Five Ways to Make Production Look Custom

Working in volume doesn’t have to stifle creativity. Use these ideas as a jumping-off point for giving your work some custom appeal.

1.  Hire outside architects who are skilled in incorporating eye-catching details rather than sticking to off-the-shelf plans.
2.  Offer some features and details as flex options to contain costs.
3.  Develop more efficient plans to reflect the way we live now, rather than rely on outdated layouts that waste valuable square footage (and dollars) with details like unnecessary hallways.
4.  Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, adapt footprints to fit a site’s topography.
5.  In addition to first-time homeowners, cater to trade-up buyers who are willing to spend money for extra space as homes again get bigger.

After the recession stalled production building, competition for home buyers’ limited dollars got tougher than ever. While some builders have rolled out a stock of similar plans that save money and time, others realized that producing single-family houses needn’t mean turning out cookie-cutter elevations, interiors, and floor plans. By providing what most appeals to buyers, standardized construction can edge closer to custom and maintain a moderate price tag. Two winners of the 2013 Gold Nugget Awards show how to reel ’em in on a reasonable budget. 

Project Details

Project Plan Number One, Fairbrook Estates, San Diego
Builder Ryland Homes, Irvine, Calif.
Architect Woodley Architectural Group, Littleton, Colo., and Santa Ana, Calif.
Square footage 3,156 for flared design; 3,093 for standard design
Lot size 0.21 acre
Target market Move-up families, retirees
Model Price $1.09 million

The Inspiration
From the 1950s to the 1970s, California developer Joseph Eichler built production homes with open plans and glass walls. Reviving mid-century style to lure homeowners into trading up as the economy improved made sense to Richard Douglass, division president of Ryland Homes. “When the mid-century style first came out, it was a time of America’s ascendancy and optimism,” says Douglass, who acknowledges that existing mid-century homes sell well. Because the style is simple and built on one level, Ryland knew it could be done relatively affordably.

The Splurge
Ryland hired architect Mike Woodley to tweak Eichler’s style. Woodley designed separate wings linked by courtyards oriented toward the center. Splurges include large glass windows and 9-foot to 11-foot tongue-and-grove ceilings in the post and beam style.

The Save
To contain costs, the flared plan became optional, not standard. Straight and flared plans have similarly sized bedrooms, bathrooms, and hallways to avoid reconfiguring. Synthetic materials that resemble the real McCoy help trim expenses, as did using local concrete.

Details That Seal the Deal
The plan offers post and beam–style ceilings using ready-milled materials. In the mid-century versions, the beams were part of the structure and there was no insulation, Woodley says. “Today, we’re using trusses with a small pitch where we can insert the insulation. The beams aren’t structural, so they don’t have to be as thick.”

Lessons Learned
The courtyard serves as both outdoor space and a natural barrier between public and secluded parts of the house, allowing for more privacy.

Next Hurdle
Keep getting homeowners to buy a house based on how it lives, rather than on square footage.

Project Details

Project The Branford, Poplar Run Centennial, Silver Spring, Md.
Builder/Developer Winchester Homes, Bethesda, Md.
Architect Bassenian Lagoni Architects, Newport Beach, Calif.
Square footage 2,682
Lot size 0.39 acre
Target market Families
Price $519,000

The Inspiration
The Queen Anne style was popular from about 1870 to 1910 because it combined a mix of shapes, architectural details, textures, and colors that reflected Industrial Revolution affluence. The original East Coast version was inspiration for architect Vance Graham when Winchester Homes hired him to design period-style houses for a master planned community.

The Splurge
Hiring an outside architect who designs custom homes and understands authenticity took a bigger bite out of Winchester’s budget than if it had worked just with in-house staff. “We wanted to go back to a time when home building represented a craft,” says James C. Pohlhaus, Winchester’s product development head. “Higher costs were relative to the perceived value. We now customize 95 percent of homes.” For the Branford, Graham added a three-story turret as the façade’s focal point; it houses the entry and stair tower. Graham says builder skill was critical for this element. The stair turret, open from roof to basement, needed several scaffolding setups for framing and finishing. The splurge paid off: All 25 in the first phase sold out.

The Save
A rectangular footprint is more cost-efficient than a meandering one. So is including only the most-requested rooms and no secondary living spaces. “The key is fewer rooms that are larger and more detailed,” says Graham, who devoted the rear to a great room that features a sitting area with big glass doors and a kitchen/eating area. Period-style elements, such as the master bedroom’s ceiling millwork, were off-the-shelf.

Details That Seal the Deal
Top on many homeowners’ wish lists is plentiful storage. Rooms in this plan are loaded with optional cabinetry—a second coat closet, butler’s pantry, mudroom, and kitchen cabinets. “Even we were shocked at the amount we put in,” Graham says.

Biggest Surprise
For Graham, it was the builder approving the turret—an uncommon element in production design. “When I sent in the original plan, I crossed my fingers they’d love it,” he says. Winchester did, says Pohlhaus. “We saw its power to excite buyers, especially on a corner lot. Originally, we thought we’d use it only on the model, but it became one of our most popular elevations. Then, we struggled to avoid doing two or three in a row.”

Lessons Learned
Pohlhaus advises builders to view an architect as partner—part artist to imagine beyond the usual and part engineer to offer efficiencies. Graham stresses the importance of special features such as a large master bathroom with big shower, his and hers vanities, and a water closet.

Next Hurdle
Get banks to appraise houses based on all features like special millwork, and not just square footage.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC, San Diego, CA.