Builders on Floor Plans: It’s All About Adaptability

By Katherine Salant, Originally Published in Katherinesalant.com

The Waverly plan by Brookfield Homes is especially adaptable.

In most major new-home markets, some designs really are “new and original” while others billed as “new” are actually newer versions of floor plans that have appeared again and again.

What accounts for these perennial best sellers? Do their designs resonate with buyers in some unique way? Are they easier to build? Or priced just right?

When I recently posed these questions to executives at two Washington, D.C.-area home building firms that have successfully sold the same basic plan for more than 15 years — Brookfield Homes and EYA Associates — and to the architects who designed these plans, I learned that the correct answer is “none of the above.”

From a home builder’s perspective, the characteristic that makes a plan a winner is “adaptability.” A plan that is easily adapted to changing buyer priorities without major changes can save a home builder lots of money, explained Vienna, Virginia, architect Bill Sutton, the designer of Brookfield’s original 1993 “Waverley” and all its subsequent iterations.

After a home builder has built the same house 10 to 15 times, Sutton said, he knows the cost almost to the penny, and, given the hugely competitive nature of the home-building industry in major markets, a builder can lock his subcontractors and suppliers into that pricing structure. Modifying the plan here and there does not drastically affect a builder’s costs. By contrast, when a brand-new design is introduced, all the vendors will seize the opportunity to raise their prices. In the area around D.C., price hikes can be as much as 10 percent, Sutton said.

Equally endearing to the builders, in some cases these cost-saving modifications can be so deftly executed that most buyers will not realize that they are in the same house....

Single-family “Waverly” 1993-2013

The current version of Brookfield’s Waverly is a more nuanced transformation of a single family house, whose enduring popularity has stemmed in part from the compactness of its plan and a lack of pretension, said Gregg Hughes, Brookfield’s general sales and marketing manager for the Washington area. “It’s not so imposing from the street, and it is larger than it appears to be with a lot more square footage than you sense from the front door,” he said.

First built in 1993, the original Waverly typified the D.C. market with its 2,500-square-foot size, four-bedroom count, and traditional styling, but its unusually open first-floor plan added a contemporary flare with columns and ceiling treatments defining the must-have-for-resale formal living and dining areas on the front. An eat-in kitchen/family room ran across the back with a study tucked in between the family room and the garage. The second floor had four bedrooms.Fast forward to 2013 and the 2,590-square-foot Waverly is still the same basic four-bedroom house, but the interiors are bathed in sunlight from windows that are about 25 percent bigger and most buyers purchase the optional, 4-foot rear extension and a much smaller side extension that brings the size to about 3,100 square feet. That’s the current sweet spot for single-family homes in the Washington area, according to Dan Fulton, a housing consultant who has studied the D.C. market for more than 20 years.

The added square footage accommodates the general preferences of today’s buyers and  a new buyer demographic in many markets in the U.S., including the Washington area: foreign-born buyers with relatives who regularly visit for several months each year.

The first-floor powder room and study have morphed into a bedroom suite for long-term visitors and the family room area is bigger. The formal dining room is still inviolate (even if it’s only used three or four times a year for holidays and special family occasions), but some buyers have enclosed the living room and use it as a home office.

The additional area on the second floor expands the master bedroom and relocates the master bath to the rear; the old location for the master bath is now a loft for kids’ games and household computer use. A common feature in parts of the U.S. where there is no basement, including Texas and Florida, this is new for the Washington market and increasingly popular as buyers demand usable space instead of the dramatic but useless volume in the two-story family rooms and foyers of the 1990s and early 2000s, said Melissa Jonas, a housing consultant with Fairfax, Virginia-based Metro Study

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Katherine Salant is a syndicated real estate columnist with The Washington Post, and author of The Brand-New House Book. To read her Rethink Your House blog click here.

January 21, 2014