Builders sell floor plans that permit easy-to-execute changes


By KATHERINE SALANT, Correspondent
In most major new home markets, some designs really are “new and original,” while others billed as “new” actually are newer versions of floor plans that have appeared again and again. What accounts for these “perennial best sellers”? Do their designs resonate with buyers in some unique way? Are they easier to build? Or priced “just right”?

When I posed these questions to executives at two Washington, D.C.-area home-building firms — Brookfield Homes and EYA Associates — that have successfully sold the same basic plan for more than 15 years, and to the architects who designed these plans, I learned that the correct answer is, “none of the above.”
rSalant19cFrom a home builder’s perspective, the characteristic that makes a plan a winner is “adaptability.” A plan that is easily adapted to changing buyer priorities without major changes can save a home builder lots of money, explained Vienna, Va., architect Bill Sutton, the designer of Brookfield’s original 1993 “Waverley” and all its subsequent iterations.


After a home builder has built the same house 10 to 15 times, Sutton said, he knows the cost almost to the penny, and, given the hugely competitive nature of the home building industry in major home building markets, a builder can lock his subcontractors and suppliers into that pricing structure. Modifying the plan here and there does not drastically affect a builder’s costs. By contrast, when a brand new design is introduced, all the vendors will seize the opportunity to raise their prices. In the Washington, D.C. area the price hikes can be as much as ten percent, Sutton said.

Equally endearing to the builders, in some cases these cost-saving modifications can be so deftly executed that most buyers will not realize that they are in the same house.

A good example is EYA’s 16 and 18-feet wide townhouses that debuted as the “Emerson” and the “Fayette” in 1996. At that time they really were “new and original,” combining 1990s pizazz with an unusual and highly efficient floor plan that featured a rear garage accessed from an alley and three living levels above the ground floor garage (other builders offered only two). The main living level on the second floor, however, was standard townhouse fare, following resale dictates to the letter with a large formal living/dining area on the front and a smaller, informal eat-in kitchen at the rear. The third floor master suite had a dramatic sloped ceiling that rose to a height of about 14-feet. It looked fabulous but precluded building anything above it; this meant that the fourth floor bedroom or home office filled only one-half of the building footprint.

Two of EYA’s current versions of these townhouses, the 16-foot wide “Aster” and the 18-foot wide “Bryant” at the firm’s Mosaic District development in Fairfax, Va., display such a different look and ambience that only a professional designer will spot the familial connection to the 1996 version.

Reflecting a sea change in buyer preferences, the traditional colonial styling that has been a hallmark of the Washington market for decades has given way to a modern industrial look that features brightly colored fiber cement panels, flat roofs and significantly bigger and sleeker-looking windows.

The interiors have been similarly transformed, demonstrating in this instance that a minor plan change can make a huge impact.

The wall that separated the formal and informal living areas on the main living floor has been excised so that the entire floor functions as one large, informal living area, enhanced by daylight streaming in from both ends through the bigger windows. With today’s buyers eschewing drama for function, EYA flattened the sloped ceiling in the third floor master suite so that the fourth floor now fills out the entire building footprint and features a 10-foot deep terrace across the front, a large open “loft” that can be used for entertaining and an optional third bedroom and bath.

Besides their easy adaptability to changing tastes, these narrow-width townhouses have proved their worth to EYA in others ways as well. The width, which is narrow for the Washington market, combined with clever land planning, has enabled the firm to build more houses on a given site and achieve unusually high densities. This has facilitated partnerships with local governments to create new communities with a two-thirds/one-third — two-thirds market-rate housing (often a very high-end product) and one-third affordable housing owned and maintained by the local housing authority.

The current version of Brookfield’s Waverly is a more nuanced transformation of a single family house, whose enduring popularity has stemmed in part from the compactness of its plan and a lack of pretension, said Gregg Hughes, Brookfield’s General Sales and Marketing Manager for the Washington area. “It’s not so imposing from the street, and it is larger than it appears to be with a lot more square footage than you sense from the front door,” he said.

First built in 1993, the original Waverly typified the D.C. market with its 2,500-square-foot size, four bedroom count, and traditional styling, but its unusually open first floor plan added a contemporary flare with columns and ceiling treatments defining the must-have-for-resale formal living and dining areas on the front. An eat-in kitchen family room ran across the back with a study tucked in between the family room and the garage. The second floor had four bedrooms.

Fast forward to 2013 and the 2,590-square-foot Waverly is still the same basic four-bedroom house, but the interiors are bathed in sunlight from windows that are about 25 percent bigger and most buyers purchase the optional, 4-foot rear extension and a much smaller side extension that brings the size to about 3,100 square feet, the current sweet spot for single family homes in the Washington area, according to Dan Fulton, a housing consultant who has studied the D.C. market for more than 20 years. The added square footage accommodates the general preferences of today’s buyers and a new buyer demographic in many markets in the U.S., including the Washington area: foreign-born buyers with relatives who regularly visit for several months each year.

The first floor powder room and study have morphed into a bedroom suite for long-term visitors and the family room area is bigger. The formal dining room is still inviolate (even if it’s only used 3 or 4 times a year for holidays and special family occasions), but some buyers have enclosed the living room and use it as a home office. The additional area on the second floor expands the master bedroom and relocates the master bath to the rear; the old location for the master bath is now a loft for kids’ games and household computer use.

A common feature in parts of the US where there is no basement, including Texas and Florida, this is new for the Washington market and increasingly popular as buyers demand useable space instead of the dramatic but useless volume in the two story family rooms and foyers of the 1990s and early 2000s, said Melissa Jonas, a housing consultant with Fairfax, Virginia-based Metro Study.


Last modified: October 18, 2013
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published without permissions. Links are encouraged.