OPENING THE BOX: Howard Englander helped devise Shea Homes' Spaces concept.
Clay McLachlan OPENING THE BOX: Howard Englander helped devise Shea Homes' Spaces concept.

Step back to the fall of 2008. Desperate builders across the country were scrambling to strip down their house plans to lower their prices in buyer-starved markets. Bert Selva, CEO of Shea Homes, says he didn’t want to do that, even though a number of Shea’s more affordable communities, such as Reunion in Denver, weren’t generating their desired absorption rates. A “big fan of differentiation,” Selva thought Shea needed to come up with something special that could attract the 25- to 34-year-old demographic. He wasn’t sure what younger buyers wanted, but he knew that “they don’t want something their parents or grandparents had.” For example, buyers that Shea Homes interviewed said they normally eat in front of their TVs, which told Selva a new concept could dispense with large dining rooms. Selva also recalls a conversation with Scott Olivet, CEO of sunglasses maker Oakley, which led him to the conclusion that “customers don’t always know what they want, but they know it when they see it.”

As he was pondering all of this, Selva picked up the scent of nostalgia in the air. Muscle cars of the ’60s, such as the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger, were making comebacks. Popular shelter magazines such as Dwell had become fascinated with mid-century design and simplicity.

Courtesy Shea Homes

Selva remembered growing up in the San Francisco area in the 1960s, when two developers were leaving their imprint on California’s burgeoning housing market: Henry Doelger, whose functional row houses with unique designs “sold like crazy,” recalls Selva; and Joseph Eichler, whose “California Modern” designs featured open floor plans and big windows that let in lots of natural light. Selva’s meshing of past and present ideas served as the inspirational touchstone for a new concept: Spaces, Shea’s series of contemporary houses that the Walnut, Calif.–based builder is currently marketing to Generation Y buyers with great success.

Shea launched Spaces in April 2009, and the homes built to its specifications have made a splash wherever they’re been introduced in California, Arizona, and Colorado. The concept is one of the industry’s innovations that were triggered by a grinding housing recession from which builders and developers are only now escaping.

Spaces began addressing a specific problem and ended up positioning the builder for future growth. Along the way associates, consultants, trades, and customers played leading roles or cameos in molding the idea into shape. “Sometimes, events occur through a convergence of different contributions,” says Howard Englander, who oversees architecture for Shea’s divisions.

Courtesy Shea Homes

Having decided to make a bold design statement, Selva retained Denver-based architect Michael Woodley and gave him three mandates: Any new concept had to be affordable, energy efficient, and “cool.” Even before he was hired, Woodley could see that buyers craved “a new aesthetic.” By that November, he devised the scaffolding for what, at the time, was called the Shea Smart Series. Construction costs would be lowered through standardization, with only two window types and two kitchen widths. All bathrooms would be the same, with shower stalls but no tubs. Countertops would be laminate, secondary bedrooms smaller.

Spaces’ “cool” factor would include pendant lighting, Euro-style kitchens with oversize stainless steel sinks, 42-inch flat-screen TVs that replace fireplaces, and floating cabinets in the master bathrooms. The new series would also feature tankless water heaters, solar tubes that let natural light into rooms, radiant barriers, blow-in insulation, and plug-in outlets in garages for recharging electric or hybrid cars.

The pivotal component of Woodley’s concept was what Englander calls its “gigantic activity spaces.” Focus groups told Woodley they wanted flexible indoor living areas. So he created active spaces dubbed “Work,” “Watch,” “Eat,” “Chill,” and “Play.” Englander says this labeling helped keep the company focused on the fact “that we were striving to create a different capacity.” The nomenclature also led to the concept being renamed “Spaces.”

Don Anderson, whose consulting firm Color Design Art helped design Spaces’ interiors, did research that confirmed Woodley’s. The targeted buyers want homes “they can personalize easily,” he says. A state-of-the-art kitchen is a must, as is a media-centered living area. But plans must be flexible enough for people to use as their changing lifestyles dictate, with ample storage space and mobile furniture. (IKEA’s basic, adaptable product line became a model that Anderson thought Spaces might emulate.)

Spaces’ details got hammered out at a two-day charrette in December 2008 that included Selva, Englander, Woodley, Anderson, Shea’s purchasing vice president Robb Pigg; Martin Riell, who oversaw product development in Shea’s Arizona division; and Anjelina Barraza, its regional purchasing agent. Three house widths—35-, 40-, and 50-feet—and eight house plans per width emerged from that meeting.

Once the elevations were set, Englander, Selva, and Woodley pitched Spaces to all of Shea’s divisions. “We convinced them that this could only work as a corporate effort, and to help us make it happen,” says Englander. Unlike Shea’s active adult brand Trilogy, which has its own management team, the divisions participate in Spaces based on their available lot sizes.

Spaces homes range from 1,087 to 2,616 square feet, and are priced from roughly $180,000 to $350,000. Shea built its first Spaces homes in Corona, Calif., without its jazzier elevations because the lots there were in an existing master plan. Grand openings in Phoenix and Denver that showcased Spaces’ bolder elevations drew big crowds and enthusiastic press.

Englander says Sacramento, Calif., will be Spaces’ next market. And Shea intends to try out an attached version in Denver. Spaces is a brand, but in some markets only its interior design will be used. As Shea found out in Phoenix, where prices had bottomed by the time it introduced Spaces, the concept “doesn’t compete as well when people are looking for shelter,” says Selva, But Spaces is also “a universal-type home” that’s adaptable to wherever Shea builds. “It’s almost turnkey,” says Selva.

Anderson concedes that Spaces probably isn’t for everyone. “Some people love it, others want a more traditional house of which there’s plenty out there. But there’s nothing like this on the market.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Las Vegas, NV, Raleigh, NC, Charleston, SC, Los Angeles, CA, Phoenix, AZ, Anderson, IN.