THE GREAT MODERNIST ARCHITECT Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is credited with delivering the über-famous dictum “less is more.” But what does that really mean? It certainly isn't a directive to build houses with less detail, less thought, and less appeal. The idea is not to go overboard with design detail.
The hardest part of creating great houses is deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. A trip to the average subdivision reveals that character is often lost because too few inspired details are included. If you're trying to create irresistible homes that raise the style bar and inspire buyers to part with their hard-earned money, read on.
1. DO THE RIGHTTHING Good houses start with good architecture, but an important element in building houses with wow factor is taking the time to sweat the details. The right products and strategic detailing need to follow through on the architecture. Complementary products take a house to the next level, says Robert Sears, principal of Sears Architects in Grand Rapids, Mich. “The right products have perceived value to the buyer, and from a marketing standpoint that is huge,” he says.
Sears' Bay Street Cottages in Harbor Springs, Mich., is one example of this concept. Each house in this community of up-scale cottages has high-end products such as cedar shingles, Waterworks plumbing fittings, and Sub-Zero and Viking appliances. But each unit also has an unforgettable arch-top Dutch entry door. “When potential buyers look at that door, it is something they can identify with after they have left,” Sears says.
2. MAKE A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION It's no surprise that Sears focuses on the entry door as a highlight of his projects. His philosophy is that builders and architects should put money in the products that buyers see up close. “The door is the first thing [buyers] see, and the hardware is the first thing they touch,” Sears says. “That first impression makes a big difference.”
When it comes to making a good first impression, architect Donald Powers believes in small details that yield big results. This strategy is important for the high-end custom projects that are Powers' usual bailiwick, but it is even more important for the cost-conscious production work he does for builders. “My objective is to harness the custom-home look with the production-home price,” says the principal of Donald Powers Architects in Providence, R.I.
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE To do this, Powers focuses on quality over quantity. “We design smaller houses with simpler forms,” he says. Simple houses are less expensive to build, obviously, but Powers makes up for it in details and cool product selections. For his Warwick Grove project in Warwick, N.Y., he designed a model home with bold exterior forms that were simply detailed. Inside, uncomplicated details such as a freestanding console in the master bath made a big difference. “The stand-alone vanity doesn't need to be built in,” Powers says, so it is cheaper and quicker to install. “But it's a way to create a particular look.”
4. MAKE THE EXTRA EFFORT Like Sears, Powers also uses his door specifications as a way to add wow. “Using 8-foot doors on the first level had such an amazing effect on the feeling of the house,” he says. “People are drawn to them. It is a way to knock the house out of the production realm and into the custom arena.” Larger doors cost just a little more than standard 6-foot, 8-inch sizes, Powers says, but builders can balance the cost with less-expensive units on the upper level.
Cost is perhaps the main reason builders settle for the status quo. Lou Marquet says creating wow might require some extra effort, but he is convinced that it is worth it. “Some details are not as expensive as people think,” says the executive vice president for design and construction at the Tuxedo, N.Y.–based developer and builder Leyland Alliance.
5. TAKE RISKS If you're concerned that taking a chance on details and putting special product features in your homes will blow your margins, it could—if your details aren't thoroughly considered. Is it risky? Not as much as you think.