Robert Youngentob
Colin Lenton Robert Youngentob

In a quarter-century as a leading residential developer and builder in the nation’s capital, EYA co-founder Robert Youngentob has been at the forefront of many housing trends. He’s seen the company’s core market evolve from yuppies and DINKs to hipsters and millennials, and he’s watched walkable urban housing—a mainstay of EYA projects—migrate to the suburbs. But no matter the decade, architectural excellence has always been in style for Youngentob and EYA.

Five Questions with Robert Youngentob

What architect or style has most influenced your work?
Chris Lessard is the architect that probably influenced our company the most in its early days. Chris pushed us to explore densities and land planning solutions that were innovative to our region. Chris and I collaborated well and pushed each other to think outside the box. Jack McLauren who also worked at Lessard, collaborated with EYA for 18 years on our architecture. Jack recently joined EYA and leads are design effort in house. Bringing Jack in house was a way to help ensure a sustainable future for EYA on the design front.

There is no particular style of architecture that influenced me. I would say that staying true to whatever style you are working with and focusing on real, not faux, details is our key. We also believe that in design detail, less is more and you need to make every sq ft count in working with smaller spaces. Lastly, you always get paid for spending a few extra dollars on quality exterior elevations and streetscape. We are also influenced by many of the principals of new urbanism and studying historic urban neighborhoods both in the US and Europe.

What is your favorite business-related book?
My favorite book is Jim Collin's "Good to Great". It examines traits that have allowed certain companies to sustain extended periods (20 years plus) of above market performance. I have our management team reread it every 5 years or so. It has some very strong business principals that EYA follows very closely. The most important of which is to follow a "hedge hog strategy" of finding one thing you do well and doing it over and over again. It also focuses on defining level 5 leadership characteristics and making sure you have the "right people on the bus" and that they are in the "right seats."

What type of house would you build if you had no client or budgetary constraints?
I am actually working with my wife right now on designing our next home. We have lived in our present home that we designed together for 15 years. Now that our kids our grown, we are moving closer into town to have more "life within walking distance" and to have a home that is the right scale and design to meet our current and future lifestyle. It is much smaller, more casual featuring more indoor/outdoor living and has a master bedroom on the first floor. Architecturally, it is colonial revival on the front elevation and more contemporary on the interior and rear.

What would you be doing now if you weren't a developer?
My dream after graduating college was to be a professional sports photographer. I ended up as a commercial banker and when I was first exposed to real estate in-between my 2 years at business school, I realized that real estate development was a career that combined my love of business and my passion for visual creativity that I found in photography. My love of photography has clearly influenced my ability to see and communicate a vision for a particular community. So if I wasn't a developer I would likely be a full time professional photographer. I have in fact been able over the past 8 years to work a second career for Comcast Sportsnet in DC, covering all the major pro sports teams in Washington. I have been published in multiple newspapers and magazines and online.

What is your favorite vacation spot?
I love to travel and experience the world. My favorite vacation spot is anywhere outdoors and active where there is limited shopping or museums. I love places that have great photographic opportunities like safari or national parks. I just had a great trip to Iceland with my wife and one of my daughters, hiking and taking pictures. I also love traveling to see live music and hanging out with family and friends.

Sophisticated, neighborhood-appropriate design has helped the 92-employee Bethesda, Md.–based firm earn thousands of satisfied buyers and a reputation as a developer that’s committed to decidedly un-production housing. EYA has built more than 4,000 single-­family townhomes and multifamily units in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, averaging about 200 a year.

The firm’s award-winning projects fit in with the D.C. area’s diverse neighborhoods, from classic townhomes on Capitol Hill and Arts & Crafts–style dwellings in Arlington, Va., to contemporary condos on the Alexandria, Va., waterfront. This commitment to location-centric design has been front and center since the company’s founding in 1992.

Backed by an in-house design team, Youngentob is influenced by historic urban neighborhoods in the U.S. and Europe. Timeless designs are augmented by quality materials (no faux details here) that make EYA’s new-construction projects feel like they’ve been part of a community for years. “From the beginning we felt strongly that it’s worth investing extra dollars in streetscape and hard features because that’s what buyers respond to,” Youngentob says.

EYA is a leader in developing new prototypes for infill housing in walkable communities, notes KTGY Group principal Rohit Anand, who has consulted on the firm’s projects for the past six years. “These innovations have been in many high-density product types such as back-to-backs, three- and four-story towns with rooftop terraces, stacked towns, and towns stacked on structured parking podiums,” he says.

Since the company’s founding, much has changed in the D.C. infill market. Today’s urban dwellers want to stay in the city or continue to live in walkable urban environments once they have a family, and EYA has followed suit with offerings such as optional lofts and ground-floor apartment spaces for a boomerang child or aging parent. “We’re adapting designs that can really serve those families without forcing people to move to the suburbs,” Youngentob says.

Interior design trends have moved from traditional to contemporary, Youngentob notes, and in-demand locations are changing, too, as smart growth has flourished beyond the Beltway. “While job centers don’t have to be right downtown anymore, the basic concept of being able to walk out front door and have access to recreation, retail, employment, and transit still is the watchword of what we look for in locations,” he says.

As the company prepares to celebrate its 25th year in business, Youngentob’s biggest challenge is one many builders face: how to provide quality housing that doesn’t price buyers out of the market.

To that end, EYA is exploring higher-density projects as well as layouts that will provide the amenities of a fee-simple townhouse in a smaller, less expensive package (10% to 20% less square footage than EYA’s standard model, Youngentob says).

“The ultimate goal is trying to offer housing that is more affordable to our primary target markets,” he says.