When the housing market first faltered, many builders' first line of defense was to drop prices and incentivize like crazy. And it worked for awhile. Housing prices had climbed so high that a dip in the sale prices came almost as a relief to buyers priced out of the market. But more than 24 months later, builders need another way other than price to differentiate themselves from the competition–and fast. Many are figuring out that this market is as much about product as it is about price; a stellar home design can make buyers out of browsers.

Faced with this reality, earlier this year Big Builder launched its inaugural design challenge. And in conjunction with the Big Builder '07 conference being held at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas this week, five architects from firms across the country will be showing off their solutions to Big Builder's five project challenges at a special pre-conference session on Tuesday. Big Builder is pleased to offer its readers a sneak preview.

The In-Town Actives

The Dahlin Group's John Thatch was tasked to 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.

Thatch is going with what he terms a "Garden Community" deign with eight three-plex brick homes reminiscent of a Federalist architectural style. Front courtyards and porches up the community's curb appeal while three garden commons integrated into the neighborhood provide an antidote to the surrounding community's hustle and bustle with quiet green space.

By interlocking the units in the three-plex buildings, Thatch was able to achieve higher density with the design. The stacked units allow 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 available floor plans range in square footage from 1,250 s.f. to 1,670 s.f. and offer a variety of multi-level living options. Plans include two-story homes with downstairs living and yards, three-story homes with second floor balconies, ad three-story homes with a downs stair home office, convertible to a den or spare bedroom.

The Over Extendeds

KTGY's Manny Gonzalez's instructions were to go forth and design a 2,000-2,200 s.f. detached single-family home to meet the lifestyle needs and limited budget of a three-generation Hispanic household with seven members.

To Gonzalez, a large family like this hypothetical one needs ample space for gathering. But because the family's budget limits available square footage, Gonzalez expanded this idea of community space to the 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," he explains.

Gonzalez uses covered open-air portals to create a seamless transition from inside the home to outside the home. The portals give way to two 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. Moreover, the portals enhance the home's Southwestern architectural style complete with tile roof.

Moreover, Gonzalez includes in his design 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 portion of the house, but a portal retains a connection to heart of the home.

The Suburban Exclusives

Dominick Tringali from his namesake firm, Dominick Tringali Architects, is presenting four of his designers collaborative solution to the challenge of 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.

The designers create a community showpiece in this over-the-top design. However, despite the dramatic entry and sprawling pool areas, the home is functional. Well integrated ramps are 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, and residential elevators allow for vertical movement throughout the house.

The designers also include a sustainable element to the home design. They include a rain garden and green roof gardens into the site plan and include options for additional use of green building techniques such solar energy panels, grey water management, and automatic venting at volume ceilings.

The Sophisticated Mama

BSB Design's Kerrin West is 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.

Although the original site plan called for 18 attached housing units, architect West devises an option to increase the density to as many as 22 units. A detached cluster arrangement anchors this alternative site plan and can reduce construction expense. "Detaching the units reduces the cost by eliminating party wall construction and potentially omitting interior sprinklers. Further savings is 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.

Individual patios ring the community's common green space, providing homeowners with private outdoor living areas and also extended views of the community's common green space. 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 living sanctuary.

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

The Good Lifers

For Rohit Anand with Cubellis, the mission was to design a 2,200-2,400 s.f. detached single-family home with two-car garage to suit the lifestyle of a retired baby boomer couple.

Be it an ailing parent or an adult child who has boomeranged back home, the possibility of a live-in guest is a real consideration for Boomers. For this reason, Anand goes with a dual master suite, single-story plan. However, he adds a den with an adjacent bath that could function as a third bedroom near the front entry.

Anand oversized the kitchen, incorporating an island countertop, built-in breakfast booth, and small desk area into the space to account for the fact that the homes inhabitants will be spending more time at home. The kitchen also provides access to a studio area that could be converted to a screened porch.

And because there's no getting around the amount of stuff boomers have amassed over the years–family heirlooms, antiques, artwork–Anand incorporates display space into the home's main entrance hallway. He adds a rotunda-styled foyer to create a more dramatic entrance into the widened gallery space perfect for displaying artwork or other collectible items.

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