Continued downturns in the real estate market have led to a large number of foreclosed, short-sold, and bank owned development properties. The large bank-owned properties have now been dubbed Redfields. Similar to Environmentally tainted properties being called ‘Brownfields’, and park/forest preserves defined as “Greenfields”, Redfields are financially damaged properties that will need creative planning, financing, and design to bring them back to financial stability.
Most of these properties were originally slated for Alpha Type developments. Alpha Type meaning the old slam-dunk, previously low-risk, model of mass homebuilding. Just five years ago, developers merely had to plan, finance, and build homes the way they had for the previous twenty years, and the buyers would show up, no question. These properties are now Redfields because the previous model does not work. The collapse of the housing market has essentially removed the Alpha Type, and given an opportunity for the Beta Type. Beta housing concepts involve rethinking the housing financing, planning, design, and delivery process. The SchoolStreet project in Libertyville is a prime example of Beta housing on a Redfield. The bank-owned property was obtained at a discounted price and re-planned to a new working housing model.
So what is the Beta housing model? It begins by thinking about what homebuyers’ lifestyles really want and need, not just what was previously delivered in the Alpha model. At the macro level of SchoolStreet is the planning concept of “urban infill”. Downtown Libertyville is already a thriving urban center featuring historic buildings, dozens of bars, restaurants, shops, a farmers market, music, and an outgoing, energetic population. The community sells itself, and is where a shifting homebuyer demographic can see themselves living for a longer term, not just a two-year condo-flip. Additionally it is a walkable community, with public transportation access to surrounding areas and even downtown Chicago.
At the semi-macro level, the Beta housing model rethinks the community planning of the development. More in tune with an energetic, urban community; out is the big front lawn, and in are sidewalks, front porches, roof decks, and narrow lots. By moving garages to the rear, accessed through an alley, the life of the homes moves to the street. Some of the SchoolStreet homes even break the mold so far as to plan kitchens at the front of the house. Homebuyers and the community appreciate the new streetscape oriented planning concepts; it is something they have not seen in suburban developments, and it is easy to picture themselves living such a community-oriented lifestyle.
Lastly at the micro level, the Beta housing model addresses innovation, specific homebuyer needs, productivity, construction quality, and quality of design. To achieve this, it is necessary to work in holistic approach in which every team member is working for the good of ‘the project’. SchoolStreet’s developer, StreetScape Development, has a diverse team of in-house experts ranging from developers, to production housing builders, to architects. In addition StreetScape, partners with subcontractors, architects, and industry-leading consultants to deliver the best home possible. For the SchoolStreet project, architect, Sarah Susanka’s involvement in the Not So Big Showhouse developed a better Beta housing model. Working with the carpentry subcontractors, the SchoolStreet project developed a manufacturing area for framing the walls of future houses off-site. This innovative approach increases productivity, limits worker fatigue, and helps to keep construction ahead of schedule.
The Beta housing model also realizes that information is the key to limiting risk, delivering a quality product, and keeping the customer happy. StreetScape has been implementing a Building Information Modeling approach to design, which creates a building simulation prior to construction. Efficiencies are gained through early construction conflict detection, and accurate costs can be placed on design decisions. The building simulation also has the potential to offer visualization for the design team and customer. StreetScape also plans to unveil a new web-based customer portal, giving the customer open access to project documents, drawings, and feedback.
Through the sale of 21 of 26 homes in one year, the SchoolStreet development has demonstrated that in this difficult housing climate, it is still possible to build homes, by rethinking the development and delivery process. A dormant redfield site can become a successful development by contributing to the community and offering a the homebuyer a new end-product more tailored to their long-term needs and lifestyle.
The success of the SchoolStreet project also demonstrates that by focusing on innovation, quality, and taking design directly to the consumer, houses will sell. Sarah Susanka says in her MarketWatch interview, “People have money to spend if it is on something that is in line with their values.” Believe it or not, people value good design; and if architects can rethink the process, we can deliver it efficiently and affordably. With the alpha homebuilders out of the way, now is as good a time as any in history to deliver this.