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Architectural Space as a Component of Site Design

By: Richard Harrison - Monday, November 23, 2009

Prefurbia: Architecture for Smarter Growth

Reasons for the Cookie-Cutter House
Many tract homes are designed by craftsmen, because production builders try to avoid paying high architectural design fees, which could add up to tens of thousands of dollars for each home.

The Architect as Land Planner
Architectural talent does not automatically mean land planning talent.
An experienced “renderer” can make a bland site plan come alive, yet this does not mean it’s a good plan – it’s just a “good looking” plan. It takes more than a good looking site plan to make a sustainable neighborhood.

No matter how talented the designer may be in creating a beautifully rendered site plan, if they do not understand the physical limitations required to engineer their design, the results may be an unbuildable or at the least a very expensive development to implement.

The Land Planner or Civil Engineer as Site Designer
The planner is unlikely to incorporate strong architectural elements into the site plan. The houses themselves are generally treated as a separate entity – something foreign. A Civil Engineer who acts as a land planner rarely (if ever) considers more than the dimensions of the foundation from the architectural plans as a basis of the site design. The Engineer-Planner will ensure proper drainage and utility function, while failing to properly showcase the architectural strengths throughout the neighborhood.

Serving the Mass Housing Market
We live in an economy based upon attainable products for the mass market, not one based upon limited products serving only the elite.
Just as the Toyota Prius became the poster child of change for the automotive market when gas prices rose to $4 a gallon, new designs and innovations can apply to architecture as well. Streetscapes such as this, can become a thing of the past.

The future of the housing industry is in the hands of the builders and developers smart enough to emphasize a higher level of detail – and commit to it!

Attention to detail does not mean increased home prices if it’s done properly, and in many cases can reduce construction costs.
Architecture for custom homes is considerably different than for suburban production housing. Instead of a home custom designed for that individual (likely nitpicking) client who is willing to pay dearly for architectural services, production housing is repetitive throughout a development. The production home buyer is isolated from the architectural design process, reducing potential customer driven headaches.

Historically, the architecture fee structure for production is much less. From a financial point of view, there is more potential design income in production if the mass market’s perception of “value” for architecture is elevated. A streetscape with no curb appeal (as shown above) could be eliminated with creative architectural solutions – and it’s not about money. It’s about effort and attention to detail. The subdivision above was built by one of the Nation’s top 10 builders and represents a few million dollars worth of housing, yet all we see are garages. Solving issues for the ‘greater good’ equates to solving them for the high volume suburban housing market.

Learning from Experience
For 6 years, beginning in 1968 (at 15 years old), I was either the primary designer or a secondary designer in well over 1,000 different site plans, while working for Don C. Geake in Southfield, Michigan.
Geake & Associates was one of the major Land Planning firms riding the tremendous suburban growth following the Detroit riots. As was common then and generally still is today in planning firms worldwide, we platted lots while ignoring the home architecture or the location and functions of rooms.

For design we created cardboard templates (rectangles) and set them at locations on the plan for tracing and (perhaps) scaling them for position. These rectangles lacked any architectural information such as window locations, room functions, and the façade. Disregarding architecture with our cardboard rectangles was quick and easy, but it lacked value for the future residents of the developments we were designing.

An easy way to create extra value:
The first way to create value is simple: communication. The Land Planner must understand the housing (and commercial buildings) architectural strengths and weaknesses. Knowing which portion of the building is more visually pleasing allows the planner to showcase the design.

Knowing where the windows are located as well as the room functions they serve, provides the planner with enough knowledge to maximize views within all living areas of the home. Remember to think in volume strategies as suburban neighborhoods typically account for hundreds of homes. Even a simple cookie cutter design can become more functional and appealing through this simple awareness.
An evolution of the cardboard template (shown here) contains images where color represents room functions, and window locations are clearly marked. This critical information allows the designer to hand sketch with added value using viewsheds and highlighting the architectural strengths of the homes.

Technology as the basis to move beyond convention:
The 1990’s invention of ‘Coving’, a new way to efficiently develop land, would not have been possible without the computational power we had access to. In the 20 years prior to coving, Rick Harrison (the founder of Prefurbia) successfully invented, wrote and marketed software for high level Civil Engineering, Land Surveying, and GIS solutions – domestic and military. Harnessing this technology made it possible to do things previously too time consuming.

How technology influenced advancements in Architecture and Planning
After two decades of software development, it was apparent to us that little in suburban planning had changed. Even with new technologies, the planning industry was stagnant, completely lacking innovation. Planning innovations such as PUD and Clustering had their roots from the very early 1950’s, and there is certainly nothing “new” about New Urbanism. Even though suburbs have been around for centuries, planning seemed as virgin as the computer industry of the early 1970’s!

Coving: A true innovation in Land Planning
Coving was truly a new invention -revolutionary instead of evolutionary. Coving relies on technology, creating more efficient and aesthetically pleasing patterns of land development compared to conventional and traditional methods.

