Randy Brown, FAIA, felt his portfolio was missing a certain something. His Omaha, Neb.-based firm had designed plenty of award-winning commercial buildings, some of which he'd developed and built himself. And he had many much-admired residential alterations and additions under his belt. But he and his staff hankered after the chance to design a house from the ground up. “We'd been practicing in Omaha for almost 15 years and had not done a new custom house,” he says.

So in 2005 he and his development partners at Quantum Quality Real Estate, a sister company to the firm, purchased two and a half acres of land for Hidden Creek, a new community of primarily single-family houses. The parcel borders a 200-acre nature preserve and contains the creek that gives the project its name. Quantum, which includes Brown's father, brother, and brother-in-law, enlisted a civil engineer to help with the creation of a road and other infrastructure. And the company opted to revamp (rather than bulldoze) the existing 1990s house on the property. Brown and his experienced design/build staff removed the home's overly complicated brick façade and replaced it with a more streamlined, stucco exterior.

Each of the 13 new houses at Hidden Creek will represent a different expression of the firm's modern, straightforward aesthetic. They include 10 single-family detached residences and three attached townhomes. The architects have designed a prototype house for each site, with the idea that home buyers will purchase a lot and then customize that particular design to their specific program and tailor it to their budget. “I don't want any two houses to be the same,” Brown says.

In addition to their simple, Case Study-like forms, the homes possess another progressive characteristic: environmentally friendly materials and systems. They're designed and sited to allow passive solar gain and cross-ventilation, and Brown's building team is recycling 60 percent of the construction waste. Standard items include native landscaping, Grasscrete driveways, FSC-certified wood, low-VOC finishes, and radiant-heat floors. Rainwater harvesting, photovoltaic panels, geothermal heat, and green roofs are available as options. The project's relatively high density (5.6 units per acre) also contributes to its sustainable nature—although, according to Brown, the local planning and zoning boards had to be coaxed into accepting this figure.

Unfortunately, Hidden Creek hasn't escaped the lethargy affecting new-home markets throughout the country. Brown feels lucky to have made three sales since the project went on the market in January 2007. “The Midwest is really slow right now … our expectations are really lowered,” he says. But he remains positive. Quantum's commercial properties are performing well financially. And Hidden Creek is accomplishing his goal of providing a new alternative to typical developer housing.

The community has already helped his firm land a couple of coveted custom home commissions, for clients who toured the two built models there and liked what they saw. Adds Brown: “We wanted to show people we could do this kind of work.” And without question, they can.

project: Hidden Creek, Omaha, Neb.
architect/general contractor/interior designer: Randy Brown Architects, Omaha
developers: Randy Brown Architects and Quantum Quality Real Estate, Omaha
civil engineer: E&A Consulting Group, Omaha
project size: Approximately 2,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet per unit
site size: 2.5 acres
construction cost: $90 per square foot (average)
sales price: Approximately $275,000 to $600,000 per unit
units in project: 14
photography: Farshid Assassi, except where noted

the art of the deal

what was the hardest sacrifice you had to make to do this project?

“To gravitate back to mediocrity, out of fear that the general public will not buy because of either cost or aesthetics. For example, for the front yards we have gone with more native buffalo grass—a low-growing grass that doesn't require irrigation. In my dreams, I wanted all native tall grasses. We tried that, but we didn't get positive responses from the public. Also, we haven't pushed green as far as we can because of the cost it adds to the home price. Buyers buy on square footage and cost. Light, air, views, green design, and modernism still are secondary factors in the Omaha marketplace.”

what was your expected profit margin and how did it differ from the final margin?

“We went into the deal thinking 18 percent return. The down housing market has certainly hurt, so we shifted gears, extended the project schedule, and lowered pricing with the anticipation of a 12 percent return. The real investment is in the education we've received and in being able to use this knowledge in our future projects. There's always going to be a need for housing, and new alternative modern eco-homes are clearly the future.”

what moment in the project most scared you?

“The city decided to widen the adjacent street and wanted to tube the entire creek, which would have meant tearing out all of the trees. We fought hard and won a compromise to tube only the first 50 feet. I put up yellow caution tape to save all of the trees except the few that were in the first 50 feet of the existing creek. I worked with the street contractor and stood guard over the tree-removal process, and in the end, the street-widening and tubing of the small portion of the creek has hardly changed the natural environment.”

would you develop again?

“Absolutely. We're smarter with every project. We want to do it again, and I'm confident we'll be able to create a much-improved product. We've also been doing consulting work for other architects and developers who want to create alternative suburban housing and want to tap into our knowledge and lessons learned.”

what was the most valuable lesson you learned?

“Experience is golden. You cannot understand the entire process and all of the challenges unless you do all three: architecture, general contracting, and developing.”