Newport Beach-based Bassenian Lagoni.

It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the country catches up to the trend-setting West Coast in terms of trading size for design quality. "House sizes are still getting larger," says Gopal Ahluwalia, NAHB’s research director. "The average American house size went up 30 square feet in the first quarter of 2001, to 2,305 square feet. But I think it will stabilize soon–we’ll reach a saturation point."

EMPHASIS ON COMMUNITY

It’s not enough to design an efficient floor plan and an attractive elevation anymore. More than ever, home shoppers are looking closely at the overall community before they buy. "The quality of a community is hugely important and will continue to be so," says Emsiek. "The layout of the project, the pedestrian friendliness of it, the social attitude; it’s one of those things you can’t just check off on a list. It’s more of a perceived quality."

A variety of elements–from landscaping buffers to exterior styles–will help create a sense of neighborhood. Architect Rick New, director of residential architecture at Downing Thorpe & James, says his Boulder, Cob., firm is mixing different lot sizes and garage configurations to give streetscapes more visual interest and to keep them from appearing garage-dominated. This trend of getting the garage off the street stems from the new urbanism, the neo-traditional, pedestrian-oriented planning movement that got its start in the early 1980s and has been picking up steam ever since. While conventional master planned communities still outnumber true new urbanist ones, the movement’s influence is definitely contributing to the trend of putting a home’s entrance front and center.

Next year, forward-thinking architects will stress heterogeneity among elevations and floor plans. "It’s the first time on the West Coast that we haven’t been hung up on one style," says architectural colorist Miriam Tate, of Miriam Tate Co., in Costa Mesa, Calif. "We were stuck in the Mediterranean centrifuge for 12 years! The new diversity is not just a trend, it’s a permanent circumstance."

"There’s a real variety to the streetscapes now," seconds White. And, he adds, that’s true even before you apply architectural details and styles. "It’s not just taking two boxes and calling one French and one Spanish because they have different detailing. The thing now is to have one house be completely different from the next–like the old neighborhoods of the 1920s."

Architect Art Danielian, head of Danielian Associates in Irvine, Calif., advises developers to encourage diversity by pre-matching elevations, plans, and color schemes to individual lots. "The communities that exercise the maximum amount of control over what goes where will be the most successful ones," he says.

HIGH DEMAND FOR LOW-MAINTENANCE MATERIALS

This much is certain: Time-deprived homeowners won’t be asking for more to do in the way of home upkeep. Increasingly, they’ll want low- or no-maintenance features, making easy-clean faux materials indispensable.

"All of the faux materials are getting much more refined in quality," says Don Jacobs, principal of JBZ Architecture & Planning in Newport Beach, Calif. "Some years ago you’d only want to use foam-based details up high, where you couldn’t really see them. Now, with the stucco coatings, they’re much better. Cement board siding is very popular–we’re using less and less wood." Cultured stone also gets high marks from architects for improved looks and durability.

Another reason for the increased use of faux materials, besides their low-maintenance appeal, is the cost effectiveness they lend to intricate historic styles, like Victorian or Craftsman. Baby boomers love period details, and most architects are betting that Gen-Xers, the generation that made vintage clothing and retro jazz records cool, won’t be much different in that regard. Faux materials will help make historically appropriate exteriors and interiors easier to achieve on limited budgets.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY A MUST

Sam Raskin bestowed the Energy Star label on as many homes last year as he did in the entire five-year period before.

Raskin, national director of the Department of Energy-EPA Energy Star for Homes program in Washington, D.C., estimates that he’ll have certified twice as many homes in 2001 as he did in 2000, a total of 24,000 this year. It only makes sense: Builders are pushing farther and farther out into the deserts of the Southwestern states, and their buyers don’t want to pay exorbitant air conditioning bills. Spurred by California’s energy crisis, more builders—notably Shea Homes and Morrison Homes–will step up use of solar panels and appliances next year.

Health concerns will undoubtedly lead buyers to look to new homes for the latest in air filtration systems, particularly in warm metro areas such as Atlanta and Phoenix, where climatologists have documented upward trends in asthma and other ozone-related ailments.

Sky-high land prices in many parts of the country are causing many developers to rethink the ways in which they use land. High-density, mixed-use, and infill projects, which make more efficient use of land and resources, should make up a greater chunk of the housing market in the years ahead. Developer-friendly brownfields legislation, which slipped off Congress’ agenda this past fall, would accelerate this trend.

STILL SMARTER HOMES

Smart home options, high-speed Internet access, and community intranets are standard on the West Coast, even in entry-level communities. And while broadband Internet access and computerized security, lighting, audio-video, and HVAC systems haven’t taken over the market yet, they will.

"The comfort level with home technology is not yet there for many buyers," says Ahluwalia. "But as the Gen-X segment moves into the marketplace, that will change. The demand will explode in the next three to five years." Kurt Scherf, vice president of research for Parks Associates, a Dallas-based home technology market research firm, says. "Broadband Internet access will be standard at some point–we’re seeing early adopter communities that are being wired with it now."