Also on the radar are financially distressed “red field” sites such as the one McLinden is now resurrecting as SchoolStreet Homes. The tight-knit neighborhood, which will soon include a concept home by architect Sarah Susanka, is meant to become a prototype of a “not-so-big community.”

“This is our laboratory for a rollout,” McLinden says. “We want to do this in other cities, but we need to find builders in those places who know the local landscape.”

Perfect Fit

As suburban buyers become more diverse in age, income-level, and lifestyle, demand will likely spike for a wider variety of attached homes. So will interest in smaller single-family homes that are closer together—such as the one McLinden built for long-time Libertyville resident Sue Kartheiser, who lives in one of the bungalows with her 13-year-old daughter and runs her business as a personal trainer from home. Plan modifications to her home include an entrance and stairwell that allow clients to go upstairs to a gym over the garage without walking through the house.

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Photos: Tim Klein

“I start my business at 6:00 a.m. while my daughter is still asleep,” says Kartheiser, 47, whose clients include shopkeepers whose stores are located the next block over. “I was sitting in a townhome with the mortgage completely paid for. I didn’t need to move, but this location was perfect. Over the years, I’ve realized that I’m really a city person. I miss living in downtown Chicago, but Libertyville has grown. It’s a little city that’s fun with shops, restaurants, and parks.”

“This was a really good move for me and my daughter,” she adds. “It’s going to change the way we live in a really positive way. And have you noticed gas prices lately? This is big.”

Not everyone in the industry waited for the market crash to start rethinking the needs of a suburban landscape that’s expected to absorb an additional 100 million people by 2050. Ten years ago, Humphreys & Partners Architects in Dallas began experimenting with the idea that apartments didn’t have to be towering high-rises or garden-style buildings with creepy central breezeways. The firm’s trademarked “Big House” prototype—which has been adopted by builders including Pacific West, Pardee Homes, and Watermark Residential—places roughly 10 rental apartment or condo units inside a 12,000-square-foot (give or take), two-story structure that looks like a single-family on the outside.

It’s a diplomatic way of bumping up density in conventional subdivisions in a way that feels contextual in scale, says CEO Mark Humphries, whose firm did 22 such projects with about 6,000 units in 2010 and currently has 15 more under construction. Built at a range of price points in a variety of architectural styles—from Texas Hill Country rustic to Palm Springs modern to New England shingle style—most are stick-framed and sail through approvals since their massing is designed to “fit in.”

“They have proven to have a strong appeal to buyers who want more space than what they get in the city and less crime, minus the home maintenance of a single-family home,” Humphreys says. “When you consider that we’ve done over 240 projects like this at $30 million a piece, that’s $7.2 billion worth of business.”

Other architects are going to school on new forms for a new suburbia in a different way. Canin Associates in Orlando, Fla., has worked up prototype for “right-sized” cottages and bungalows that can stand alone on small lots or be combined to create duplexes and triplexes. When clustered together as detached units, the houses can achieve densities of 12 to 15 units per acre. As attached units, that number jumps to 20 per acre.

“These densities lower the land basis and thus the price of the home,” says Canin principal Tony Weremiechik, noting that the units can be used in new planned communities and redevelopment sites, as well as for retrofitting existing communities with large lots that are proving difficult to sell. “The cottages are also ideal for infill locations requiring higher densities on land considered more valuable.”

Whereas the old suburban growth model was dead set on expansion in the manner of the Oklahoma Land Rush, new approaches are much more focused on redeveloping tired properties with strategic densification. “The truth is we’re not as built-out as we think we are,” Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture and urban planning at Georgia Institute of Technology, and co-author of the book, Retrofitting Suburbia, noted at a recent Urban Land Institute symposium on smart growth. The imperative now is to use land resources more economically.

One of the prototypical examples of suburban revitalization highlighted in her book is Belmar in Lakewood, Colo., a project masterminded by Continuum Partners that converted 104 acres of a dead mall outside Denver into a vibrant mixed-use destination with triple the built area. It’s been touted as a primer on how sprawl can be surgically repaired to offer more housing choices (in terms of size, type, and affordability) and cut down on car dependency.

Redrawn with an urban-style street grid, the $850 million project now blends a veritable smorgasbord of housing options—including lofts, urban row homes, live/work units, and condos ranging from 900 square feet to 2,400 square feet—with 224,000 square feet of office space, restaurants, movie theaters, an arts district, a public plaza with an ice rink, and a two-acre urban park. Following Belmar’s lead, eight out of Denver’s 13 regional malls subsequently launched similar redevelopment efforts.

Move over one time zone, and one finds a similar renaissance underway in St. Louis Park, a first ring suburb due west of Minneapolis—albeit without a deceased mall. “The city and its citizens determined that it had no center, and they wanted to create one,” says urban planner Michael Lander, whose firm created the master plan for a 125-acre Park Commons Initiative, which seeks to create a focal point and downtown area where previously there was none.

Redeveloped by TOLD Development Co. and built by BOR-SON Construction, the 15 acres in phase I—a project known as Excelsior and Grand—transformed a blighted no man’s land into a vibrant hub of intersecting boulevards lined with shops, cafes, office space, structured parking, apartments, and condos. The area is served by Metro Transit and has a 1.5-acre town green with a 300-seat amphitheater for civic events.

Is there a place for the small home builder who typically builds 10 to 15 houses per year in the midst of such large-scale reinvention? Lander thinks so.

“One primary area of opportunity for small builders is building out the interiors of larger buildings,” he says. “Major commercial contractors can build a high-rise shell, but they have no idea how to serve the home buyer with the specifics inside.”

Another new niche on the horizon, he observes, is filling the gaps in evolving suburban landscapes—that is, making creative use of diminutive, odd-shaped parcels that fall just beyond the purview of large-scale renewal projects.

“There’s still going to be a need for the four-unit, stick-framed infill project in the middle of a zoned block,” contends Lander, whose firm also does small-scale urban development. “Small builders are adaptable enough to start doing these infill pieces of two to 12 units around the edges.”

Communities are already beginning to need medium-density infill, such as townhouses or courtyard homes that help ease the transition from bustling town centers to outlying single-family neighborhoods. “There are lots of people who want attached housing, but they still would rather live in a small building than a big building,” he adds. “There’s a market for these interim sizes, but that means some builders will need to reinvent themselves and learn some new tricks.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, Los Angeles, CA, Denver, CO.