At this southern California community, architect and builder eschew tried-and-true design in favor of innovation and historical reference. By Christina B. Farnsworth

The days of painting projects with the broadest brush to attract the masses may be over in California. If your niche market is only 5 percent of the overall market, but you can attract 100 percent of that 5 percent, you can have a very successful new-home community, says architect J. Robert White.

Of course, the builder, in this case Brookfield Homes, has to embrace the challenges and agree with the calculated risk. Brookfield's Adrian Foley has built his career successfully taking such risks. Cassis is his latest success--one based on teamwork involving builder, architect, land planner, interior designer, and color and material consultant. "We have always been calculated risk takers," he says, "especially when it comes to finding untapped markets."

Most of this group was part of the winning team that put together last year's much-lauded Strada in the Irvine Co.'s Newport Coast, Calif., development. Cassis at Ocean Heights, also in Newport Coast, is "hitting another narrow niche market head on," White says. This time the market is primarily well-to-do couples without children. (Or, as land planner Lance Kalani Walker describes, Cassis is Strada's big brother.)

The community takes its name from Cassis, France, a hill town along the Côte d'Azur in Provence, says Foley, Brookfield's senior vice president of development. Italy, France, and Spain share the azure shore of the Mediterranean Sea and an architectural legacy based on locally available materials and similar climates. By virtue of early Spanish colonization and a balmy climate, Southern California also basks in that heritage. And it is why many Southern California buyers look to existing homes rather than to new ones.

Cassis is attracting affluent discretionary buyers who aren't even in the new-home market, Foley says. Many are locals from nearby Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach. They may come with friends to check out the three new models and suddenly find themselves selling the old house to buy at Cassis, says White, Scheurer Architects' principal and director of design. Presales started in April 19, 2001; models opened in September. Twenty-nine of the 58 homes, selling between $1.5 and $2.2 million, have already been sold.

How do you achieve such success in a very narrow market niche? One factor is the unusual method Newport Beach-based Scheurer uses to research markets. The firm has found inspiration for new designs by investigating what makes a market tick through the eyes of resale Realtors. For the last two or three years, White says, the firm has been checking out existing neighborhoods to see who is remodeling and what the most popular features are. White says that seeing what homeowners are really doing is often far more effective than asking them questions about something they have never seen and may not be able to envision.

Success factors, Foley, White, and Walker agree, involve early assembly of and brainstorming by the project team as well as the neighborhood's spectacular view location.

View is a valuable commodity, and Cassis steps down a hill with the potential for almost every residence to have a view. Designs are single-loaded with a self-proscribed height of 21 feet so that no home obstructs the view of another. These restrictions lead primarily to single-story homes and use of partial second stories, most over garages. Lot sizes vary but average approximately 75 by 130 feet. Square footages range from 3,513 for the Capri model to 4,479 for the Cannes.

Cassis, as a whole, looks like a Mediterranean hillside village. Walker, senior project manager with the San Clemente-based Collaborative West, says his firm deliberately used an agrarian look to capitalize on that effect.

Scheurer also communicates with the sales staff selling current home product: At Strada, it asked sales associates what reasons prospects gave for not buying. Some of the answers were the need for bigger rooms and better views. They also expressed a desire for "rural country"--an amalgam of informal versions of the Spanish, French, and Italian Mediterranean architecture that inspire Cassis. Prospects often remarked they loved Strada's informality. The information gathered provided the seeds for designs so innovative--rooms wrap around two interior courtyards--even White wasn't sure he wanted to proceed with Residence Two, the 3,934-square-foot Corsica, which is now his favorite.

"It breaks the rules in so many ways," White says. Rooms are all on the plan's perimeter with two interior courtyards. It doesn't have the classic kitchen triangle. The Corsica borrows but does not imitate many Mediterranean lifestyle elements. It recalls the Spanish zaguan, a corridor that opens a house to ventilation in hot weather climates--four sets of French doors along the courtyard axis open the home to ventilation. It pays homage to the hacienda and the villa that create a hub of life around a central courtyard, a true outdoor room.

