If you look across the water from the Kiawah River development by The Beach Co., you’d be hard-pressed to tell one housing development from another.
Golf plays well in this popular pocket of South Carolina, just 20 miles from Charleston. As a result, developers and builders have put the sport at the forefront of many of their projects in the area, with seven courses located within a few minutes drive of Kiawah River’s 1,000-home development.
The Beach Co. decided not to add another 18 holes to the existing 126 in the area, instead leaning heavily on Kiawah River’s natural charms and incorporating an existing 100-acre farm into its design. The developer prioritized amenities like fishing and outdoor goat yoga, part of a shift toward outdoor offerings that break convention and build on regional strengths rather than paving them over.
“We needed to be unique,” says Chris Drury, director of sales and broker in charge at Kiawah River. “We’re not a golf community. We are a true agrihood. The farm is consumer-supported—there’s a program for people to get their eggs and honey—and there are a lot of activities at the farm,including goat yoga. We’ve probably had north of 50 kid goats so far. The farm is growing—at least in pounds.”
The community’s motto “life along the river” is fitting. When residents tire of interacting with farm animals and eating local leeks, they can wander toward the water where tackle boxes and fishing poles are available for use. From there, they can explore the development’s trail system with routes that go over the marsh and through maritime forests.
A Shift in Demand
While it’s tempting to pin every shift in the market on COVID-19, the increased interest surrounding outdoor amenities is primarily a result of the pandemic. Homeowners want more of their own outdoor space to entertain friends and family while diminishing the airborne viral load. They want more opportunities to spend meaningful time outside.
This was confirmed by the America at Home Study in 2020, a consumer survey of thousands of adults that teased out thoughts about how the pandemic changed the way they think about design and what changes they’d like to see in new homes and communities.
“The top desired features named by owners or renters were all related to outdoor space,” says marketing expert Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki of tst ink, who spearheaded the survey with consumer strategist Belinda Sward of Strategic Solutions Alliance and architect Nancy Keenan, president and CEO of Dahlin Group Architecture Planning. “We’re talking about nature and open space for hikes and other activities. That’s across all buyer groups. They all said it was very important or important.”
The study was done in two phases in 2020. The desire for novel outdoor spaces increased across all categories the second time around, and 52% of respondents said they’d be willing to trade their own yard space for better outdoor activities in their neighborhood.
“They are saying they would give up a private yard if there’s access to outdoor space,” Slavik-Tsuyuki says. “Builders and developers need to think about how they do that at scale. You don’t want one big regional park. You want to build pocket parks all throughout the neighborhood. They are saying, ‘Give me a place to walk, to walk my dog, to visit my neighbors.”
One such green space that has gained popularity in new communities is dog parks. Not only do they offer an outlet for canine friends, but they also provide a social opportunity for dog owners, whose numbers have been growing. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that nearly 1 in 5 households nationwide adopted a pet during the pandemic. As a result, it’s worth considering a dog park as part of any new development.
“They can be well thought out,” Slavik-Tsuyuki says of dog parks. “What’s cool is to think in context of the community and the home. The importance of the home is now as important as the whole community. Developers may have 2,000 acres, but how do you build a neighborhood of 60 homes?”
According to Slavik-Tsuyuki, the study shows the top outdoor wish was space for nature activities that several people can enjoy at once. The second choice was for large parks with green space, and No. 3 specifically referred to nature trails suitable for hiking.
“What I’m advising land developers and planners is a much greater emphasis on outdoor spaces and programming in neighborhoods,” she says. “The days of the big clubhouse and pool complex are over. They are now among the lowest desired community amenities. Spend less money on multimillion-dollar items, and be more thoughtful with open spaces.”
Another tip from Slavik-Tsuyuki in regard to these green spaces? “Put outdoor restrooms in the parks.”
Change in Priorities
Oxland Group has been paying attention to these trends. Its Painted Tree project in north Texas is still in its early days of development, but there are no plans for a pool—something Tom Woliver says wouldn’t even have been considered only a few years ago.