Coving throws out all of the old rules in design and replaces them with a new set – density is no longer based on minimum dimensions, but more efficient design.

The shortcut is not always best !
Cookie-cutter planning is easy and certainly no special talent is required. Today’s planner, sculpting organic designs has to be part artist – part engineer – part technician. Coving is the first form of planning that simply could not happen if it were not for the computational power we have today. From an architectural perspective, proper cove design excels at hiding a single family home’s weakness (the rear) while showcasing its strength (the front façade) along meandering spaces, and as a bonus eliminates monotony. Few Architects understand how to take advantage of the tremendous design advantages coving offers them.

A new architecture standard
The first instance of architecture being successfully incorporated into a coved neighborhood was in Settler’s Glenn, a Stillwater, Minnesota Lennar neighborhood.
Initially, the city rejected U.S. Homes’ (now Lennar’s) site plan, based on their proposed architecture due to its three car garages dominating the façade. Stillwater regulations limited garage exposure to 40% of the home front.

In Minnesota, land of boats, motorcycles, & snowmobiles, many home buyers demand a 3 car garage. But the target density required a 50’ wide house foot print (considered narrow back then for a suburban home).

We explained to Bill Pritchard (of US Homes) that the regulation’s intent was to prevent the garage-grove appearance found in typical suburban neighborhoods, and provide for a New Urban style front porch streetscape.

Holding the intent of the regulation was primary and the 40% figure secondary. US Homes directed their designers, using simple techniques, to de-emphasize the garage impact while providing a front porch. This idea lead to Lennar’s Homestead Series, a set of home plans still successful in today’s down market (shown above).
Designers can add much value through design.

Increased Viewshed
Another byproduct of Coving is that angle between homes are rarely parallel. This allows builders to provide side windows with significant viewsheds from living areas within the home, increasing the sense of space not possible in conventional or traditional subdivision design.

K. Hovnanian took advantage of theses viewsheds in Hunters Pass, an Albertville, Minnesota neighborhood. This aided in the sellout of all of their homes during this stalled suburban housing market.
Note the significant side windows – most are from living areas within the home.

Not only do these side windows let in light – they allow views to the street, due to the angle relationship of the side yards which is a by-product of the coved design.

The future includes cohesive architectural themes
The Villages at Creekside in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, a Homestead Traditions neighborhood, demonstrates how Prefurbia guides architectural character. Residents can have all the advantages of Smart Growth, without the sardine-like packing of homes.

The suburban value of space is enhanced, yet density is actually high, compared to neighboring subdivisions. Jim Schmitz, president of Homestead Traditions, was interactive with all the details of his neighborhood. It is the initial phase of a 600 acre region for future development under his control.

In the Villages at Creekside, the architecture isn’t the only element, but it is the most impactful. While the planning departs greatly from designs of the past - it’s the architecture from past eras, that creates an inviting warmth missing from most suburban neighborhoods. The neighborhood also provides tremendous connectivity – both vehicular and pedestrian, a variety of housing choices, and a ‘neighborhood market place’ , resulting in a sustainable neighborhood – not a subdivision.

Bayhomes: A new architectural model
The BayHome mentioned earlier is the one new housing type in Prefurbia that is entirely dependent upon architecture to implement from a land planning perspective.
BayHome design takes land planning to a higher level of detail, requiring better communication between the planner, architect and developer. Today’s communication technology easily facilitates this information exchange.

Improving on multifamily
BayHome elements can be applied to multifamily (attached housing) as well. Utilizing significant staggering of attached units creates increased views for interior units, as can be seen in this example of a workforce housing Prefurbia neighborhood in East Lyme, Connecticut.

In today’s market, builders must have every possible advantage to help sell or lease that new unit – viewshed planning can make that difference for success!

What about Green?

Simple construction techniques can sometimes add more energy efficiency than expensive, complex systems. But success relies on the details. For example, solar orientation can make a huge difference, but having only a few floor plans to choose from dictates the design of the development.

If every home must have a south facing side, it severely limits the land planning options. To add all the elements that create great and exciting neighborhoods, while also paying attention to ‘green’ elements, means that the home floor plans will need to be flexible enough for solar advantage from numerous directions. This may also mean isolation of a floor plan series for a particular lot orientation. Again – all of this is simply an attention to detail and replaces complacency with achievement.

Possible Conflicts between Green and Smart Growth:
To implement true solar design, one might have to forego that tree lined streetscape that can heighten neighborhood character. You have probably read how tree shade can reduce heat gain from the sun, lowering your utility bill, but that same tree shade will destroy any hope of installing solar electric panels on the roof that rely on those same sun rays. Wind generation in some areas of the country is a viable solution, but few will want to live next to the whop-whop-whop sound that emanates from the blades on a windy day, nor will many cities allow them in dense development.

Beyond today – providing sustainable green solutions
The future requires more attention to detail. Just about everything mentioned, adds layers of complexity to the design process. Green certification adds more complexity. Harnessing the proper methods and technology to factor in cost reduction, or make a neighborhood more valuable, is simply more responsible.


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