The Corsica lives like a village with a series of rooms in an H-shaped plan that operates almost as apartments or offices. Guests can hide, if they wish, in a private second-story enclave with private access from the first of two courtyards. A second suite on the first floor can be a dedicated home office with its own porch and entry. The library can be another office or a guest suite. It, too, has private access to the entry court. White argued that the rooms not be named on the plan, but Foley felt room labels help discretionary buyers imagine just how to use such flexible spaces.

All this flexibility in the Corsica starts before a visitor reaches the home's official foyer, which serves as a staging area from which to enter the second courtyard--an outdoor room with fireplace, olive tree, and the sky as ceiling. The owners' suite, dining room, and gracious living area capitalize on Pacific Ocean views, but when it is too windy or chilly to enjoy the backyard the courtyards welcome owners in a sheltered outdoor space. All of the plans feature such protected outdoor spaces.

The Corsica features a somewhat edible landscape, Walker says. Olive trees, rosemary, and lavender are among the plants that emphasize the rural country theme through sight, shape, and smell. Some of the other model gardens are formal parterres. Others gracefully guide shoppers through 14 steps up the hillside between sales center and models.

In addition to Scheurer and Collaborative West, the team involved Design Line Interiors, which merchandised models, and Ann Matteson Consulting, which selected and coordinated the color palette. Perhaps the result of the teams' combined efforts can be best appreciated in the outdoor rooms, such as the Corsica's largest courtyard. There landscape elements combine with color, design, and furnishings to create a secluded outdoor room.

Project Credits
Project: Cassis at Ocean Heights, Newport Coast, Calif.
Size: 3,513 to 4,479 square feet
Price: $1.5 to $2.2 million plus, depending on lot selection and options chosen
Developer: The Irvine Co., Newport Beach, Calif.
Builder: Brookfield Homes, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Architect: Scheurer Architects, Newport Beach
Interior designer: Design Line Interiors, San Diego
Color consultant: Ann Matteson Consulting, Newport Beach
Land planner: Collaborative West, San Clemente, Calif.

So great was attention to detail that at the last minute, the team decided to remove a small tree and crane a mature olive tree into the courtyard--but it was the right and perfect touch. Even so, hard costs on these gracious and well-detailed homes are running about $105 per square foot, Foley says, allowing Brookfield to offer custom amenities at a value compared to one-of-a-kind custom homes.

Another Cassis innovation is what White refers to as the "gathering kitchen." A gathering kitchen ends up with fewer walls for upper cabinets, and the work triangle becomes distorted, White says. But it gains a generous island that recalls the massive worktables common in European villas and in the days before the kitchen island. And it features a large pantry, and a utility kitchen with another dishwasher and a sink.

Ceiling heights become another way of orchestrating space and emotion. "We could have had a single ceiling height," White says, "but we didn't. Depending on the space and its aesthetic, ceilings may be 10 feet, 12 feet, 8 feet with a barrel vault, or, as in the case of the courtyards, no ceiling at all."

Cassis also includes something Foley says all new-home builders are doing now, but which few resale homes have--structured wiring, another draw for those who have never considered a new home.

What Matteson and interior designer Design Line brought to the project may be best summed up in a phrase from Design Line's Web site: "We write poetry with sunlight, design stage sets for real lives, and plant gardens of memories."

And these home do resonate with buyers. Cassis buyers often say, "We have been shopping for a new home for two to three years. We couldn't find anything that pulled at our heart strings." Truth is this market niche is one of the most narrow. Potential buyers are totally discretionary and local. They don't need a home; they already own. To turn perfectly happy homeowners into new-home buyers the home has to tap into the same emotional cache as a luxury automobile does. You want it because you want it. "Emotionally, these homes are priceless," White says.