WHAT MAKES ONE COMMUNITY SELL better than another? Is it a builder's reputation, location, site plan, product diversity, price, amenities, or customer satisfaction? Those were all part of what helped land Centennial, an Estridge Cos.' community in the suburbs of Indianapolis, on BUILDER'S top 100 list. But when Paul Estridge Jr., chief servant and president of the Indiana-based business, talks about Centennial's success the conversation comes back to something that probably wouldn't make every builder's best-seller list. That “chief servant” part of his job title is a clue.
As sentimental as it might sound, for Estridge, all roads lead back to a vision statement his employees came up with years before the first house was ever built at Centennial:
We have within us a burning vision that inspires our collective and individual purposes in life. Our convictions compel us to serve and enrich the lives of each other, our families, and everyone we touch; to grow through our entire lives; and to live according to biblical principles.
“With a statement like that, you start thinking about the things that you do every day that can serve that vision,” says Estridge, who bought his father's original business in 1992, not long after that statement was drafted. “For years, I had been looking for the opportunity to allow that vision to be realized through the types of communities and homes that we build. Centennial became the realization of that. Connecting souls is really the story.”
Market: Indianapolis; Project: Centennial, Westfield, Ind.; Sales started: May 1998; Sales through March 2004: 690; Total units planned: 916; Unit size: 1,268 to 4,808 square feet; Price: $150,000 to $400,000; Developer: Estridge Development Co., Carmel, Ind.; Crown Community Development, Aurora, Ill.; Builder/Architect: The Estridge Cos., Carmel; Land planner: HadenStanziale, Charlotte, N.C.; Landscape architect: Carole Boleman, Zionsville, Ind.; Interior designer: Jenice Benton Interior Design, Tempe, Ariz.
Familiar Forms On paper, in this case Centennial's site plan, things look fairly typical at this 362-acre, master planned community. A wide swath of green space divides the community in rough halves, with six different single-family and attached housing styles laid out in village-like clusters. A recreation center boasts what you've come to expect: basketball, tennis, and volleyball courts; a playground; and an Olympic-size swimming pool. Even the half-mile long Central Park, which occupies much of that green center-piece, contains predictable suburban amenities. There are soccer fields, a baseball diamond, an ice-skating pond and, perhaps not so typical, a sledding hill and a Big Wheels track.
But it's a large, impossible-to-miss structure in the middle of Central Park, the first landmark seen upon entering Centennial, which might come as a surprise. It's a church. A big, white, New England–style, clapboard church with a steeple that juts out of the former cornfield without a hint of disguise.
“We were trying to create a connected community, with people of all ages at different stages of their lives,” says Estridge. “We wanted a small-town feel, and in any small town there's a place to worship. It's the first spec church in the country, I'm sure. I was hoping and praying that someone would come in and locate [a congregation] there.” And someone did. It's now the Centennial Bible Church, which calls itself a “nondenominational church that focuses on the basic tenets of the Christian faith.”
You don't have to be Christian—or a believer of any sort—to live at Centennial, but that familiar church form sure rings some bells when it comes to the nostalgic idea of life in a small Midwestern town. Interestingly, though, it's within a stone's throw of two more modern realities of small-town life: the Kindercare Learning Center, a daycare center for children ages six weeks to 12 years, and FirstMile Technologies, which provides phone, cable, high-speed Internet, and home security monitoring services for Centennial.
Of course, it takes more than ballfields, a church, and some modern-day services to lure buyers. A community can't get off the ground without the right mix of product. To that end, Estridge made all six of its production plans available here. “Each of the villages at Centennial has a different type of home that Estridge builds,” says Mark Flagg, Centennial's director. “They're different in terms of lifestyle, price, and the demographics of the customer that's interested in each type.”
The different elevations each have a comfortable, familiar look about them with architectural details that contribute to an all-is-well feeling: plenty of porches, the right shutters in the right places, sensible combinations of brick, siding, and other exterior finishes. “We didn't want anything that was contrived,” says Estridge. “So often, TNDs (traditional neighborhood developments) take the buyer to a place in design and style that they're not quite ready for. We wanted to take the products that we knew our suburban new-home customers wanted and fit them into this type of community.”
No matter the style, every Estridge home is covered by its HomeLife maintenance program, which offers check-up (and fix-it) visits every six months for three year. That covers anything to do with materials, workmanship, wiring, piping, or ductwork systems. The HomeLife program probably plays a part in Estridge's consistently high customer service ratings. “They have typically well over 90 percent ‘willingness to refer,'” says Keith O'Brien of St. Paul, Minn.–based Woodland, O'Brien & Associates. “We've worked with Estridge since 1987, and they are consistently very near the top in any measure.”
The fastest sellers at Centennial have been the Village Collection ($150,000 to $210,000) and the Lockerbie Town-homes Collection ($150,000 to $230,000), Estridge's only attached product. The Village Collection features four elevations (one ranch and three, two-story bungalows) that all come with what the builder calls Savannah porches, plus fireplaces and pegboard-finished garages. It's popular with first-time homeowners and downsizing empty-nesters. The Lockerbie townhomes, which sold out two years earlier than projected, range from 1,400 to 2,300 square feet. Their appeal has been much wider than Estridge expected. Traditional families, single-parent families, and empty-nesters mingle easily in these groups of attached, brick-and-shingle beauties. The third of Estridge's three “lifestyle,” or niche products, is the Irvington Collection ($195,000 to $280,000), a one-story ranch that comes with porches, two or three bedrooms, and a basement option. It's targeted toward empty-nesters.
Three collections of what Estridge calls its “family” homes round out the selection at Centennial. These are larger, two-story homes—three to five bedrooms—that are typically on larger lots. The handsome brick-and-clapboard KesslerCollection ($175,000 to $280,000) is notable for its rear-entry privacy garages and 9-foot, first-floor ceilings. Edging up the price scale is the Springmill Collection ($200,000 to $290,000), which features 14 different floor plans, Andersen wood windows, and lots and lots of brick. Centennial's most expensive—and largest—homes come from the luxurious Meridian Collection ($250,000 to $400,000). That is where you'll find such site-built interior trim touches as crown molding, arches, and columns.
A Sense Of Place There are plenty of master planned communities throughout the United States that look great on paper, but it takes more than good intentions to turn lofty ideals into successful sales. Jim Haden, a principal at HadenStanziale, a North Carolina–based planning, landscape, architecture, and civil engineering firm, has been involved with Centennial since the beginning. His firm won a competition that the Indiana builder organized to find a design group that could put Paul Estridge's vision in place at Centennial. As Haden remembers it, the folks at Estridge were fairly loose when it came to specifying the elements they wanted included at the company's first master planned community, but creating a sense of place was key. And so was that church, which was factored into the planning from the very beginning.
“From day one, Paul Estridge thought that the church would be a very strong focal point for the community,” says Haden. “We've included churches or chapels on other sites, but this was the first project where it actually came to pass. Usually, they just show up as parcels on a land-use plan. This was the first one that ever got built.”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Indianapolis, IN.