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Carving a New Niche


Carving a New Niche

A leading builder brings the great outdoors into view in a Manatee County, Fla., home designed for social living. In the process, he makes a move-up for himself, into the luxury market.

By Bill Lurz, Senior Editor September 30, 2004
This article first appeared in the PB October 2004 issue of Pro Builder.


Two 2-car garages frame the front entry court of Southwest Florida builder Lee Wetherington's latest masterpiece of luxury design leadership.
Vital Stats
Addison Model
Location: Lakewood Ranch Country Club, Manatee County, Fla.
Builder: Lee Wetherington Homes, Sarasota, Fla.
Developer: SMR Communities, Bradenton, Fla.
Architect: Steve Nelson, in-house.
Interiors: Marnie Sorensen & Associates, Winter Park, Fla.
Model opened: October 15, 2003.
Home type: Luxury single-family
Sales to date: 60, 25 Addisons.
Lot size: 90 X 140 feet.
Square footage: 3,934 (air conditioned), plus 516 outdoor living.
Price: $900,000 (base), sold for $1.58 million (furnished).
Buyer profile: Affluent families and active adults.
Elaborate ceiling detailing, shown here in kitchen, gathering room and master bedroom, is Wetherington's new trademark for his entry into million-dollar home market.
An outdoor living room of 516 square feet (below) fully integrates with gathering (family) room, kitchen, nook, and grand (living) room when pocketed glass doors are open to the pool (above).

Southwest Florida design maven Lee Wetherington has made a habit, over the years, of wearing out the carpet between his table and the stage during Sarasota/Bradenton Parade of Homes awards banquets. But that position of design leadership has always been in move-up and empty-nester product, well under $1 million in price. This year, he put on the ritz and knocked 'em dead with a $1.58 million model û the Addison-at Lakewood Ranch Country Club that takes his company to a whole new level of revenue, prestige...and profit.

Since the opening of a new Ritz Carlton hotel in downtown Sarasota three years ago, that southwest Florida city has attracted even more well-heeled visitors than ever before. Builders have noticed an upswing in sales of new homes priced above $1 million, and that many of those homes are now located away from the barrier islands and Sarasota Bay. The buzz in building circles is that Sarasota and Manatee Counties are now playing in the big leagues previously dominated by Palm Beach and Naples.

Lee Wetherington looked at those trends and wondered if his design leadership position, well established in semi-custom homes priced from $300,000 to $600,000, could be extended to those priced from $700,000 to over $1 million. Market research in Naples, Fla., as well as his own market, convinced him it was possible.

But Sarasota already has a coterie of strong custom builders serving luxury buyers. Wetherington knew it would take a major design statement to carve a niche in the high-end, a very special model home. He did focus group research to try to identify features and attributes missing from homes in local $1 million product...differences that could set his entry statement apart. He found a few small things in the focus groups, such as the need for more storage space (when snow-birds flee northern homes with basements for Florida, where there are none).

But the big breakthrough came not from a focus group, but from his own powers of observation. "I was at a party at another builder's home," he recalls. "Guests were scattered around in small groups in the living room, family room, kitchen and outside around the pool...Then it started to rain, and everyone outside had to come in. I thought, 'What if we built the outdoor entertaining space not only under roof, but so enclosed that rain would not blow in, with pocketed glass doors and tile floors that run from the inside right out to the pool?'"

Wetherington opened the Addison model in the Legend's Walk neighborhood of Lakewood Ranch Country Club last October 15, and in less than a year, it has cemented his position as a top practitioner in the local custom market above $1 million. "Last year, we only sold three houses priced over $1 million," Wetherington reports. "This year, we've sold 22 and the year's not over."

In 2003, Wetherington sold 298 houses (for $110 million) and closed 265 for $99.5 million in revenue. By the end of summer this year, he'd already sold 310 houses for $125 million. Without question, the Addison is a big factor in that growth.

Design leadership? The Addison swept its high-end price category in the local parade of homes, winning awards for best overall home, best floor plan, best master suite, kitchen, pool, architectural detailing, curb appeal and interior design.

What can you learn from it? Start with the two 2-car garages that frame the entry court. "Our focus groups told us that even empty-nesters in this price range have three cars," Wetherington says, "one every day car for husband and wife, and then a toy...We give them space for four cars. Most use the fourth as storage space."

Inside, Wetherington took space out of the middle of the master bathroom and redistributed it into the walk-in closets. He took space out of the living room and put it into the dining room. "People told us they don't really care how big the living room is, but they want formal dining space for ten."

In-house architect Steve Nelson carefully controlled ceiling heights to just the right level to maximize room symmetry. "Buyers here in Sarasota do not really like excessive ceiling heights," Wetherington says. "They are more conservative than on the east coast of Florida, so our living room is at 14 feet and the family room at 12 feet. In each case, the plate height is lower and we step up to the full height with some intricate ceiling detailing."

Genius At Work
But the crowning achievement of the Addison is the relationship between the indoor living spaces, outdoor living spaces, and the pool that forms a focal point for the entire home. The grand (living) room, kitchen, nook and gathering (family) room create a massive entertaining area. And when the pocketed glass doors slide back, there's no discernible break in the tile floor than runs into the outdoor living room and gradually drops to the pool. Protected under roof, that outdoor living room also features operable windows along the back wall-open on a clear evening to let the breeze blow through, but closed in case of rain. So even when it rains, the outdoor living room is safe and dry.

The final touch of genius: Wetherington's pool company designed a 10 X 10-foot "beach" at the edge of the pool, only nine inches deep, where interior merchandiser Marnie Sorensen of Winter Park, Fla., placed two beach chairs to cater the ultimate martini break!

Wetherington builds the Addison for hard costs (materials and labor only) of $125 a square foot.

Many of the perceived value upgrades in the home, such as the ceiling treatments, tile floors, cabinetry and granite countertops are standard, but Addison buyers still spend an average of $150,000 in Wetherington's design center. "They usually spend $50,000 to $80,000 on an upgraded lot for starters," Wetherington says.

He's now come up with a two-story version of the Addison, now under construction as a model home in Founders Club, another high-end golf community. "The upper level will have a guest bedroom suite, as well as a bar, game room and a home theater," Wetherington says.

"A lot of people doubted we could move to this price point and dominate it, but we're now taking market share away from the pure custom builders."

An example of design leadership in action.


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