When the Great Recession hit, small builders in many markets struggled to compete against national firms that had more reserves and resources to weather the downturn. Case in point: Charlotte, N.C.–based Saussy Burbank, which had been holding its own building production homes in new communities alongside power players like Ryland Homes and David Weekley Homes. But once the economy faltered, Saussy Burbank executives realized they needed to come up with a way to distinguish the company from its competition. The firm moved in a new direction—one that has evolved from a lifeline to a profit center.
The new niche entailed building well-appointed spec homes on infill lots in and around the firm's core cities of Charleston, S.C., and Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C. The scale was much smaller than what the company was used to—one- to seven-lot developments, some on empty sites and some teardowns of older houses. The Saussy Burbank team only considered lots in prime locations that were in good school districts and easily accessible to amenities via foot, bike, or golf cart (a local favorite).
To ensure that the new projects would blend into the feel of their existing neighborhoods, the firm worked with local architects familiar with the area's design aesthetic. The company also expanded its product selections and trade partners to encompass high-end touches like Sub-Zero refrigerators, built-in cabinetry, and extensive millwork and trim. "The infill houses took us to a new price point and quality level," says senior vice president Al McNeill.
The $1.4 million Royall Street Residence in the historic Old Village section of Mount Pleasant, S.C., a suburb of Charleston, is an example of the firm's new strategy. The land cost $500,000 and required the teardown of a cramped one-level rambler, but it is in walking distance to shops, restaurants, and the local commercial seafood port, Shem Creek.
Local architect Phil Clarke, an expert in Low Country design, laid out the home around existing mature trees and ensured that the exterior meshed with nearby dwellings, some dating to the 1750s. Outside, he included welcoming touches such as the big front porch, crushed granite walkway, and copper gas lanterns. Inside, he speced simple but sophisticated finishes including white kitchen and bathroom cabinets and countertops and 5-inch-wide stained white oak flooring. A 700-square-foot screened porch spanning the rear of the house is a perfect spot for bug-free entertaining.
On this house and many other of its infill projects, Saussy Burbank executives realized that high-end home buyers in their market appreciate it when design decisions are made ahead of time.
"Rather than have customers come in and do a design/build thing, they are happy that the houses are already so well done and professionally coordinated," McNeill says.
Now that the housing market has started to rebound, the company's infill work hasn't slowed down. In fact, it has grown to about 10% of total sales, and its upscale concepts have provided inspiration for the other 90% of the business.
"We've been able to take some of the more high-end features that we've learned how to execute well with our vendors and introduce those as upgrades or options or even standard features in our other houses," McNeill notes.
The firm's production customers love the luxe offerings, which include built-in cabinetry, custom-made mantels, shiplap siding fireplace surrounds, and interior trim details. "They realize they're getting the same quality as a buyer of our larger-sized home," he says.
For example, the firm is leveraging its design cachet on projects like the Village at Carolina Park in Mount Pleasant, where it is one of a handful of builders who have been asked to offer several home models, from custom to starter.
"We now have the breadth to execute at all levels," McNeill says. "We might not have had that before the recession."