Green & Greener

Rethinking the Spec-Built Community

The unusual shape of the island in the Gen B house allows for easy conversation between four or five people seated there, as well as between them and the cook — who also enjoys a terrific view out the back.  SLIDESHOW (Click image above)

Photo Credit: Katherine Salant

Last December I spent the weekend in a remarkable new home community in a northern suburb of Chicago. The houses are spec-built and priced for the “upper middle segment” of their market, but the builder customizes them to a remarkable degree and builds them with the highest quality materials and highest energy efficiency I have ever seen in any for-sale house anywhere in the country.

Home buyers who visit School Street, a small, 26-house project in Libertyville, whether they’re from other Chicago suburbs or other areas of the country will surely ask, “Why aren’t the builders in my area doing this?”

I went at the invitation of John McLinden, the developer and builder, and stayed with a School Street family as their houseguest, soaking up the ambience of their new home as I enjoyed their hospitality. I attended a neighborhood Christmas party and socialized with many of the residents, interviewed several homeowners and toured their houses, met with David MacKenzie, McLinden’s architect, and had several extended conservations with McLinden himself.

What did I learn from my extended visit that the casual visitor might miss? The most impressive thing about the community was not the flexibility of the builder or the strong visuals, though these are, by any measure, impressive. It was the enthusiasm and strength of the residents’ commitment to their new neighborhood. Their intention to stay put for a long time was clearly evident. As one resident said, “This is my forever house.”

Though some of this enthusiasm is surely attributable to the pioneer spirit that pervades the first years in any new home community, I think it will endure in this instance because of the highly unusual way that McLinden organized this project and collaboratively worked with his buyers. It is an astounding departure from the norm.

In most new home, spec-built communities, the builder offers a very limited menu of floor plans, exterior treatments and lot choices. Four or five plans will be offered and buyers cannot make any changes. “Semi-custom” means that some changes can be made but buyers must stick to the basic plan. Each floor plan will be paired with an exterior elevation; occasionally several elevations in differing styles will be offered for the same plan, but you have to choose from those options. To create variety along the street and avoid the much derided “cookie cutter look,” each lot will be assigned a different plan and elevation treatment. If you want a particular lot, you almost always have to take the plan that goes with it.

In marked contrast, McLinden is amazingly flexible. He offers eight plans that range in size from 1,650 to 3,200 square feet and in base price from $489,00 to $735,000 (the upper mid-range for this market). Any plan can go on any lot and buyers can alter the plan in any way they want, in consultation with McLinden’s architect, David MacKenzie, who meets several times with each household and spends three to four hours customizing the floor plan.

MacKenzie said the conversation with each family begins with his asking, “How do you want to live?” The homeowners are invariably taken aback by his opening gambit, but it quickly reorients the discussion away from a check list of must-haves, such as a kitchen island with a natural stone countertop, to talking through their daily life style and how best to massage the main living areas to arrive at a plan that’s tailored to their needs.

Some buyers have made only minor changes, MacKenzie said, but others were quite radical, eliminating entire rooms to create bigger spaces and relocating major spaces such as the kitchen from the middle of the major living area to the front or the rear of the house. Individual rooms are often sized to fit special pieces of furniture like “a breakfront that was a wedding present” and accommodate important family events. For example, one homeowner wanted a kitchen/dining/family room area that would be comfortable on a daily basis for her small household but large enough to accommodate 25 people for Christmas dinner, including her divorced parents who wanted a spot where each could have some private alone time with their assembled offspring.

McLinden’s houses are unusually well built, to a quality standard that I have never seen in any spec-built house anywhere. Most homebuyers would notice the standard Bosch appliances and custom cabinets in the kitchen, the Kohler bathroom fixtures, the standard hardwood finish for the entire first floor and second floor hallway (choices include oak, maple, Brazilian cherry and bamboo), the elaborate interior Craftsman details around the doors and windows, and a stained, solid wood front door.

What’s more impressive to me is the level of quality in things in the base price that most buyers won’t notice: Marvin Integrity windows, Owens Corning 30-year architectural shingles, icynene open-cell foam insulation, a high-efficiency furnace and a high level of energy efficiency. The houses are all certified to the Energy Star 2.5 level; each one is at least 40 percent more efficient that the current building code requires.

The visuals at School Street are impressive, however. A prospective home buyer who spends an afternoon touring will quickly note the attractive appearance of the 19 completed Craftsman-styled houses that line a single block in this 175-year-old town.

For a spec-built new home community today, the houses display an unusual variety in style and detailing (“Craftsman” is rather broadly defined), and the land use plan draws on the well established though relatively uncommon New Urbanist principles for developing a strong social fabric. To promote casual interactions between neighbors that can lead to stronger social ties, the houses are close together (in this case only four feet apart) with front porches that are close to the sidewalk (in this case, eight feet away).

Sustainability principles are also much in evidence at School Street. The homeowners are much less car-dependent than most suburbanites because the main shopping street of Libertyville is only one block away and the commuter rail station for residents who work in downtown Chicago is only five minutes farther away on foot.

Another plus with the proximity to Libertyville’s downtown is that School Street’s children can be independent long before they learn how to drive — once their parents give the okay, they can walk to the movies, shops, the town library, and a large public park.

December 2012