Small Builder, Big Advantage. Part 3: Executing a Quality Lifestyle

Meeting the lifestyle needs of a particular demographic when building a community can be a rigorous undertaking. It requires research, anticipation, and creativity to execute the right life style for the right market. Will homebuyers gravitate toward trails and open space? Do they need a central clubhouse for gathering space? Two-car garages for every dwelling? Master bedrooms on the main floor? A certain architectural aesthetic to blend with an existing neighborhood? Ideally, a builder will have a good grasp of the relevant milieu and fold it into their product.

However, not all firms are inclined to be comprehensive in their efforts to fuse a variety of buyer ideals, amenity options, and flexible floor plans. Many builders follow formulas for cookie-cutter homes that provide little in the way of customization or standout features that appeal to a discerning buyer. That’s where smaller, local builders can distinguish themselves. Boutique builders are uniquely positioned to hone in on a region and tailor their housing product accordingly to elevate their homes above a crowded playing field. In other words, boutique firms have the focus and local investment to offer design authenticity that reflects a homebuyer’s personality, even if it diverges from what already exists in the neighborhood.

Offer Diverse Product Types

One aspect of that is establishing diversity within a community to ensure that it’s inclusive of many lifestyles, says KGA partner and director of design John Guilliams. A key means of accomplishing this, he says, is offering housing in the missing middle category, which lands somewhere between multifamily condo complexes and traditional single-family detached homes. That means thinking outside the box when it comes to the idea of density.

For example, attached housing like townhomes with carefully considered amenities and footprints can advantageously broaden the spectrum of existing home inventory rather than just replicating it. “That’s what makes a community thrive,” Guilliams says. “You need to be openminded, and not just pay attention to what’s been built already. It’s about looking at the needs of the neighborhood beyond what’s already there and seeing beyond the obvious. Communities need the influence that comes from having different lifestyles and points of view. There should be something for everyone.”

Townhomes are a popular way to add missing middle housing types to communities, creating a variety of product types and price points.

Compromise and Adapt

Achieving diversity in a community also necessitates compromising—and that requires the kind of careful scrutiny for which a smaller builder is well suited. First-time homebuyers, for instance, might be willing to forego a certain feature in the name of affordability if there’s a reasonable alternative. Would they sacrifice a two-car garage if there was access to mass transit, potentially rendering a second car unnecessary? Does each kid need their own bedroom if the square footage of the bedrooms was larger than standard to accommodate sharing? Is a large backyard necessary if there’s a park nearby to walk the dog?

These kinds of compromises and adaptations apply not only to density and diversity considerations, but also to site-specific hurdles that can impact lifestyles. “Every piece of land has a challenge,” Guilliams says. “Topography, easements, floor plans that aren’t site specific. The key is turning challenges into assets.”

Achieving density often requires compromise. For many first-time home buyers, a one-car garage is perfectly acceptable if the location and price are right.

Berkley Shores in northwest Denver is a prime example of a local builder employing this type of nimbleness and innovation. KGA teamed up with Denver-based Highland Development to hit the right lifestyle notes for a university-adjacent neighborhood with demographics that range from college students to educators and staff. We realized the need for missing middle housing among the skyrocketing home prices of surrounding neighborhoods. So we provided options that included both attainable attached housing and larger single-family-detached homes, covering price points that would speak to the spectrum.

As we were developing the community, we took advantage of a site constraint—a neglected and overgrown pond—that had stymied other builders and turned it into an attractive lake and walking path with a limited number of lakefront homes. What was a prohibitive obstacle for builders with pre-packaged home plans became a community amenity after we transformed and adapted it to highlight Colorado’s outdoor lifestyle.

What was once an overgrown and neglected pond is now a lifestyle asset at Berkley Shores in Denver, CO

Topography also played a part in site-specific creativity at Berkley Shores. Due to the grading of the land, which slopes down toward the lake, we turned the traditional floor plan on its head where necessary, putting the garage up above on the second story, where the bedrooms are typically located. This allowed us to keep the main level living areas on the ground floor, so the great room, patio and small yard are at the same level as the lake. With our smaller, local focus, our team was able to execute a complete flip of the typical layout to ensure that lakeside living was still possible. “Smaller builders have a big advantage because they’re not tied into particular plans,” Guilliams says. “They can turn things upside down. Literally.” 

Be a Good Neighbor

One more key area where local builders can outshine competition: Listening to and respecting the existing neighborhood. Denver’s urban infill 5390’ community illustrates this concept perfectly. A collaboration between KGA and Denver developer-builder Koelbel, the community is the epitome of brand new golf course living, yet it pays homage to the historic character that defines this pocket of the city. Named for the elevation at which it sits (5,390 feet), the development offers vast mountain views and inviting green space that play into our Colorado lifestyle. At the same time, the community is a stone’s throw from the bustling Tennyson Street shops, restaurants, and urban resources, giving the neighborhood a well-rounded appeal.

With the historic former El Jebel Shrine as the centerpiece, the new homes were built in a variety of styles, from craftsman to midcentury modern, with an eye toward the already established architecture in the area. The strategy: Line the most visible streets in the neighborhood with more traditional houses and create density behind the “front line” with paired homes.

Creating the right transitional look in the new-builds required careful thought and consideration of how to blend old and new aesthetics in a way that would be acceptable to current residents. “It’s about knowing what concerns are in the neighborhood and removing those friction points,” Guilliams says. “People want to know they’re being heard. They want to know you’re listening. You can respect the fabric of a neighborhood but still achieve your goals of diversity or density.  But you’ve got to be flexible.  You’re not going to get 12 units to the acre, but maybe you get ten.”

We used the detached 2-car garages for the paired homes at 5390′ to create small, fenced in urban backyards for outdoor living.

Executing Quality Lifestyles

Executing a quality lifestyle in the right community is a nuanced endeavor. But the simple fact is that cookie-cutter homes rarely meet the needs of today’s discerning buyers. Out-of-the-box building without the flexibility to adapt to, and even capitalize on site challenges seldom cuts it for a savvy homeowner looking to embrace a particular lifestyle. “You’ve got to look beyond what’s there to what it could be,” Guilliams says. “Being a small builder, you are able to understand compromise.  You have the ability to overcome obstacles quicker. Bottom line: You’re going to have a little more skin in the game because you’re local.”

Missed the first 2 parts of our Small Builder, Big Advantage series? Check them out here:

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