Many big builders have looked for answers to the critical question of how to sell homes in a downturn in perks like free pools and no closing costs, mortgage rate buy downs, and $20,000 off. But as the slowdown protracted and inventory pressures became more acute, incentives have piled up higher and prices have rolled back further. Now pricing's flimsy floor has would-be buyers sitting on the sidelines, wondering just how low builders will go.

But for as much as selling a home in this market is about price, it's also about product. A home sells when it clicks with a buyer's lifestyle and fits the size of the bank account. The only way to do that is through strategic design.

This means looking more closely at target customers to find out who they are as well as what they can spend.

Strategic marketing teams have to start segmenting potential buyers by lifestyles rather than price points, with the hopes of marrying up product design with buyer values. It's now less about designing entry-level, move-up, or luxury and more about designing for groups such as the single female, the Latino wave, and the echo boom.

Faced with this reality, Big Builder magazine put together a series of five design challenges to see what would happen if production home designers were allowed to focus on buyers' needs rather than price points. Theoretical buyer profiles tapped into both the market's most important demographic segments as well as emerging lifestyle trends. Community details and site constraints were outlined to keep the project grounded and encourage creativity.

Eleven designers rose to the occasion and submitted floor plans and elevations for the individual challenges. Some worked collaboratively, and some worked on their own, but the final pool of plans was overflowing with thoughtful reflection, attention to detail, creative additions, and cost considerations.

Kerrin West from BSB Design imagined a durable, low-maintenance starter home for a hardworking single mother in need of an easy-breezy lifestyle. Tasked with designing a home with limited square footage for a large Hispanic family, both KTGY's Manny Gonzalez and BSB Design's Jill Meier integrated outdoor living space into their designs. Both John Thatch of The Dahlin Group and Dan Swift of BSB Design targeted the in-town active crowd with two radically different takes on townhome design. And Cubellis's Rohit Anand and The Drees Co.'s Roy Bentley gave boomers floor plans organized around a retirement lifestyle. J.R. Ruthig, Paul Samartino, Stephen McKay, Jr., and Bill Bossides, all of Dominick Tringali Architects, teamed up on a best of breed design for a wealthy middle-class blended family needing handicap accessibility, while BSB Design's Gary Fowler tackled the challenge on his own.

Despite the diversity of buyer profiles, design hurdles, and architectural styles, designers attenuated the tension between public space and private space in every design.

There are too few pages in this magazine to explore every detail of each of these designs, so the following serves as Big Builder's highlight reel. Additional images and commentary for each project, as well as full profile and site challenge information, are available at

The Sophisticated Mama

Design a 1,600-1,800 s.f. attached single-family home with a one-car garage for a self-employed single mother of two.

Group Huddle

Although the original site plan called for 18 attached units, BSB's Kerrin West increased the density to as many as 22 units. A detached cluster arrangement anchors the plan. "Detaching the units reduces the cost by eliminating party wall construction and potentially omitting interior sprinklers. Further savings are realized by increasing the number of units, thus amortizing the land costs over more doors and passing those savings along to individual homeowners," West explains.

Central Perks

Individual patios circle the community's green space, providing private outdoor living areas and extended views of common areas. A natural park design keeps community maintenance fees in check and allows for a more organic organization of open space. Family vegetable gardens, barbecue areas, an adventure forest, a playground, and a large open play lawn engage families while quiet gardens peppered throughout the park offer adults a relaxing sanctuary.

Business Time

West's floor plans take into consideration the need for home offices. But two takes on a separate entrance to the office allow homeowners to maintain a more professional work environment with a greater degree of privacy.

The Overextendeds

Design a 2,000-2,200 s.f. detached single-family home to meet the needs and budget of a three-generation, seven-member Hispanic household.

The Great Outdoors

"It's hard to squeeze five bedrooms into 2,200 s.f.; you just have to build the basic shelter and have the family expand into the outdoor areas," Manny Gonzalez explains.

Gonzalez used covered open-air portals for a seamless transition between the home's interior and exterior. The portals give way to large patio living areas on either side of the home, and a seating area with a fire pit graces the entrance to the home complex.

Jill Meier also mined the open hallway idea, using a series of loggias to frame an outdoor pool and patio area. A sleep porch attached to a master bedroom on the second level creates another layer of fresh-air living area.

