A small luxury production company has found sales success by taking an unconventional approach to the design and density of its newest community. Although Sun Homes competes with custom builders in one of the country’s priciest and most demanding markets, many of its strategies can be applied to production builders anywhere in the country.

Located in Darien, Conn., the Kensett development of 62 attached homes range in price from $1.4 million to $1.8 million in an area known for its top-ranked public school system, charming downtown, and proximity to New York City. The homes, which come in a choice of seven models with alternate layout options, are designed as freestanding units married at the party wall and roofline in two- and four-plex configurations.

Sun Homes co-owner Bill McGuinness, who acts as the project’s general contractor, says the attached approach allowed project planners to fit more homes on the 16-acre site and helped the company to control costs while staying flexible enough to woo luxury-minded clients. “The market doesn’t object to attached, even at this price, and it improved the bottom line,” he says.

Located within an easy commute to New York City, Kensett encompasses a 4-acre conservation area with walking trails, a club room, heated pool, and fitness center. The project was conceived as an empty nester product, but buyers of all ages are attracted to its serene setting and the perks of living in a condo complex with all landscaping and exterior maintenance taken care of.

“Increasingly, what we’re finding is that it’s not just empty nesters who want no-maintenance housing,” says McGuinness. “We’re getting a really broad mix including young couples and commuting professionals of all types.”

Customer Feedback Guides Designs
Rather than contracting with an architectural firm, McGuinness designed the units himself based on customer feedback. “We hear directly from homeowners what they like and what they don’t like,” he says. “Usually what they want is a different list than what outside architects or designers think they want.”

McGuinness’s layouts include practical but posh touches that make each of the company’s seven models feel decidedly un-production. The approach is paying off: The company  raised prices three times since models opened in September 2012. Some of its popular offerings are higher-end designs and details, but many can be affordably added to a range of new homes. They include:

--High-end kitchens, with options such as full-height pantry cabinets, oversized islands with marble tops, and dramatic arches. A buyer favorite is the service area in the 5-foot-by-12-foot pantry, with a dedicated space for unsightly small appliances that’s tucked behind a frosted glass door.

--Patios near the kitchen. Even in this northern location, buyers crave outdoor space, especially for barbecuing and entertaining.

--Formal dining rooms. “Most architects want to get rid of them but we hear time and time again that buyers want them.” Homeowners feel they are essential for family gatherings, McGuinness says, because they’re entertaining more at home. For many, “It’s probably the least-used but most valued room in the house.”

--Garages near the kitchen. They provide easy access for unloading groceries, which is especially important to older buyers.

--Large laundry rooms with full-height linen cabinets, space for a work table, and ironing board storage.

--Second-floor master bedrooms reachable via elevator. “For years the empty nester market has been shy about elevators, but we are selling a lot of them,” McGuinness says.

--Large storage areas including 16-by-14-foot master closets, made possible by smaller but efficiently designed bathrooms.

--Spacious first-floor dens with built-in fireplaces, room for a sectional and big-screen TV. Also a door that can be shut because “it provides a quiet place to go when things get too noisy in the main living area,” he says.

--High-function landscaping. Private backyard gardens are screened from neighboring houses year-round with evergreen trees and shrubs such as arborvitae, spruce, pine, and fir.

The builder’s discerning clients, who are inundated with design ideas from the Internet, home magazines, and television shows, “expect these unique touches,” McGuinness says. In fact, the units look so much like custom projects that many buyers forget they’re not.

“We have to manage people’s expectations of customization,” he says.  “They can choose all of their own options but some buyers ask for changes to the layout and they’re always surprised and disappointed that we won’t do whatever they want.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: New York, NY.