Although the $1.5 million to $2 million asking prices for dwellings in the Kensett housing development aren’t exactly a bargain, they are a value for the area. Kensett comprises a total of 62 houses clustered around an award-winning community center while nearly one-third of the 15-acre site is devoted to a recreational nature preserve. Add to the mix a location like Darien, Conn.—a historic town on the shores of Long Island Sound that’s within easy commuting distance of Manhattan—and it’s easy to see why the price tags on these 4,000- to 5,500-square-foot houses are appealing.
Architect Bill McGuinness, co-founder of Sun Homes along with builder Bob Dale, developed and designed Kensett to respect its natural site. Protecting nearly 5 acres for a nature preserve meant siting the houses with a higher density. This smart planning generated several benefits for the develop/design/build firm. “Because we have this density, we can reallocate construction costs for built-ins and higher quality details,” McGuinness explains.
“We get to design the houses the way we’d want to live,” McGuinness adds. Built-ins are thoughtfully speced to improve organization while reducing clutter and the need for a lot of furniture. Including details typically found in custom houses attracts buyers and doesn’t have to strain the budget or cut into profit margins. Off-the-shelf cabinets and shelves are ordered in bulk then put together in creative ways. Being your own developer, designer, and general contractor affords clever cost-saving moves like this without dumbing down the design. The high-density site plan also allowed for funds that normally would go toward landscaping large yards to be used elsewhere. McGuinness emphasizes that the tight siting also “makes the community very walkable and accessible.”
Empty-nesters are the target buyers, so walkability,accessibility, being close to neighbors, and having multiple leisure time options at hand are all appealing amenities. A big part of achieving those attractive selling points involved getting approval for humans to occupy the preserve. “We hired biologist Michelle Ford to come do impact studies on mixing safe habitats with nature trails,” McGuinness says. “We eventually got the state to allow us to use the land as recreational area instead of just fencing it off.”
Those 5 acres were cleaned up by removing invasive species, planting native flora such as a field of wildflowers, opening up the forest canopy so heirloom trees can thrive, and adding mostly flat, gravel trails wide enough for wheelchairs. Kensett residents also enjoy a large pond with an interesting history.;
“We dredged this rectangular pond and discovered it was a foundation of an old homestead,” McGuinness says. Based on Ford’s recommendations, native grasses to attract other pest control creatures like dragonflies and ladybugs were planted. Properly spaced bird houses around the pond’s perimeter—along with Adirondack chairs—encourage a hangout for people and wildlife.
McGuinness gave just as much consideration to the built environment. A three-story community center modeled on New England meeting houses—aptly called the Meeting House—provides an architectural focal point while housing multiple activities. All mail pickup happens here, so residents mingle daily. A fitness center, swimming pool, hot tub, pool table, grand piano, indoor fireplace, outdoor fire pit, wet bar, and plush furnishings are all arranged for maximum community building and entertainment. Beneath the eaves is a guest suite that residents can rent.
A custom clock graces the building’s façade. Like many of Kensett’s features, the clock serves double duty: It keeps time for the neighborhood and provides secondary egress for the guest suite. The whole mechanism swings open on iron hinges. “I’d never designed a clock before,” McGuinness admits, “but our gate maker created the face, hinges, and latch then we ordered clockworks and glass for both sides so light filters through—like in [the movie] ‘Hugo.’”
There also are plans to add a community garden and perhaps a coffee shop inside the Meeting House. Although the development is geared toward active empty-nesters, several young families also have bought here. “It’s a nice mix of people,” McGuinness adds.
Kensett’s success proves that a variety of home buyers, even in luxury markets, are willing to live in high-density communities that offer walkability, accessibility, recreation, interaction with neighbors, easy commuting, and a strong connection to nature.