Hideaway Havens

Meier's dual master suites create distinct retreats for select family members. The ground floor suite is strategically located off the rear courtyard's entry to maximize peace and quiet and allow for single-story living, while an upstairs master bedroom, bath, and sleep porch offer another refuge without sacrificing a central location.

Gonzalez's interpretation of private retreat areas includes an extended family casita, perfect for a grandparent, live-in aunt or uncle, or boomerang child. The 12-foot, 8-inch by 11-foot room with attached bath is nearly separate from the main structure, but a portal retains a connection to heart of the home.

The In-Town Actives

Design a 1,000-1,600 s.f. townhome product that includes on-site parking, private outdoor space, and a home office for a young professional couple on the urban periphery.

Fresh Air Living

Dan Swift's townhome units include front-facing porches and rear courtyards. Raised front porches grant visual access to the community's hustle and bustle while keeping street-level activity at arm's length. A detached one-car garage and adjacent one-stall car port behind the four-cluster units create natural courtyards for more private outdoor enjoyment. The car port can morph into a covered living area, a luxury Swift says is "seldom found at this square footage."

John Thatch created a "Garden Community" with eight three-plex homes. Front courtyards and porches up the community's curb appeal while three garden commons integrated into the neighborhood provide quiet green space.

Stacked to the Max

By stacking the units, Thatch was able to achieve a greater density. The three-plex design allows for a total of five different unit floor plans, ranging from two to three stories high. The number of distinct floor plans gives dwellers a sense that their home is unique, while the interlocking design creates what Thatch says is a more unified "'big house' look that is appealing to young buyers."

The five floor plans range from 1,250 s.f. to 1,670 s.f. and offer a variety of multi-level living options. Plans include home offices, balconies, and more.

The Good Lifers

Design a 2,200-2,400 s.f. detached single-family home with two-car garage for a retired baby boomer couple.

The Sandwich Generation

Be it an ailing parent or an adult child who has boomeranged back home, the possibility of a live-in guest is a real concern for boomers. Dual master suites are a must for these buyers, and both designers ensured at least one of the suites' bathrooms had ample wheelchair clearance. Rohit Anand also included a den with an adjacent bath that could function as a third bedroom.

Objects of Affection

Baby boomers may be looking to simplify their lives, but there's no getting around the amount of stuff they have. They've amassed family heirlooms, antiques, artwork–entire collections that should be displayed or stored. Anand and Roy Bentley incorporated display space into the home's main entrance hallway. Anand added a rotunda-styled foyer to create a more dramatic entrance into a widened gallery space, perfect for displaying artwork or other collectible items.

Leisure Time

Bentley tapped into a great room concept and widened the dining room's access to improve flow. Through a pair of French doors, Bentley also introduced a hobby room that then leads into a screened porch.

Anand oversized the kitchen, including an island countertop, built-in breakfast nook, and small desk area. The kitchen provides access to a studio that can be converted to a screened porch.

The Suburban Exclusives

Design a 3,000-3,200 s.f. detached single-family home with high curb appeal and handicap accessibility for a nouveau-riche married couple with blended family.

Equal Opportunity

Designers ensured ramps were strategically placed at the home's thresholds, both in the garages and at doorways, for convenient entry and exit to outdoor pool, patio, lawn, and driveway areas. An open main level skeleton makes maneuvering through the living, dining, and kitchen areas a breeze. Moreover, lowered access points to home features such as kitchen appliances, linen closets, and laundry workstations facilitate every day activity.

A Suite Deal

For a blended family, having space where the children can gather is critical; however, so is ensure they have enough personal space. Gary Fowler penciled in a kid suite for each child, complete with private bathroom and study area.

Fowler solved the question of the "ex" by creating a studio apartment above the garage: "Providing a private guest suite allows for short-term visits that can help [children] maintain and strengthen a relationship with the separated family members."

Dominick Tringali Architects also provided for expansion and outlined a guest suite and an bedroom above the garage.

Green Technique

Tringali designers included sustainability in the design. They provided for a rain garden and green roof gardens, as well as considered the use of green building techniques such as solar energy panels, grey water management, and automatic venting at volume ceilings.