There are many spec homes on the local market, and arch 11 avoids that kind of work, but the Roaring Fork developer has asked for modern architecture. “Everything here has a rustic flavor, and his strategy is to set himself apart with a completely different product,” Meade says. “We'll see how that works.”

rethinking the suburbs

The ability to distinguish oneself is even more critical in the production home market, where the pain has been felt the worst. In the midst of too much supply and tumbling prices, only the fittest products will sell, and hitting the magic spot of perceived value is the challenge for architects in those sectors. Most of West Des Moines, Iowa-headquartered BSB Design's clients were publicly traded home builders—a market that has virtually dried up. With two-thirds of its employees laid off and the Boston and Denver offices being served out of West Des Moines, the firm is reaching out to the small, privately funded builders that once made up its client base, and identifying successes it can adapt in other parts of the country.

“‘Retooling' is a word we're getting used to,” says company president Stephen C. Moore. “We're looking at how we can change builders' financial payoff on a piece of land by increasing density or decreasing up-front costs.” The focus is on smaller lots and simpler houses for first-time buyers, because anyone who doesn't need to sell a house right now is a good bet. A recent project in Sarasota, Fla., involved replatting a townhouse parcel with smaller, cottage-style detached homes, which lowered the price from the $300,000 range to roughly $150,000. “A fire storm of people were interested in buying because they saw it as a great value,” Moore says, adding that the biggest competition for builders is their own resales—the same houses in older, more established neighborhoods where prices are lower. In addition to doing high-density housing in foreign markets—East Asia, Mexico, and Russia—BSB is also staying afloat with mixed-use and light-commercial projects. “Everything we're trying is working, but when we think we're done, the housing market slips even further,” Moore says.

With offices and clients spread across the United States, Memphis, Tenn.-headquartered Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK) also sees pockets of opportunity. Million-dollar production homes are still selling apace in Houston, and Texas as a whole remains strong for planned communities targeting a mix of incomes, says Mark Jones, AIA, principal in charge of LRK's Celebration, Fla., office. The firm's multifamily clients are also looking to develop high-density suburban villages with transit service—bus or light rail—30 miles from downtown Dallas in Richardson, Plano, and McKinney, Texas. “DPZ's Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, FAIA, is using the term ‘smart sprawl,' and that may be a trend we'll see over the next five years,” says Paige C. Close, AIA, principal in charge of LRK's multifamily group. With rising fuel costs, the firm's clients are also discussing the need for more live/work spaces. Jones calls it urbanizing the suburbs. At Celebration, ground-floor flats are being converted to offices and retail shops. “Affordability and sustainability are huge components, whether it's trying to replace housing from Hurricane Katrina or development here in Florida,” he says.

Downsizing will be a core value for at least the next year or two, LRK believes, whether it's a one-bedroom rental, a move-up, or an empty nest. The firm is analyzing every square inch and branding some of its apartments as the Mini Cooper—“600-square-foot studios, cute as a button, with all the bells and whistles, but smaller, for absolute rental value,” Close says. “People have just so many dollars in their pockets, but they still want great design and quality finishes. It's about understanding how people live and what's essential, but still remembering that there's a quality to proportion and scale that doesn't cost extra money.”

For LRK and similar firms, this is one way out of housing's perfect storm. He's hopeful that by January 2009, with the presidential election behind us, people will be tired of the negative news and ready to move on. “Business has been soft; it's the strangest time we've ever seen,” Close says. “We're the most nervous from now to March of next year. We're trying to hang onto our folks—and watching the economy closely.”