IN NOVEMBER 2002, LENNAR Communities of California learned that one of its communities, The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe, would play host to the Battle at The Bridges, a nationally televised golf exhibition featuring Tiger Woods. Regional vice president of strategic marketing Tom Martin saw it for the rare opportunity that it was, and thus committed to having the model complex for the Cortile Collection, a high-end semi-custom community of 44 houses within The Bridges, finished in time to usher in the crowds that would be on hand to watch the match.

The only problem was the event was to take place the following July, a mere nine months away. At the time, Lennar didn't even have floor plans for the community. And these were no ordinary model homes. With the homes measuring 4,000 square feet or larger and carrying a price tag of more than $2 million, they had the look and feel of 300-year-old Tuscan villas—right down to the working shutters that close and latch.

Inconsistent lot sizes complicated matters even further.

Thanks in part to the help of Bassenian/ Lagoni Architects, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based firm that had already designed more than 15 communities for Lennar, the company finished on time. “This was all about putting a team together that had a can-do spirit to do something that was amazing,” Martin says.

Volume home builders use outside architectural design firms regularly to meet the challenges of a fast-paced building environment. However, there seems to be little consistency among builders—or even among divisions within the same company—on the extent of their use. Some builders do virtually all their design work in-house, while others farm out everything. Still others make the decision on a market-by-market basis.

IN-HOUSE BENEFITS Like many national builders, Pulte Homes uses a mix of in-house and outside designers, although its preference is to use in-house talent, says Sean Degen, Pulte's vice president of architectural services, because in-house designers are more familiar with the customer service philosophies that help define a Pulte home. One example is that every Pulte home has at least two feet of counter space on either side of the kitchen sink.

In-house designers also generally respond more quickly than do outside firms, says Degen, and they enable divisions to share resources. Through video conferencing, designers in various divisions can see the same plan on a split screen and make sketches on it. Using in-house designers also gives Pulte ownership of plan copyrights.

Degen is committed to keeping designers in division offices so that Pulte's designs remain responsive to the needs of local markets. “It's important for the guys to stay out there,” he says. “How do you get a sense of local design trends until you're there to see it?”

California-based KB Home, which recently added an office in Atlanta to handle the Southeast, Florida, and Texas regions, keeps its design functions in-house. Ken Gancarczyk, senior vice president of builder services for KB, says that in-house design gives the company consistency in image and branding, as well as quick, cost-effective turnaround. The staff draws from an online library of more than 1,000 plans and elevations and can access data from surveys to draw plans that win high marks in home buyer surveys.

DEGREES OF OUTSOURCING When national builders do turn to outside architectural design firms, the reasons are varied. Most often, they have a parcel of land with unique challenges or, as is increasingly common, an infill project that goes beyond the single-family expertise of the builder's in-house staff.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.