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It's "very 2003 or 2004," but people are buying them
by Katy Purviance on 04/01/08 @ 02:33:52 pm
Categories: Architects, Green Design, Articles | 613 words | 939 views

I just read this article in Architectural Record by David Sokol called “The Sagaponac Effect: Modernist Subdivisions Multiply.”

I’ve long had this hunch (that I have discovered to be true), that it doesn’t always matter what the housing market is doing. Some people are just fine, buying-a-new-house-wise.

David Sokol tells us this is true, in niche markets.

America’s small number of Modernist subdivisions will endure the popping of the housing bubble. “After all, this is an audience that likely has a good credit history and no financing problems. They’re not going to be stretching themselves to buy this home.”

The phrase “Modernist subdivision” makes me a little breathless. I grew up in a soulless mind-number car-dependent subdivided hell just north of Los Angeles called Santa Clarita Valley (My little sisters even use its area code derogatorily, as in, “She’s so 661.")

But a Modernist subdivision. Well…now…how does that work?

Nilay Oza, a project architect for the well-known Houses at Sagaponac, in the Hamptons on Long Island, has found that real estate developers want to emulate this Modernist enclave. “I advise people about economies of scale, and finding constants between different designs,” he says of phone calls he’s fielded from throughout the U.S.

Although only seven of the 32 planned Houses at Sagaponac are finished, developers are citing that and other precedents, including the New Urbanist community Aqua, in Miami, Florida, Prospect New Town, in Colorado, and the Case Study Houses of 1945–1966 for their own similar projects. Even in regions not normally associated with a Modernist residential tradition developers are creating subdivisions that offer smorgasbords of contemporary architecture. American Institute of Architects chief economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, calls the schemes “very 2003 or 2004, in that they express this sky’s-the-limit mentality that as opposed to today’s realities.” Yet he and developers believe that this extremely small niche could better withstand the housing downturn than more traditional single-family product.

Dallas is home to two such clusters. Matt Holley, CEO of the company Skymodern, which is developing a Modernist subdivision just south of the Trinity River called Kessler Woods, says that when, in 2002, he began purchasing the parcels that comprise the project’s 18 acres, his research showed that “mid-century houses were on the market for the shortest period, and they were selling at the highest price points.” Further galvanized by the notable architectural works of the Dallas Arts District, and by national trends such as the popularity of Dwell magazine, “I bet it was time to do something edgy,” he recalls.

Edgy. Edgy’s good. Sometimes. But, tell me, is it greeeen?

One of the major characteristics that differentiates the new crop of Modernist subdivisions from predecessors such as Houses at Sagaponac is their adherence to green principles. Kessler Woods residences feature minimal west-facing glazing, foam insulation, and low-emissivity window glass; more recently, Holley says he has incorporated native drought-tolerant landscaping, rainwater capture features, and worked with community officials to revive a trolley line that stops on the edge of the subdivision. Urban Reserve’s streets are narrower so there is less storm runoff, and all houses are required to achieve at least basic LEED certification.

Okay, but can people get mortgages for them?

From a financing point of view, Fontenot is confident that success begets success. “Appraisers need similar properties to figure home values, and some lenders aren’t comfortable with Modernism,” he explains, “so when Urban Reserve gets to 50 percent done, the comps build on themselves and that provides comfort for the next person coming in.” And Holley has faith in consumer preference: “People are willing to spend money for something that’s distinctive and special.”

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