With Smart Design, Custom Builders Can Build More on Less

Make the most of urban infill sites by building up instead of out, advises architect Rocky Rockefeller

November 01, 2008


Rocky Rockefeller

It's a bad market, but luxury properties in the desirable urban coastal communities of Southern California continue to be built and sold. As an architect who has designed luxury homes for 30 years along the Southern California coast — from Manhattan Beach to Malibu — I've observed first-hand the challenges of building luxury homes on urban infill sites. The complexity can be daunting even for seasoned professionals. To the uninitiated architect or builder, it can be a nightmare.

Southern California beachfront properties have evolved from weekend retreats for wealthy city dwellers to full-time residences for an emerging, affluent WestSide population that demands all the amenities of city dwellings and suburban large-lot homes. Beachfront properties continue to attract affluent buyers even in a downtrodden market. Due to the density of these mature, developed neighborhoods, there are no empty lots and the traffic is horrific. There is often no staging area for materials and deliveries other than the building pad itself. At the same time, building restrictions are on the rise in beach communities. Increased setbacks and open space; reduced height limits; and complex formulaic requirements attempting, often unsuccessfully, to eliminate poorly proportioned homes are common. However, these limitations can often become opportunities for an architect and builder who are thinking outside the box.

When space comes at such a premium that sites are no more than 30 feet by 90 feet, it is essential to start with a clear design concept and plan. Luxury is not synonymous with excess. Design forethought helps to redefine the meaning of luxury. Architects and builders must be creative in building a multiplicity of uses into spaces to avoid the feeling of a house full of rooms. By building upward instead of outward and simply flipping a floor plan upside down, the house can capitalize on view and slope, which are often a beachfront site's best assets. By combining functionality, a house can still seem open and roomy while offering all the amenities that a luxury buyer wants. Contrary to the modern adage, it's not size that matters. By working closely with an architect, custom builders can make creative use of every last inch of space on a small lot, effectively building more on less.

There are, of course, a few unavoidable inconveniences when building in dense, urban areas. Building on a site that is already surrounded by residential development can be complicated. Site access for work crews will be problematic, and there will inevitably be delays. Providing adequate parking for each custom home will also be a continuing challenge. In neighborhoods where parking is so scarce, parking spaces add value to the final home price.

Even with the market slowdown, we continue to receive commissions, sometimes even from repeat clients, to construct luxury beachfront residences. Over the years we've developed a working methodology for building quality homes with more amenities on less land. While a custom builder turning toward infill development projects might be starting with less physical real-estate, through smart and efficient design it's possible to build a valuable, and most important, profitable product that will stand the test of time and the vicissitudes of the market.


Author Information
Rocky Rockefeller, AIA, is the principal partner and founder of Rockefeller Partners Architects in El Segundo, Calif., and has played dual roles as architect and developer. His firm recently completed several luxury residences and is known for its expertise in adaptive reuse.

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