“Think of 2020,” says Woliver, co-president of Oxland. “All of the pools and public facilities were shut down. But everyone was still outside. They were out on trails. They needed a respite from working from home, educating their kids from home, going to the gym from home, and doing everything from home. So we made a very conscious decision that our amenities would be our lake, our trees, and our trail system.”
The development site is on a 230-acre greenbelt with some 25 miles of well-worn trails, many of them in and around a 20-acre lake. Rather than spending money on the pool and related buildings, Oxland plans to build a grand entry to the trail system, similar to what you’d find in a national park.
“Anyone who wants a big clubhouse or a gym has five options within a few miles of us,” Woliver says. “This isn’t [the development] for them.”
At Painted Tree, residents will find a branded RV that will be used for themed food nights—think Taco Tuesdays catered by a local restaurant—or keg nights in the park. The idea, according to Woliver, is to offer options that engage residents.
Standard Still Stands
That’s not to say all large communities going forward won’t have standard amenities, but there is a focus on offering something different. Mollie Carmichael, a principal at Zonda Advisory, says the top five master-planned communities by sales in 2021 managed to strike a balance that appealed to buyers.
The Villages, the largest active-adult community in the United States, has created a coastal feel in Central Florida. Like all good coastal towns, The Villages has a main street that draws residents out and gets them mingling and socializing.
“They have that main street concept every good beach town has,” Carmichael says. “But the real secret aside from the water and golf is that every single day at 3 p.m., there is live music in their town squares. It’s genius—everyone has a beer and eats and hangs out. It’s the only master plan I’ve ever visited where everyone is smiling in the street.”
Meanwhile, top-selling master plan Cane Bay Plantation by Gramling Brothers Real Estate and Development in South Carolina has put its own twist on traditional fitness amenities.
The developer has handed control of its programming to one of the country’s leading health and wellness organizations.
“It’s pretty clever,” Carmichael explains. “Instead of doing a huge club amenity built around a central feature, they’ve built around a spectacular YMCA. There’s aquatics, tennis, baseball, and sports fields. And it’s all managed by the Y, not the developer.”
Outdoors at Home
Of course, there are still homeowners who are looking to their own space for their outdoor fix. They’ve realized throughout the pandemic that outdoor space can offer safe gathering areas year-round and want to build on that experience. Boyer Vertical is a Phoenix-based architectural builder that focuses mainly on smaller-scale projects. Clever use of existing outdoor space has become a significant focus for CEO and president Jason Boyer.
He agrees the pandemic has encouraged more people to get outdoors, but, in his experience, he sees more attention being paid to their own exterior living space rather than outdoor communal spaces.
“I think outdoor space has become more important in multifamily,” he says, adding that for his clients, “the notion of a subdivision or development with a community center and a pool is not as prized as having your own space.”
Looking back at some of his recent projects and thinking about how they would be different if he were to tackle them today, Boyer says he would think more about pets. Beyond that, he would focus on ways to make better use of existing space.
“You can’t please everybody, but I’d now use more outdoor space and pay more attention to landscaping and planting to make that exterior space feel more livable,” Boyer says. “People are generally connected to the outdoors—you want people to feel visually connected with what’s outside even when enclosed. We want to be able to throw doors wide open to connect the indoors with the outdoors.”
Regardless of whether its communal or private outdoor space, vice president Andrew Pieper of Hillwood Communities says the point is the same: People are seeking community after the past two years, and going outside is one of the easiest and safest ways for folks to come together.
“We find people are craving community after what we’ve gone through,” he says. “We’re finding outdoor spaces are so much more important than before—playgrounds, lawns, dog parks. There’s a huge rush toward fresh air.”
For Hillwood, that means microparks in high-density areas to make sure residents aren’t trading affordability for green space. They may have smaller backyards, but “the community can be an extension of the backyard,” Pieper says. “Folks are coming out of apartments, and we’re finding they’re OK with higher-density products because of rich amenities.”